Going above and beyond, Florida's Kelly Barnhill named espnW softball player of the year
You never know how life might reveal your true calling. An apple to the head supposedly convinced Isaac Newton to explore the nature of gravity. A soccer ball to the face helped convince Kelly Barnhill that there was a brighter future in making a softball defy gravity.
A brighter future for her, at least. Not so much for college softball hitters.
They still have to hit against her for two more seasons. They managed only a .126 average in their first two seasons of trying.
Long before the University of Florida sophomore became NCAA softball's most statistically dominant pitching presence in a decade, before she made the United States national team out of high school, Barnhill was a young kid who decided that soccer looked like fun. It proved less so when it came to the actual running and even less when played in the unforgiving Georgia heat.
At least as she tells it, whether more or less apocryphal than Newton's apple, her only appearance on a highlight video from the first season came when a ball collided with her face.
Chasing a soccer ball wasn't fun. Getting batters to chase her rise ball, a pitch that looks as if a puppeteer positioned above home plate yanks a string attached to the top of the ball just as the batter begins to swing? That's the kind of thing a person can fall in love with.
"It's so much fun being out there when you know no matter what the batter is doing, they're not going to hit the ball," Barnhill said. "You can go out there like, 'I'm going to throw the ball here, here and here.' They can even know this pitch is coming, but they're still going to strike out."
That alone sums up why she is the 2017 espnW softball player of the year. She lives that sentiment as her reality more often than not.
But there are also plenty of numbers to submit as evidence. Barnhill enters the Women's College World Series for the tournament's No. 1 seed with a 24-3 record, 0.36 ERA and 333 strikeouts in 173 2/3 innings (she walked just 34 batters). No pitcher in more than a decade finished a season with an ERA better than 0.50. The most recent to do so was Cat Osterman, another pitcher who made the national team out of high school and went on to do well for herself. In a three-game stretch in April against Kentucky and Mississippi, programs that reached super regionals, Barnhill allowed four hits and struck out 46 batters in 21 shutout innings.
"She is in the talks with the Monica Abbotts, the Jennie Finches, the Cat Ostermans," Ole Miss coach Mike Smith said after his team struck out 29 times in 14 innings against her this season. "You could even put her in with the names like Lisa Fernandez. She is going to be one that is probably going to be pitching for our national team, that is pitching in the Olympics and giving us a shot at the gold medal."
It's so much fun being out there when you know no matter what the batter is doing, they're not going to hit the ball.Kelly Barnhill
With softball set to return to the Olympics in 2020 after a 12-year hiatus, that is entirely possible. It is very much on Barnhill's agenda. What ought to worry the rest of the world is that means she has three more years to improve.
Barnhill arrived at Florida with that rise ball, which she throws on three different planes -- think of it like three separate ski lifts to three progressively taller mountains. When he was a volunteer assistant with the team a season ago, former major leaguer Doug Mirabelli noted that even for a rise ball, a mesmerizing pitch with movement completely foreign to a baseball player, Barnhill's had extra jump at the end. He estimated it was an additional 3-4 inches over the last 6 to 10 feet, hence the puppeteer effect.
Not surprisingly, it is Barnhill's favorite pitch. Her best guess at the extra jump is all the hours she spent practicing her wrist snap, hours and hours of repeating that same motion, often into couch cushions or whatever was handy. But while Barnhill could very well be an All-American throwing nothing but the rise, her dominance comes from the fact that it isn't all she throws.
"She'll throw that high rise and get you to chase it," said Smith, a former fast-pitch pitcher. "She'll try to climb the ladder, and then she'll come down below -- and you're looking for something up. She [throws] that screwball in, where it gets in on your hands, and then she'll throw the curveball off the plate. She changes eye locations. She mixes things up."
It isn't so much that she couldn't do those things when she arrived in Gainesville. Stacy Tamborra, Barnhill's pitching coach growing up and a former Florida State pitcher, of all things, didn't send her to college as a one-pitch pitcher. Barnhill was almost as dominant in limited innings a season ago. But even she had to grow into -- is still growing into -- the mindset of a historically dominant ace.
Hitters might shudder at the thought, but the Barnhill of a season ago wasn't always confident in what she was doing.
"The two things I really worked on in the offseason were my mentality and locating my pitches," Barnhill said. "Throwing my pitch exactly where I want it to go almost all the time. I'm not going to say all the time. I'm definitely not perfect -- I do miss. But locating those pitches is very important in the long run, especially eliminating those walks. My dad always told me growing up: Walks and errors lose ballgames."
The only thing separating Barnhill from the likes of Abbott and Osterman is the sheer volume of their numbers. Even if Florida wins a national championship, Barnhill will likely barely top 200 innings this season. She isn't going to throw 300 innings or strike out 600 batters.
But just as the mask she wears when she pitches is a sign of changing attitudes -- she said there wasn't a particular incident or injury, it just made her mom more comfortable -- so is her usage. Pitching depth is all the rage in college softball, and no one does that better than Florida, with a staff that includes Delanie Gourley, another member of Team USA, and Aleshia Ocasio.
"We haven't really monitored Kelly's usage," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "We've just gone about trying to figure out how we can win as many games as possible and still, to be honest with you, win the SEC and set up our kids for as many postseason and in-season accolades as possible. I don't want to take that away from those kids. ... I'm not just trying to win games and not take care of my kids."
It doesn't change what the numbers make clear: Barnhill is the best player in college softball this season.
There is no more denying that than the existence of gravity.