Her nickname is “Giggles.” One of her hobbies listed on the Wisconsin Athletics website is laughing. That’s not exactly the personality you’d expect from a player who crushed Big Ten pitching for a .400 average just a season ago.
But the Wisconsin softball coaching staff hopes to change the at-bat demeanor and performance of junior Michelle Mueller, one of many big bats in the Badgers’ lineup that looks poised to explode onto the scene in 2013.
“I think she’s such a nice kid, but she hasn’t had that swagger necessarily and she really could,” Wisconsin head coach Yvette Healy said. “She’s a beast out there with how strong she is. She doesn’t intimidate people yet, she’s so nice. … She can be a scary hitter if she wants to, and I think that’s something that she’s embracing.”
Mueller has the frame to support the big-time swing that the Badgers are looking for. Standing at 5-foot-11 with an athletic frame, Mueller made her name in 2012 by hitting not for power but for average, consistently putting the ball in play for a .326 batting average on the year and 45 hits, a statistic that tied for the third-best total on a team that was the most successful offensively in UW history.
Going off the classic saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the Wisconsin coaching staff is reluctant to go too far in changing Mueller’s swing to one tailored for power rather than one that produced 37 singles a year ago.
“She has as much power as anybody in our program,” assistant coach Randy Schneider said. “But for us to get that power we’re going to give up her batting average a little bit. We’re going to have to let her swing away and she’s going to go back to missing the ball a little bit. But when she hits it, yeah, you’ll start seeing the kid hit home runs.
“For us it’s more of a tradeoff sabermetrically, do you want the home runs or do you want the on base? And at this stage, we just want the on base percentage.”
Mueller still put an added emphasis in the offseason on adding power to her swing. With help from her three older brothers who all played Division 1 baseball, one of whom is currently in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, the junior infielder put in the time and repetitions necessary to become stronger physically and mentally.
“I worked a lot with my brothers, doing different drills where they’d put a band around my back leg so I could feel myself going forward,” Mueller said. “Coach Schneider also got a power drive tool that we use now so you can feel when your weight goes forward. Basically, those two things and watching film have really helped.”
The extra work and focus on adding a new aspect to her offensive game have already paid dividends for the Badgers in their early part of the nonconference season. Playing No. 26 Notre Dame in the First Pitch Classic in Charlotte, N.C., on Feb. 9, Mueller showed her first sign of a newfound power.
After getting behind in the count against the Fighting Irish’s junior ace Laura Winter, the reigning 2012 Big East Pitcher of the Year, Mueller teed off on a pitch that caught the heart of the plate. The ball traveled over the 220-foot marker in center field, proving to be all the offense Wisconsin needed in a 1-0 victory.
“Coach Schneider just kept talking about how she throws a really good curveball,” Mueller said. “A couple batters before that went up were swinging at it. My goal was to just put the ball in play, especially after I got down in the count.”
“She happened to leave one over the middle of the plate, and I got a hold of it.”
Coincidentally, Mueller had actually seen Winter before, when the pair were both freshman in 2011. Notre Dame visited Wisconsin at the Goodman Diamond and blew the Badgers out 9-1.
Finishing 1-for-2 her first time against one of the country’s best up-and-coming pitchers, Mueller led the Badgers by going 2-for-2 on the day against one of the best proven arms in the nation, personifying the improvement she’s made over her three years in the program.
And although she has the seventh best average on the team currently at .313 in 2013, Mueller cites that she is gradually settling in to the adjustments of her changing swing and an added personal desire for an All-Big Ten nod and conference title in 2013.
“My batting average was up there, but I know as far as being an All-Big Ten player like Karla (Powell), like Cass (Darrah) or even like Mary (Massei) was her freshman year, I need to put up the power numbers,” Mueller said. “And that’s something the coaches have really emphasized for me.”
“I have the size to do it, I just have to figure it out and put it all together.”