May 25, 2004

Roberts robbed by NFCA vote

Selecting award winners is a challenging and imperfect process in intercollegiate sports. After all, most games are not televised, competition is inconsistent, and statistical sample sizes are significantly smaller than in professional sports.

Yet the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) has absolutely no excuse for their choice at the pitcher position on the Division III All-America first team. In fact, this year the committee of coaches, representing each of the NCAA's six regions, probably had one of the easiest decisions conceivable. Check out these 2004 numbers of two different pitchers:


A: 19-5 0.25 166.2 79 35 226 .140

B: 22-4 1.18 184.0 125 47 168 .192

If you had to pick the first-team All-American out of that group, Pitcher A would be an obvious selection I'm sure. Her winning percentage and innings pitched are the only statistics in which she does not have a clear lead over Pitcher B, and the differences are negligible. Pitcher A dominates in every other area, particularly in ERA, which is almost five times lower than Pitcher B's mark.

Faced with those numbers, the NFCA somehow decided to give one of the two first-team awards to second-year Moravian College pitcher Meagan Hennessy (B) instead of second-year Maroons pitcher Hannah Roberts (A).

Well, there must be some reason for that, you say. Perhaps Hennessy was a better pitcher than Roberts despite her statistics, you also say. Let's evaluate some of the possible arguments that could be made to defend the NFCA in this case:

1) Hennessy's team made it further in the postseason. That point is true, but it certainly should not outweigh the huge difference in numbers. Moravian, which went 40--6 and lost in the NCAA Division III World Series Championship Game, was a better team than Chicago this season, but the Maroons were no slouch either. After all, Roberts's team (29-11) was one win away from making the World Series itself. Roberts had to pitch in important games as well; the difference should only break a tie between nearly identical performances.

Further, that Moravian was a better all-around team partly explains the difference in win-loss record. Hennessy received 3.88 runs of support in her starts, while Roberts received 3.04 runs of support. In three of Roberts's losses, her lineup was shutout, and they scored only one run in another.

2) The difference could just be a matter of luck. It is true that the difference between a good and a great season can be due to a couple great plays or some situational luck. Yet to explain the difference between Hennessy's and Roberts's numbers with that reason would require arguing that the former was extremely unlucky and the latter was extremely lucky.

I'm not personally familiar with all of Hennessy's season, but Roberts's dominance was hardly due to luck. She routinely kept her team in games, pitching two complete games in one day on occasion, and had the fifth-longest scoreless inning streak in NCAA history at 62.1 innings. Bad luck probably could have doubled her ERA, but it wouldn't have quintupled it.

3) The coaches may have seen Hennessy's dominance personally: They probably did get to catch a glimpse of her because Moravian made its way to the championship game, and I'm sure she was an impressive pitcher. That does not change the fact that these awards are not supposed to be given to a pitcher who shows she can be the best pitcher in the nation but rather to the one who was the best. In order to determine that, we have to look at performance, and Roberts, with the top ERA in D-III this year, sweeps in that area.

Even the Maroons' second-best pitcher this year, first-year Petra Wade, has comparable stats:


Wade 7-5 1.07 92.0 62 28 73 .179

Henn. 22-4 1.18 184.0 125 47 168 .192

Obviously, someone who only pitches 92 innings won't be considered for a top award, but the comparison is still interesting. If you double Wade's numbers to get the same 184 innings pitched as Hennessy, Wade has almost the same totals of hits (124, 125), walks (56, 47), and strikeouts (146, 168). Wade would still boast a lower ERA and batting average against.

In terms of performance only, Hennessy was about as good as the Maroons' second-best pitcher.

What is the most likely reason for Roberts being left off of the first team at the expense of Hennessy? Politics. Some coaches have more pull than others, sometimes coaches vote for certain players in an effort to get votes for their own players, and some won't let go of long-held beliefs that some teams and regions are just always better.

The same problems often happen when selecting playoff teams, and this recent decision just exposes the flaws of the system.

I don't necessarily know the solution—formulas can be flawed as well—but there has to be somebody to stop the current, misguided system from producing a result like this.