If LSU infielder Sahvanna Jaquish hits a home run in the NCAA Baton Rouge regional this weekend, she’ll break her own school record.
Her 18th home run would also increase her school-record for runs batted in to at least 68. Those records might not last long, though, because Tigers shortstop Bianka Bell is in hot pursuit with 16 homers and 66 RBIs.
Bell bats third and Jaquish fourth in a lineup that has set school records for batting average, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
LSU’s record-setting offensive numbers — as well as those of fellow regional participants Arizona State, Nebraska and Texas Southern — are consistent with what’s been happening in college softball.
This season has produced significant increases over last season’s record numbers in runs per game (to 4.8 from 4.4), home runs per game (up to 0.76 from 0.68) and batting average (up to .287 from .275.)
“It’s crazy how offense is such a big part of our game now,” Tigers catcher Kellsi Kloss said.
The trend away from the game being dominated by one or two pitchers has been under way for more than a decade. Since 2001, batting averages are up 35 percent, runs are up 42 percent, and home runs are up 138 percent. As a result, ERAs have gone up 71 percent.
“I think it was definitely more of a pitcher-dominated sport back before I was ever recruited,” Kloss said, “but now offense is just coming alive.”
Despite the eye-popping home run totals, this isn’t simply a softball version of the “gorilla ball” era in college baseball that was fueled primarily by home runs a couple of decades ago.
“I think you have more triple threats nowadays,” LSU leadoff hitter A.J. Andrews said. “I think triple threats used to kind of be someone who just lays down a bunt and runs really fast, but nowadays you have slappers that hit home runs and you have really powerful people who can bunt.
“I think the diversity and range of skills in individuals means people have more tools they can use to get on base. I think it’s getting harder for pitchers and for defenses because it’s harder to know what to expect.”
Bell said she noticed increased sophistication in Tigers hitting coach Howard Dobson’s approach as soon as she arrived from high school and travel ball three years ago.
“Back then all I did was just hit the ball; I didn’t focus on anything,” she said. “Now you have to think about what the pitcher is going to throw to you and you’re thinking about a plan. When I was in travel ball I just hit the ball, got on base and made things happen. I have to think more than I did back then.
“It was easier back in travel ball, but you didn’t have the girls throwing the speed that they do now and using spin and moving the ball and using four or five different pitches. Coach Dobson just simplified it — pick a side of the plate, you’re either sitting inside or outside, and you’re trying to make a pitcher come to your zone.”
Jaquish, who put her name in the record books as a freshman last season, said Dobson improved her mechanics, but did much more.
“I was never as aggressive as a hitter in high school as I am now,” she said. “That mentality just came with (Dobson) telling me that you can come in and have an impact right away. He instilled a lot of confidence in me.”
Dobson is in his 20th season coaching softball (fourth at LSU) after his baseball playing career ended at McNeese State. He attributed a lot of the offensive improvement to “the evolution of the athlete” in terms of weight training and conditioning. He’s also seen hitters’ swings evolve.
“When I first came in, a few of us came over from baseball and people said, “You’re teaching them a baseball swing,’ ” Dobson said. “I said, “I don’t know the difference between a baseball swing and a softball swing. We’re just going to hit.”
“Now you put them side by side and you really can’t tell the difference between Bianka swinging and one of the (Tigers baseball players) swinging.”
Of course one or two elite hitters can’t have the type of impact that one or two elite pitchers can have. LSU has Andrews and No. 2 hitter Bailey Landry, whose .430 batting average would be a school record if Bell weren’t hitting .459, getting on base ahead of Bell and Jaquish.
Kloss (.346, 12 homers, 37 RBIs) hitting fifth makes it less inviting to pitch around Bell and Jaquish, and the bottom of the order has been productive as well.
“You can’t walk them all,” Dobson said. “You have to pitch to someone.”
Tigers coach Beth Torina, who was a standout pitcher at Florida and doubles as pitching coach, has adapted to the changing world. Her lineup is filled with “athletes capable of doing more” and she still has a standout pitching staff.
“I think (increased offense) is good for the game,” Torina said. “Fans like offense. I think it makes it exciting. We’ll keep trying to find pitchers that can get them out and keep trying to do our best on the mound.”