When softball helped kick off the Olympics on Wednesday in Tokyo, it was a triumphant return, if only a temporary one. After a 13-year absence, the sport is making its first appearance at the Summer Games since Beijing in 2008. Softball and baseball were eliminated from the official program in the mid-2000s because of a confluence of factors, including the steroid scandal in MLB, the U.S.’s sheer dominance in softball and America’s rocky relationship with the International Olympic Committee. But softball’s reemergence in Tokyo is bringing back great memories of the four Olympic tournaments that were held from 1996 through 2008.
To celebrate the teams and players that competed in those Olympics, I calculated a rudimentary form of wins above replacement (WAR) using historical Olympic softball data from the indispensable Olympedia.org, which lists batting and pitching statistics by team for each tournament played. Batters’ WAR is based on weighted on-base average (wOBA) relative to average; pitching WAR is based on a combination of runs allowed per seven innings and fielding independent pitching (FIP), in a nod to the averaging we do for our JEFFBAGWELL WAR metric. You can find the career totals for every player in the database below:
The best all-time performance in Olympic softball belongs to American Lisa Fernandez, whose Shohei Ohtani-like excellence as both a hitter and pitcher helped the U.S. win three golds during her three tournaments with the team. At the plate, Fernandez hit .303 with a .391 wOBA, which was nearly 70 percent better than the Olympic average; on the mound, she struck out 91 batters (walking only seven), had a 0.74 FIP and allowed a miniscule 0.38 ERA. Between her 1.26 WAR as a hitter and 2.56 WAR as a pitcher, Fernandez produced 3.82 total WAR in her Olympic career, over a full win more than any other player in tournament history.
As a two-way standout, Fernandez has no peers in terms of total value. But some players are able to match her on one side of the ball or the other. Powerful hitter Crystl “The Big Bruiser” Bustos, who was Fernandez’s teammate on the 2000 and 2004 U.S. teams (and won silver on the 2008 team), is the most valuable batter in Olympic softball history, producing 14 home runs (or one every 6.1 at-bats — eat your heart out, Barry Bonds) with a .353 average and an incredible .525 wOBA, 122 percent better than the Olympic average. Bustos had 2.75 WAR as a batter, which was nearly 1.2 wins better than runner-up Natalie Titcume of Australia.
Among pitchers, the GOAT by WAR is Australia’s Tanya Harding who appeared in all four pre-2020 Olympic softball tournaments, striking out 4.2 batters for every walk and holding opponents to a 0.59 ERA in 106⅔ innings. Harding’s 2.77 career WAR edged out Fernandez by 0.21 wins, and both were clear of Japan’s Yukiko Ueno (who threw a perfect game in 2004) in third place.
In a single Olympics, the most valuable performance belongs to Fernandez in 2004, when she had a .623 wOBA with 1.01 WAR as a hitter and allowed just 0.29 runs per seven innings with 0.68 WAR as a pitcher, for a grand total of 1.68 wins above replacement:
But Fernandez was far from the Americans’ only star that year. Bustos (0.96 WAR), infielder Natasha Watley (0.77), pitcher Cat Osterman (0.66) and catcher Stacey Nuveman (0.55) also contributed at least a half-win above replacement in that tournament, with Lovie Jung (0.49), Kelly Kretschman (0.44), Lori Harrigan (0.41), Jenny Topping (0.41) and Jennie Finch (0.41) running not far behind.
Dubbed the “Real Dream Team” by Sports Illustrated, that 2004 U.S. squad was one of the most unstoppable forces in the history of the Olympics, in any sport. Including the medal round, it went a perfect 9-0 with 51 runs scored and only one run — one run! — allowed all tournament long. Fernandez allowed that lone run in the penultimate inning of the gold-medal game against Australia, meaning the Americans had scored 51 straight runs to start the tournament. (They also invoked the mercy rule on their opponents four times in their seven round-robin matches.) Led by Fernandez’s two-way brilliance, the Americans crushed any other softball team that dared stand in their way.
However, such a ruthless show of dominance set the stage for one of the Olympics’ great upsets four years later. At the Beijing games in 2008, the U.S. once again cruised through the round-robin matches, going undefeated (7-0) and outscoring opponents 53-1 while invoking the mercy rule five times. But after the U.S. beat Japan in the first semifinal 4-1, the Japanese team’s path led them back to face the Americans again for the gold medal, having won a 12-inning marathon over Australia in the bronze-medal match. Against a team they had already beaten twice by an 11-1 margin, the U.S. fell behind early and could never mount a rally against Ueno, who pitched a complete game. Japan won the game 3-1 and the gold medal, delivering the U.S. its first Olympic loss in 23 contests — and marking an end to the era of softball at the Olympics, until now.
This year’s Olympics feature a few familiar names and faces from when we last saw softball at the summer games. Among the Americans, Osterman is back for a third Olympics, and she threw six innings of one-hit ball Wednesday, striking out nine, in the Americans’ 2-0 win over Italy to open their tournament. (To surpass Harding as the No. 1 pitcher in all-time WAR, she’ll need to essentially equal the single-Olympics pitching WAR record of 1.27, set by China’s Wang Lihong in 1996.) Pitcher Monica Abbott is also back after compiling an impressive 1.05 WAR — the third-most by a pitcher in a single Olympics, trailing only Wang in 1996 and Ueno in 2008 — in Beijing last time around. Abbott picked up the save Wednesday with a three-strikeout seventh inning.
But 13 years after the last Olympic softball games were played, there are many new players to get to know — on the No. 1 ranked U.S. team, among the second-ranked hosts from Japan and playing for the rest of the world. And with that comes the opportunity to add even more data to the statistical record, ready for us to crunch the numbers on.