* This picture is courtesy of Ezio Ratti
To commemorate and celebrate the Italian National Softball Team qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, I have updated this article from 2015 about two important pieces of the puzzle Manager Enrico Obletter assembled to capture one of only six Olympic slots allocated to Women’s Softball. Marta Gasparotto and Erika Piancastelli (pictured above—Erika is on the left and Marta is on the right) helped Team Italy sweep through both the 2019 European Championship in the Czech Republic and the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in the Netherlands.
I first watched Marta and Erika play in the 2015 WBSC Junior World Softball Championship in Oklahoma City. As an Italian-American, I have always been interested in the success of Italian sports teams. Back in 2006, I proudly hosted a viewing party for Italy’s World Cup victory in soccer (football) and I always look for Italian athletes in the news. When I heard the Junior National Softball Team would be competing here in the U.S., I made the trip to Oklahoma City.
Marta and Erika stood out in Oklahoma City in several ways. They both are tall, athletic, and “five tool” softball players. A five tool player hits for power, hits for a high average, steals bases, has a strong arm, and plays strong defense. Every time Marta and Erika came to the plate in the tournament, they struck fear in the heart of the pitcher. Throughout the competition, pitchers carefully worked around them and opposing coaches ordered intentional walks several times. Although their hitting styles are slightly different, Marta and Erika share one thing in common—they hit the ball really HARD!
Thanks to the great online coverage of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, I was able to watch all the games Team Italy played. Manager Obletter’s lineup included several accomplished players, including Amanda Fama, Emily Carasone, and Andrea Howard, but Marta and Erika were still the heart and soul of a team that is now poised to take a quantum leap onto the world softball stage as they prepare for the 2020 Games.
As I watched Marta and Erika compete this summer, I could definitely see a “softball maturity” in both of their games since I first saw them play in Oklahoma City. I especially noticed improvement in their defense, especially Marta’s. She now has a presence and confidence behind the plate as a catcher that is noticeable and intimidating for opponents. Blessed with one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the softball world today, opposing coaches have to shut down their running games or send runners with the high probability that Marta will easily throw them out or pick them off base. Marta has also improved as a hitter, possessing power to change a game with one swing.
Erika is also great defensive player. She played a solid right field this summer and backed up Marta at catcher. However, Erika’s primary contribution to the success of the Olympic-bound Italian Team was as the most feared hitter in Europe. When opposing coaches received the lineup card from Manager Obletter and saw Erika’s name penciled in at the three spot in the batting order, they knew their pitchers were in for a long day. In my opinion as a college hitting coach, Erika has the ideal swing sequence. Her powerful and consistent swing made her the most prolific hitter the McNeese State University Softball Program has ever seen. I’m confident Erika will be remembered the same way when her career with Team Italy comes to an end.
Here is the comparison of Marta and Erika’s hitting styles I wrote after watching them in Oklahoma City back in 2015. Although both of their swings have evolved slightly since then, I think the following analysis is still valid and hopefully helpful for softball players at any level.
Both Marta (left) and Erika are imposing when they walk to the plate and set up in the batter’s box. They appear comfortable and confident, which is surely intimidating for opposing pitchers. Even though I believe their hands are not in an ideal position at this point, they both will eventually move them back during the load portion of their hitting sequence. I teach starting with the hands back toward the catcher and keeping them perfectly still. This will minimize any unnecessary hand movement as the pitch is approaching. Keeping the hands back and still becomes especially important when facing faster pitching. Both Marta and Erika are athletic enough to move their hands back in time to generate maximum bat speed. This powerful set-up by both hitters is the solid foundation they will use to capture the power that originates from the ground.
Marta (left) and Erika have very different loads, but both are powerful and effective. For those who have been following this blog or have read my book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball and Softball Players, it should be no surprise that I believe strongly in a leg lift like Erika’s for two important reasons. Lifting the front leg results in a more meaningful weight transfer, and it enables hitters to drive inside and outside pitches with more authority and consistency. That being said, I’m also fine with Marta’s short, yet powerful weight transfer. With her short and subtle load, she is still able to gather enough power on her back foot and leg to set the stage for the rest of her swing. Both Marta and Erika are also in perfect balance. At the pinnacle of their loads, they are in total control. Their heads are still and their hands are beginning to move back toward the catcher. All great hitters achieve this moment of controlled power generation.
After recognizing where the pitch is coming, Marta (left) and Erika place their front foot back into the ground to initiate the swing. Notice in the pictures above that both hitters are now in the identical hitting position. Their hands have also now moved far enough back toward the catcher to generate optimal hand and bat speed. Their hands will stay in this “launch” position until the violent rotation of their lower bodies automatically causes their upper bodies to rotate into the ball. When their hands finally move and rotate in a circular path into the ball, they have ample “runway” to generate enough bat speed to drive the ball powerfully to all fields. Had Marta and Erika’s hands remained in their initial set-up position, their bat speeds would be 5-10 mph slower, which represents 25-50 feet of lost hitting distance.
All great power hitters achieve full extension at impact with the ball. I call this full extension “lightning”, because when the arms are fully extended, it’s like a bolt of lightning exploding into the ball. Marta (left) and Erika have plenty of lightning in their swings!
Before we look at their arm positions, observe their lower bodies. Marta and Erika are both in a classic power hitting position, with a stiff front leg and a bent back leg after the rotation of the hips. The stiff front leg serves as a barrier to preserve all the power generated from the initial load until the swing is completed.
Now, let’s look at the position of their arms and upper bodies. As you can see, Marta and Erika are fully extended, but their upper body positions are slightly different. Erika’s upper body is in a little better power hitting position. The angle of her upper body matches the angle of her lower body, which means she is using perfect leverage to generate her prodigious power. Even though Marta is not in this classic leverage position, she still manages to consistently hit line drives with her great extension. She will eventually finish in the same powerful position as Erika.
Both Marta (left) and Erika finish their swings in the same beautiful position. They finish with the bat high and away from their bodies, which means they “let the bat finish where IT wants to finish”. Hitters who have employ rotational hitting mechanics never have to manually finish their swings. The bat will stay on a powerful path throughout the swing sequence and will finish without any intervention on the part of the hitter.
When I watch Marta and Erika hit, I marvel at their combination of power and control. Even when they are fooled by a pitch, they still maintain their swing mechanics. One reason for this control is the position of their heads. From set-up to finish, their heads are in the same position—-perfectly still, turned toward the pitcher, with both eyes focused on the pitcher’s release point and ultimately the ball.
THE FUTURE IS HERE!
Marta Gasparotto and Erika Piancastelli are more than just great players on the Italian National Softball Team. They are setting the standard for future Italian softball players. When Team Italy takes the field in Tokyo next summer, every young Italian softball player will enjoy a boost of pride that will fuel their desire to emulate the success of these softball heroes.
I love my Italian heritage, which makes me especially proud of Marta and Erika and the rest of the players and coaches on Team Italy. They will surely be great ambassadors for Italian Softball in Tokyo.
It was obvious to me back in 2015 that Marta and Erika were destined to help Team Italy do something special. We now know that representing Italy as softball returns to the Olympics was their destiny.
* This picture is courtesy of Ezio Ratti