The No. 7 Gators softball team started SEC play with a series loss to Tennessee, and they travel to No. 9 LSU for a series starting on Saturday.
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The pitching problems in the first two games of the Tennessee series caused some to question the quality of this team’s pitching staff. In this week’s AlligatorSports “By the Numbers” edition, we answer the question, “Do the Gators have the best pitching staff in the SEC?
It’s impossible to discuss Florida’s pitching without bringing up senior Kelly Barnhill. The senior from Marietta, Georgia, is not just one of the best pitchers in the SEC, but the entire country. She has been as advertised so far this season, sporting a 14-2 record, a 1.19 ERA and striking out 122 batters — the second-highest total in the country.
There were significant questions before the season as to how the Gators would perform when Barnhill is not in the circle after the graduation of Aleshia Ocasio. Sophomore Natalie Lugo has stepped into the No. 2 starter role quite well so far, as she is 6-2 on the season with a 1.63 ERA and 68 strikeouts.
So how do we evaluate these teams’ pitching staffs? Let’s look at who they’re returning and use Game Score to judge returning talent along with Field-Independent Pitching (FIP) to see how teams are performing so far this season.
Game Score takes typical stats found in a box score for a starting pitcher and turns them into one number.
Equation: Game Score= 37+2(Outs) + # of strikeouts – 2(Hits)-2(Walks)-3(Runs)-6(Home Runs).
(The 37 is to ensure that the average Game Score is around 50, and we’re only going to count pitchers with at least 15 starts last season)
The Gators had the best Game Score as a team last season, and they return the second-best pitcher by Game Score last season in Barnhill. She had the highest Game Score of any returning SEC pitcher (63.3). Barnhill’s performance in the circle means that the Gators need just middle-of-the-pack pitching behind her, as the Gators’ nearest competition last year was Georgia, who was over five points behind Florida.
The nearest competition for Florida is Arkansas and Auburn, who return the second- and third-best pitchers by Game Score in sophomore Mary Haff and senior Makayla Martin. Both were on the Preseason All-SEC Team with Barnhill, and all three were the only pitchers on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List.
FIP: Field-Independent Pitching evaluates pitchers independent of their team’s fielding and is generally seen as a better evaluator of pitching talent than ERA.
Equation: 2.24 + ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP))-(2*K))/IP.
Florida had the best FIP in the SEC last season, and that is still true this season, even with the transition from Ocasio to Lugo. Barnhill (0.08) and Lugo (0.48) are first and third in the SEC in FIP, respectively, so far this season out of pitchers with at least 25 innings pitched.
As for the rest of the SEC, Alabama freshman Montana Fouts is a name to keep an eye on. She already won SEC Freshman of the Week three times, hasn’t given up more than two runs in a start this season and has the second-highest FIP in the conference. Alabama’s pitching depth isn’t as good as Florida’s, though, which prevents them from being one of the best in the SEC.
Arkansas, with Haff (0.81) and junior Autumn Storms (0.88), is Florida’s closest competition.
Conclusion: Florida’s pitching staff, as it stands, is the SEC’s best so far. The Gators are returning one of the best pitchers in the country in Kelly Barnhill, and Natalie Lugo has been solid when Barnhill needs a rest. If the Gators get even SEC-average pitching from Lugo, that should still be enough to be one of the best in the SEC. It’s a small sample size to draw from, for sure, but it looks like the Gators do have an elite pitching staff.
Follow Brendan Farrell on Twitter @Bfarrell727 and contact him at [email protected].