With hitting down to a science, Auburn's Kasey Cooper named espnW player of the year
Like a lot of kids, maybe even like most of us, Kasey Cooper's curiosity confronted a world full of wonders. Before we know how much of anything works, everything is a mystery. Of course, most of us simply ask for explanations or lose interest at the first distraction.
When you are the daughter of an instructional technologist at the Farley Nuclear Plant and an air-conditioning and refrigeration instructor at Alabama's Wallace Community College, you grow up seeking your own answers by reducing things to their smallest components.
Cooper's curiosity didn't kill the cat, but it did imperil household valuables from time to time.
"Maybe once or twice," she said. "The VCR -- that was kind of a bad one."
Not that she is much better at leaving well enough alone these days. Consider the aftermath of her most memorable hit during her junior season on Auburn's softball team. Shortly after the ball she struck toward the fence cleared the right fielder's glove by a few feet for a walk-off home run against conference rival Georgia in April, Cooper offered this memorably joyful assessment: "I knew when I saw her jump that it was going to be a SportsCenter Top 10 or that we were going to win."
Full stop and file away the moment in the scrapbook, right? Not so much.
According to Auburn coach Clint Myers, it wasn't long before Cooper started disassembling the moment, just like she took apart the VCR years before. She didn't just enjoy a movie on the screen or a memorable hit on the field. She wanted to know why it happened, and perhaps how she might make it even better.
"It wins the ball game for us, but she's still analyzing that swing," Myers recalled. "[She felt like] a little bit lower on the ball, there's no question that ball is out. Again, that's the perfectionist.
"She just wants to really excel at anything and everything that she does."
There is a reason perfect games only happen to pitchers. To be a hitter is to suffer imperfection. It is why the decimal point precedes any of the digits in a batting average. No hitter is perfect. But Cooper, a third baseman, came closer than anyone in the sport this season.
The most productive hitter in the best conference in the country, an offensive and defensive cornerstone for the No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and a mechanical engineering major named SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year, Cooper is espnW's softball player of the year.
"She's very critical of herself, and she expects nothing but excellence from herself in anything that she does," Myers said. "That's Kasey Cooper. She's going to be the best doctor, the best engineering student. She's the best softball player. She just expects that of herself."
Cooper enters the NCAA tournament second in the nation in RBIs, fifth in slugging percentage, sixth in on-base percentage and tied for ninth in home runs. No other player ranks in the top 10 in each category.
That despite playing in a conference with pitching stifling enough to place seven of its teams among the top 40 in ERA nationally.
And if not directly relevant to an award for performance in a single season, it is at least telling that in her best season she became both Auburn's all-time home run and RBI leader while still only a junior.
Cooper didn't merely pile up numbers against the weaker portion of Auburn's schedule. In SEC competition, she slugged .902. Her next closest challenger slugged .792. The gap between first and second was nearly equal to that between second and eighth. She lapped the field, and the field comprised the deepest collection of elite hitters in the country.
Cooper also played 29 games against teams ranked in the RPI top 40, essentially equivalent to teams that would receive at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. The majority of those were top-20 teams. Against the best the sport could throw at her, she still hit .342 with a .700 slugging percentage and .556 on-base percentage, the last of which serves as proof that even the best didn't really want to throw to her at all. Numbers abound that explain the choice, which is the kind of evidence the honoree would appreciate.
Former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain talked at times about hitting being a form of artistic expression, a bat little different than a pen or a paintbrush. For others, it's about the adrenaline of one-on-one competition with the pitcher. In Cooper's case, hitting is all a matter of engineering, understanding the forces and components involved. While she pitched in high school, she doesn't miss it. She has become one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, but she is unabashed in her love for hitting. It is hitting that tests her mind.
"Everybody has a different perspective," Cooper said. "Hitting clicks in different ways with different people. So the way it works with me is numbers. Bring me numbers, explain to me why one way is better than another, and I'll buy in. Once numbers are involved it's easy for me to pick up on why one way is better."
That's Kasey Cooper. She's going to be the best doctor, the best engineering student. She's the best softball player. She just expects that of herself.Clint Myers
A Dothan, Alabama, native, she chose Auburn in no small part because of its engineering program, her way paid not by athletic scholarship but an academic one. Although the athletic side kicks in more now, she said she received just $283 of athletic aid her freshman year, an amount she wanted mostly so she could have a signing party when she committed. It wasn't until the summer before her freshman year that Myers arrived and a program long in the softball shadow of rival Alabama began an ascent toward its current heights. But it proved to be a fortuitous pairing for both parties.
Cooper was initially skeptical when the new Auburn coaching staff told her she needed to use her legs more in her swing. Her way worked well enough to make her the Alabama high school player of the year, after all. Then Casey Myers, now working in baseball but an assistant with the team the past two seasons, started speaking her language, explaining in technical detail the power she could generate and the corresponding effect on the ball's flight. Give her numbers, and she buys in.
"And force equals mass times acceleration," Cooper said. "Obviously."
Yes, obviously. For mechanical engineering students with 4.0 GPAs. It's a long way from "see the ball, hit the ball."
She will never stop trying to perfect what cannot be perfected. Sometimes that is to her detriment. More often it is to the pitcher's detriment.
"The dynamics of how everything works, the analytic part," her coach said, "is always going through her brain."