Madisyn Kennedy still wanted her glove.
When the Mississippi State softball team held a day of hitting competitions for players to “win” their new gloves for the 2021 season, Kennedy didn’t hit the mark right away and had to watch each of her teammates claim their prizes before her. Her new glove, white with a maroon pocket — an inversion of last year’s colors — would have to wait.
Frustrated, the slick-fielding shortstop initially asked head coach Samantha Ricketts for a defensive competition the following day to prove herself. But an hour later, after leaving practice, she texted Ricketts again.
“Give me that same challenge,” Kennedy told her coach. “I’m going to get it.”
At the next day’s practice, she did, achieving the personalized benchmark the Bulldogs hoped for: 60 percent of her swings clocked in above her average bat speed.
“I just wanted to prove it to myself — not necessarily other people — that I am capable of doing this if I really put my mind to it and not give up,” Kennedy said.
Her success is just one example of how the analytical tools Mississippi State has at its disposal has helped Kennedy and plenty of other hitters tap into their unrealized potential at the plate.
“I will always love defense, but the technology that we have been using has really shown me that I can make improvements if I really put myself to the test hitting-wise,” Kennedy said.
‘Where did that come from?’
When Kennedy first arrived at Mississippi State from Montgomery, Alabama, she had a conception of who she was and who she wasn’t. That, Ricketts said, had to change.
“She came in thinking of herself as just this defensive player,” Ricketts said. “That was her specialty. That’s what she was here to do, and she does it extremely well. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to improve offensively.”
To do that meant introducing Kennedy to technology she’d never seen before. The Bulldogs outfit their bats with Blast Motion sensors to measure pre-contact statistics like bat speed, attack angle, time to contact and swing quickness and efficiency. The team’s Rapsodo system measures the ball after contact: exit velocity, launch angle, distance and spin speed and direction.
Such technology, Ricketts said, originated in golf before migrating to baseball. It has become more popular in softball, but only recently: Ricketts never used it as a player in the National Pro Fastpitch league.
In the past five years, though, the tools have become more accessible and affordable. Many travel softball organizations use it so devoutly that some recruits come into the Bulldogs’ program with a stronger working knowledge than Mississippi State’s own coaches.
“A lot of times, they understand it better than we do when they get here,” Ricketts said.
Kennedy, though, wasn’t one such player. The first time her bat was hooked up to the motion sensors, she started overthinking.
“I don’t know about this,” Kennedy thought.
But when she realized the Bulldogs’ use of analytics was more about gradual progress than immediate results, she began to buy in.
This spring, Kennedy had an offensive season Ricketts admitted was “a little unexpected” in a 2020 campaign shortened by COVID-19. She posted a .354 average in 24 games with three homers and three doubles.
“Whoa, where did that come from?” Kennedy thought to herself when she saw her newfound hitting prowess.
But her teammates and Mississippi State’s coaching staff weren’t surprised: The improvement was what they hoped for all along.
“For her, just seeing that little bit of success and starting to realize that, ‘Hey, I could be a really great hitter and a really great shortstop,’ it’s been fun to watch her grow,” Ricketts said.
From off the wall to over it
It’s not just Kennedy who has seen success of late for the Bulldogs.
From the start of fall workouts in September to late November, most of Mississippi State’s players saw increases in categories like exit velocity and bat speed. Everyone, Ricketts said, got better in something.
That’s due to a “joint effort” between Ricketts, strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Mock and athletic trainer Macy Simoneaux. Tests and measurements in the weight room with Mock and OnBaseU mobility screens with Simoneaux help prepare players for the drills they’ll face.
“What we’re trying to do is really create a complete picture of how the athlete moves,” Ricketts said.
She and assistant coach Tyler Bratton use those data to make adjustments in the batting cages and run specialized drills for each batter.
“They’re not doing one drill, all 18 hitters,” Ricketts said. “They’re going to do what they need, and that’s going to help them improve over time.”
And if each hitter produces, say, a 5 mph increase in their average exit velocity (for comparison, freshman Paige Cook upped hers 16.7 mph during the fall), it could make a significant difference.
“A ball being caught by an outfielder is now going off the wall or over it,” Ricketts said.
The immediate results that players see — whether in practice or in this fall’s intrasquad scrimmages, where several Blast Motion sensors, two Rapsodo units and three iPads were powered up for use — are integral, Ricketts said.
Through them, the Bulldogs have created a “tight immediate feedback loop” to see their progress and make adjustments in real time. Kennedy said she’ll look at the readout to see where her numbers might fall short, and she can usually tell where something is wrong in her swing.
Kennedy — who habitually is “more of a feel person,” she said — can intuit what’s wrong as well as interact with real data about her swing.
“I can still feel and see what’s happening at the same time,” she said.
Making strides at the plate
In Bratton’s batting cage at Mississippi State’s indoor complex, there sits a board to which players can add their names if they win a “home run derby” with weighted plyo balls.
Also popular is the “launch angle ladder” — hitting softballs at zero, 10, 20 and 30 degrees before going back down to zero. Whoever can do it in the fewest swings is crowned a winner. On rainy days where the team is stuck inside, Ricketts and her staff pit two batting cages against each other for a friendly clash.
It’s these competitions among Mississippi State’s players that can help further improvement. Case in point: When the glove competition was down to three Bulldogs, Kennedy watched the last two players in front of her win and claim their prizes. She was happy for them but motivated to follow.
“It was just to prove to myself that I could do it and get through the challenges,” Kennedy said.
She did, making another improvement in a fall that has been full of them.
The shortstop is up 12.3 mph in maximum bat speed, tops on the team. She’s second in average exit velocity with a 13.5 mph increase and fifth in max exit velo with a 6.6 mph jump.
Already, Kennedy said, she feels a lot stronger than she did during a layoff in the summer and hopes the improvement will continue into 2021.
No dates have been announced for the Bulldogs’ return to competition, but Kennedy and her teammates can’t wait for it, whenever it comes.
“It’s been so long,” she said. “The day that it comes, I think, will be the best day ever.”
Whenever that first game is, Kennedy will take the field at Nusz Park with strengthened confidence and a newfound appreciation for a part of the sport she didn’t always enjoy.
“I’m always going to love defense. That’s where I have the most fun on the field,” Kennedy said. “But hitting has definitely made a step up for me.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.