On softball and mercy rules

I would like to thank our fearless leader for inviting me to write for this – the holy grail of sports blogs – from time to time.

Last weekend I watched about half of a college softball game. The options for day time sports on television are slim unless you are content to soak up the blather coming out of relentless rehashing by the various sports news options.

I learned some interesting things. The first is that Michigan was first-seeded in the B1G tournament, Michigan State lost in the first round to an underdog, and that there is a mercy rule in college softball (see rule 6.13 Eight-Run Rule here [pdf]). In effect, it says that if a team is winning by eight plus runs after five or more complete innings (they usually only play seven) then they call the game. This, of course, evoked a host of confusing memories from little league baseball.

A seemingly comprehensive list of mercy rules around the world can be found here.

My immediate interest (after disregarding the twisted sadness and relief emotions from my childhood) was in similarities to MLB and why they needed this rule.

It seems to me that a sport shouldn’t have a mercy rule. It is kind of giving up – suggesting that the game is too far lost to redeem, and we should all go home. I personally like the casual way that many states do this in high school football – the running clock. It’s a nice compromise.

Anyway, the two ideas I’m here to think about today are whether the game of softball is inherently unbalanced and, if so, what can be done to fix it.

From the NCAA’s website I collected scores from all tournament games from 2008-2012: a total of 660 games. 99 games were clearly mercied out and 116 were won by eight or more runs (meaning that 17 games were won by eight or more in seventh inning – if it was the home team then they mercied out, if the visitors then both mercy rules and regular end of games rules applied). I will consider all 116 games since in each case one team was winning by the amount suggested by the mercy rule. This comes out to about 17.5% of the games. That is, more than one in six games will result in a team winning by so much that a rule had to be added to prevent further embarrassment or a waste of time. But is this a lot? And by what standard should we compare?

I elected to use MLB data for a number of reasons. Obviously the sports are similar, there isn’t a mercy rule, and the data is accessible (although the softball data was actually not too bad to handle). For MLB I picked up all the regular season games over the same time period from Retrosheet. As above, I calculated the number of games that were won by eight or more runs to be 966 out of 12,147 total games, or 7.95% of all games.

Clearly the two results differ dramatically, but let’s take a moment to see if there is a simple explanation for the differences. First, the number of innings is different. It might make sense to look at scores in inning five or later in the MLB set. I didn’t do this for three reasons: a) accessing that data is harder, b) college softball in general has fewer innings than does MLB which makes a direct comparison hard, and c) in general, when a team is clearly winning, they are likely to continue winning thus increasing the margin of victory as additional innings are played (read up on random walks for a brief introduction as to why). So the number of innings in play are different, but if anything that should increase the margins in MLB games compared to softball games.

The next major difference is tournament play versus regular season. I selected tournament play for softball because that was the data that was readily available, and I selected regular season for MLB because there are more games to increase the statistics. While these selections may have introduced a bias (intentional or not) it would seem to go the wrong way. That is, I would naturally expect tournament play to be generally closer. No teams are slacking off as every game counts and teams are all automatically a high caliber and usually very closely matched.

In any case, it seems to me that the only rationale for the different fraction of games affected by an eight-run mercy rule is the nature of the game itself. And that brings me to my second point – how to fix the game. This part moves from the “hard-facts” zone into the “wild-conjecture” zone.

Since it seems that the only remaining difference is the nature of the game. One way to address the large score margins would be to change the game. The all-time batting average in the MLB is around 0.267 and the last time someone bested 0.400 for an entire season was in 1941, while the top 50 women in college softball all batted over 0.413 this year. (Sourced: MLB and softball). Again, there is a large disparity, but unlike the regular use of a mercy-rule, I have no inherent problem with a high batting average.

So then perhaps reducing the batting average to numbers more like those in the MLB could bring the margin of victory in under the mercy rule more often. Maybe they could make the ball smaller or place similar bat restrictions as in baseball. My personal favorite modification, though, is making the base distance the same as in MLB. It seems like these women can get to second base after about three steps, and batters would be halfway to first before they would realize if that bat even hit the ball. Slow dribblers to short stop would often turn into a single. This was by far the most obvious difference in game play I noticed during the game.


She’s just practicing some huge steps. Thanks detnews.com.

