How Softball Offenses Are Changing From The Top Down
In softball, perhaps the most important fixture in any lineup is where it all starts: the leadoff hitter.
The role of the leadoff hitter is entirely based on the concept of getting on base and maximizing pressure on the defense. Traditionally, this calls for an outfielder or middle infielder who has legitimate speed, plate discipline and a high level of mobility.
However, there’s been a recent shift in the traits that are most valuable to coaches in choosing their leadoff hitters that’s shaken up the way softball lineups are created. Attributes like power and contact are becoming increasingly favored by coaching staffs around the sport at the collegiate level, trumping the conventional speedy approach in the batter’s box.
Arizona State hitting coach Jeff Harger has seen this change first-hand at the helm of one of college softball’s best offenses. Since joining the coaching staff ahead of the 2019 season, Harger has revitalized the ASU offensive approach. Under his watch, the ASU offense led the country during the shortened 2020 season in home runs, slugging percentage and walks, and finished in the top five in on-base percentage, scoring and doubles. In 2021, the Sun Devils continued to dominate on offense, finishing in the top five for slugging percentage and home runs per game.
“We aren’t seeing as many speed burners in our game right now,” Harger explained. “In the past, (the slapper) was certainly the traditional leadoff, but it’s changed for a couple of reasons, such as the improvements made in technology as well as recent prowess in pitching and defense.”
There are three emerging types of leadoff hitters across the landscape of collegiate softball, all with their own key attributes and styles of play.
Arizona redshirt freshman outfielder and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Janelle Meoño is a perfect example of a high-speed, high-contact leadoff slapper who aims to hit the ball on a bounce into the infield, using her elite speed to reach base. Meoño was a master of this style in the Pac-12, earning Freshman of the Year honors after leading the conference in batting average and ranking in the top three for hits.
Virginia Tech sophomore outfielder Kelsey Brown was also extremely effective as a leadoff slapper for the Hokies in 2021, finishing second in hits in the ACC, while leading the conference in stolen bases and runs scored. Brown was also one of the best base-stealers in the country, thrifting 31 bags with a flawless 100 percent success rate.
“You need to have truly elite speed to be an effective slapper at the college level,” Harger said. “The ideal lineup is to have speed at the top, power through the middle and more speed at the bottom. I believe when you’re facing elite pitching, having a slapper to create chaos is a huge benefit because they’re just trying to touch the ball, which is easier than squaring it up for a full swing.”
Recent Arizona State graduate and All-American Kindra Hackbarth, who was originally a slapper but switched methods under Harger, fits the bill of a triple-threat player. Hackbarth often slots the ball into infield gaps or over the heads of infielders for quick hits. She uses that ability to make solid contact as one of ASU’s best hitters to dial up a single at the very least. With her speed, she has the ability to leg out these knocks to doubles or triples.
Another triple threat is Kentucky junior catcher and All-American Kayla Kowalik, who was widely regarded as one of the best hitters in the country in 2021 after finishing in the top three in batting average and runs per game in the nation for the Wildcats. Kowalik has the speed to bunt or slap, but mainly hits for extra bases like Hackbarth.
“We don’t have a ton of super-fast kids on our team at ASU,” Harger mentioned. “Kindra was a slapper when I first got here, but due to elite defenses that are getting better and better, I would rather have her swing away and hit 12 to 15 home runs. It’s more valuable.”
Oklahoma second baseman and NFCA Freshman of the Year Tiare Jennings is the modern embodiment of the leadoff slugger. Her placement into the leadoff spot is only a recent event, as she was slotted into that position in the first round of the Norman Regional against Morgan State. The freshman went 4-for-4, setting an NCAA regional record with three doubles in one game.
Jennings was the tone-setter for one of the most dominant offenses in college softball history, helping Oklahoma shatter offensive records, while breaking freshman records in her own right, such as the NCAA Division I freshman RBI record, which she recently surpassed at the 2021 Women’s College World Series.
“For me, I want my best and most consistent hitter at the plate to lead off,” Harger concluded. “Speed, power and high contact are all traits that I look for when choosing my leadoff player and I want that player up to bat as many times as possible. There’s a place for slappers because they cause havoc, but there’s also a place for the sluggers and hitters in that spot.”