Softball season recap: a moot projection

By John Volk

Under ordinary conditions, it would be unwise to draw big-picture conclusions 23 games into the collegiate softball season. In a sport so focused on the daily grind of four months of competition, a team’s strengths and weaknesses can’t truly be shown in the Kajikawa Classic and the Louisville Invitational.However, 2020 doesn’t count as an ordinary condition. 

Coming in with high expectations, Northwestern underperformed in the glimpse we got from the early season tournaments. The Wildcats finished their nationwide tour 11-12 and headed back to Evanston on March 8 for a 12-day break. The first real test for the ‘Cats awaited: a three-game weekend series with Michigan State. Although the Spartans finished tenth in the Big Ten in 2019 and looked to finish worse in 2020, we would finally see NU match up with the same opponent three consecutive days. 

That weekend set, of course, never happened. Four days after the Wildcats returned home, the Big Ten canceled all 2020 spring sports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, forever leaving Northwestern’s 11-12 season as an underwhelming what-if.

An Alternate Universe

Based on a simple model I developed that looked at the effect of early season performance on the team’s final record, Northwestern would be expected to finish 2020 with a .546 winning percentage. This would put the Wildcats around 27-22 in their 49-game regular season, finishing near the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

A 27-win season would be a disappointment for Northwestern fans considering the optimism surrounding the team at season’s start. Coming off a 2019 featuring 47 wins and a trip to the NCAA Super Regionals, coupled with the loss of only two seniors and the addition of the nation’s No. 3 prospect Sydney Supple, the Wildcats looked ready for another NCAA Tournament run.  

Instead, the model suggests 2020 would’ve looked more like the solid, but unmemorable, 28-23 campaign of 2015 and its short-lived run to the South Bend Regional. 

Scatterplot titled: Final Win Percentage vs. Win Percentage Through 23 Games Since 2002. Each season is marked by a point plotted based on win percentage through 23 games on the x-axis and final win percentage on the y-axis. A dotted line splits the plot diagonally. 13 points fall above the line, 6 fall below.
The dotted line shows where a season would lie if its initial and final were equal. Points falling above the line indicate seasons that finished better than they started. Points falling below indicate the opposite.

Why the Alternate Universe Might be Right

The Wildcats typically perform better after the early-season invitationals, classics and tournaments, but the best improvement they’ve made after 23 games came in 2008, when they went from 14-9 (.608) to 40-16 (.714). This was a significant leap, but even such an improvement in 2020 would still produce a winning percentage below .600, well under the .783 final win percentage last year. 

Pitching generally lagged for the Wildcats in 2020, giving up 6.37 hits and 3 runs per game compared to the 4.51 hits and 1.85 runs per game given up in 2019. After a stellar first year, Danielle Williams carried the brunt of the pitching load again in 2020. She remained a strikeout machine, but at a slightly slower pace, with one strikeout every 3.2 hitters compared to one every 2.8 hitters in 2019. More importantly, her ERA increased from 1.55 in 2019 to 3.57 in 2020, and she gave up more than five runs in three separate games, something that only happened twice in 2019. Meanwhile, senior Morgan Newport struggled in brief relief appearances, giving up 11 hits and 6 runs in 4.2 innings pitched. The Wildcats need more out of their pitching staff if they want to regain form in 2021.

Why the Alternate Universe Might be Wrong

The most impressive thing about the 2020 Wildcats was their run differential. Despite finishing below .500, they still outscored their opponents by 30 runs. 

Consider also that NU played nine games against ranked opponents in its 23 games. The Wildcats went 1-8 in those games, but always managed to keep it close, never losing by more than five runs. No teams left on the schedule were ranked when the season ended. 

Supple started games against No. 7 Florida and No. 2 Washington and, despite losing both outings, showed she was capable of keeping two of the nation’s best offenses quiet. Kaley Winegarner was also a bright spot in the rotation, back for a fifth season and looking like her pre-injury self, sporting a career best 1.62 ERA.

The one ranked win, 6-2 against No. 5 Florida State, validated all the optimism coming into the season. Danielle Williams pitched a complete game, allowing only one earned run on two hits and striking out 11. Rachel Lewis picked up three RBIs and Morgan Newport drove in what proved to be the game-winning run in the sixth. 

The NCAA granted all spring athletes another year of eligibility. While it is still unclear what every Northwestern player will do, if the Wildcats can manage to bring everyone back, they just might be in for a special 2021.