The Missouri softball team is barely halfway through the first season of the Larissa Anderson era, but early results suggest not only will the Tigers extend their NCAA tournament appearance streak to 13, but Columbia could soon play host to a regional event.
On the back of a rejuvenated offense, thanks to hitting coach Chris Malveaux, and with a defense and pitching staff improving under Anderson's coaching, Missouri is ahead of schedule after Jim Sterk fired long-time head coach Ehren Earleywine less than two weeks before the start of the 2018 season and then did not elect to hire interim head coach Gina Fogue after a 12th straight tournament appearance. The Tigers were picked last in the Southeastern Conference preseason coaches poll and received 15 points in the poll, half of the next-closest team, Mississippi.
At the halfway point of the conference schedule, the Tigers are seventh out of 13 teams, and three of their remaining four series are against the current bottom three teams: South Carolina, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, with series against the Aggies and Gamecocks at home.
It is not out of the question Missouri will finish above .500 in conference play and easily make the NCAA Tournament after missing the SEC Tournament as host last season.
So, how did the Tigers get here through 36 games and 12 SEC games? It has a lot to do with that offense.
Because Missouri's in-season stats from 2017 are lost to the maw of web host migration, I had to fudge the numbers a bit: the Tigers played 57 games that year, so 36 divided by 57 is .632, the modifier I used for stats like hits, walks, earned runs, etc., and 23 conference games, and since 12 into 23 is .522, that's the modifier I used for the same stats from a conference-only perspective. And in 2018, Missouri's 12th conference game was its 39th overall game so I didn't change those numbers at all, since I figure conference numbers are worth more here.
Qualifiers aside, here's what I found: The Tigers are 20-16, 6-6 in conference so far. In 2018, the team was 20-19, 3-9 SEC at this point, and in 2017 were 21-16, 4-7 SEC through four conference series.
In 36 games at the plate this year, Missouri is hitting .293/.377/.499 — that's batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, in order — with 43 home runs, 287 hits, 115 walks and 148 strikeouts, and a per-game scoring average of six runs.
In 2018, the Tigers slashed .288/.374/.451 and scored 5.15 runs per game. The team had 36 homers, 301 hits, 105 walks and 149 strikeouts to this point, and the year before, Missouri hit .280/.358/.439 and scored an average of 4.86 runs per game with a pro-rated 33 home runs, 265 hits, 110 walks and 132 strikeouts.
In conference play this season, Missouri is slashing .256/.356/.460 with 15 home runs, 83 hits, 44 walks and 59 strikeouts, scoring an average of 5.58 runs per game. Through four conference series in 2018, the Tigers hit .231/.315/.328, scored 5.15 runs per game, had five home runs, 74 hits, 35 walks and 72 strikeouts, and in 2017, that slash line was .220/.291/.320 with seven homers, 69 hits, 28 walks and 58 strikeouts, good for 2.57 runs per game.
Every conference opponent the Tigers have faced so far had a top-15 ranking in the country, with an average ranking of 7.75. In 2018, three of Missouri's first four series came against ranked opponents, with Arkansas receiving votes, but the average ranking of ranked opponents was 12.3. In 2017, all four were ranked with an average of 10.5.
Missouri's hitters are walking more, hitting for more contact and power, striking out less and scoring more runs per game as a result both overall and in SEC play, and are doing so against higher-ranked opposition in conference games.
The biggest issue for the team so far has been consistency. The Tigers have losses to sub-.500 teams Oregon (twice, one Saturday in the Mizzou Tournament with a rematch at 11:30 a.m. today), IUPUI and Pitt, handing the Panthers just their sixth win of the season Saturday at the Mizzou Tournament.
Missouri still hasn't kicked the error bug, with 45 in 36 games despite Anderson's reputation at Hofstra for excellent defense, and the pitching staff, which has a decent 3.30 ERA on the season, has the second-worst ERA in conference games at 5.12, partially a product of the opponents thus far.
If the Tigers make the right adjustments this season and start winning games in the circle, not just at the plate, they could be playing softball in late May, and maybe even in Oklahoma City in early June.