I have a suspicion that neither the NCAA nor the coaches or players are going to take these suggestions very seriously. This whole thought made me think about what makes a sport or game an objectively good one (keep in mind that I was watching the Red Wings vs. Ducks with overtime after overtime at the same time).

I think that the existence (or necessity) of a mercy rule might be an indication that improvement in the sport/game is possible. Blowouts are going to happen in any sport, but ideally they should be far in the exception category and not the rule. This goes to both the entertainment aspect and the players themselves. Obviously playoff hockey is more entertaining than regular season hockey in large part because the games tend to be close, which keeps fans on the edges of their seats. I think that this applies to the players too, although in a more removed way. In a straightforward sport such as the 100m dash, we all know that Usain Bolt will win every time. He’s clearly the best. But as games acquire enough diversity, it becomes less clear who is the best and each player can work on his/her particular strength to excel. Think about the difference in practices for a punter and an offensive lineman. It would seem that in softball, a lot of the time (More than one in six, remember? That was a few novels ago, I know.) one team is so clearly victorious that there is much less for the losing team to play for than in any other particular game.

One final thought before I run out of ink is to compare the above to how football has changed. Football didn’t use to have the forward pass, organized defensive plays, or pads. And, based on my probably biased facts from reading commemorative programs at the Big House, Michigan regularly won by triple digits a few years back, a sort of dominance that actually led to the cancellation of the Rose Bowl. But with more modifications than Michigan’s average margin of victory under Fielding Yost, it has developed into the interesting and compelling sport we watch today by keeping things tight.


3 thoughts on “On softball and mercy rules

  1. Thank you for this great post. I have a couple questions:

    You conclude that there are a disproportionately large number of blowouts in college softball because of “the nature of the game.”

    1. Did you consider competitiveness among the different teams as a source of scoring disparity? There are ten times as many NCAA DI softball teams as there are MLB teams. You limit the scope of your statistical view to the NCAA tournament, but that still includes sixty-four teams. Even the NCAA men’s basketball tournament isn’t competitive top to bottom, and I would imagine the disparities are amplified in a sport like college softball. I wonder whether the blowout rate would flatten if you narrowed your scope to games between the final sixteen or eight tournament teams. The Mets and Marlins are terrible, but they aren’t as far away from the Tigers and Braves as South Carolina State is from Oklahoma.

    2. Related, why did you decide not to use college baseball data as your control set? That would at least seem to address the competitiveness issue, which seems to me like a major factor to consider in addressing the rate at which teams secure blowout wins.

    I don’t think any of these questions undermine your opinion that “the existence (or necessity) of a mercy rule might be an indication that improvement in the sport/game is possible,” and I agree that changing the field dimensions is appropriate.

    Thanks again for this contribution. Looking forward to more in the future.

    • 1. I don’t think that adding more teams should be an excuse to diminish the quality of the sport. We already split up DI, DII, DIII for a reason [just like baseball has the various minor leagues]. While I generally dislike Saban for entirely petty reasons, his recent statement essentially suggesting regrouping all of NCAAF into more slightly smaller “conferences” [in the present nomenclature he really means divisions but whatever] is, I think, reasonable. GVSU doesn’t care if it’s the best college team in the country – it is never going to be. But, with some reasonable predetermined alignment strategies, they could be the best in their division. Which I think is compelling to fans and players alike.

      2. I don’t really have a compelling answer to that question yet. Okay, now I do. So, this is interesting. First, I should say that I had to adjust the threshold number of runs. College baseball plays to nine innings. For a team that was winning by eight runs, assuming a Poisson distribution of runs continues with the same average as before, one would expect that an eight run victory in seven innings would turn into a 10.3 run victory in the ninth. Running the data shows that 13.6% of tournament NCAA baseball games across 2008-2012 were won by 10 or more runs. This is about halfway between the results for the MLB versus NCAA softball [but a bit closer to softball]. Perhaps there are more errors due to the lack of experience [basic skills or pressure]. What seems the most likely to me, however, is an imbalance in pitching versus hitting skills, although I have no evidence for that. [By the way, if we update the threshold for MLB for nine innings: ten runs, then only 3% of games satisfy the comparable mercy rule].

      In any case, even compared against a 90′ field, softball seems to mercy out more often. I am now less convinced that field size is as crucial of a component as I had before.

  2. Pingback: Michigan On Top | ALDLAND

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