By Greg Johnson
The NCAA Softball Rules Committee used its annual meeting last month to discuss possibly changing the penalties for illegal pitches.
The issue was in the limelight for most of the season but attracted even greater attention at the 2010 Women’s College World Series when numerous illegal-pitch violations were called. Pitchers are not allowed to leap (have both feet off the ground) while delivering at pitch – and greater enforcement of the longstanding rule was apparent at all three softball national championships.
Currently, when an illegal pitch is called, a ball is added to the count on the batter and any base runners advance one base. That is consistent among softball rules for international, collegiate and recreational play.
The committee discussed lessening the penalty, though, by allowing base runners to advance only after a team’s fifth illegal pitch of the game. The change could have unintended consequences, however, since the “leap” is only one of several ways a pitch can be ruled illegal.
“There was some concern that the awarding a ball on the count and allowing a base to the runners was too much of a game-changing effect,” said Ken Eriksen, committee chair and softball coach at South Florida.
Since the WCWS is the pinnacle of the collegiate game – and the most widely publicized games because of ESPN’s extensive coverage – the issue spawned varied opinions, from changing the penalty to ramping up enforcement and making that enforcement more consistent throughout the regular season.
“In certain parts of the country, the rule was called consistently,” said Eriksen, who is an assistant coach for Team USA, which won its seventh straight world championship last week. “We’ve given everyone an opportunity to change and we’ve told the coaches that it is time to change. But as it turned out, it appeared to come down heavier because people saw it called in the Women’s College World Series.
“The bottom line is at all levels, we need to do a better job of teaching pitchers the correct mechanics.”
The committee also discussed preliminary results from the NCAA bat compliance program and the transition from the new voluntary pre-competition barrel compression testing (BCT) to next year’s expanded and mandatory BCT program, including possible penalties for non-compliance.
Members also talked about possibly eliminating “composite” bats from the collegiate game. The softball rules committee historically has supported manufacturer autonomy to make bats from a variety of substances, as long as performance does not result in batted-ball exit speeds greater than 98 mph.
However, softball composite bats “break in” and improve with use, so controlling their effect on performance has proved challenging. The committee reviewed injury statistics, which have not changed substantially, and offensive statistics, which have seen significant growth, possibly because of changes in bat performance.
In Division I, for example, home runs per game have risen from .38 in 2002 to an all-time high of .64 this season. Division I softball teams also scored an all-time high 4.19 runs per game in 2010. Last year’s average was 3.98.
“We’re in a unique era in our game right now in terms of equipment,” Eriksen said. “We need to get a handle on this, because you don’t want to see student-athletes’ performances change due to anything besides their own ability. We’re trying to do is find a consistent area where everybody is swinging the same type of equipment. We want the equipment from team to team to be the same in performance standards.”
The committee did not take any action on the matter this year, partly because this year’s meeting was in the off-year of the committee’s two-year playing rules cycle.
The committee did approve a rules interpretation that requires a fielder to maintain possession of the ball when touching the base with the ball on force plays.
For example, if a fielder touches the ball to a forced base in advance of the runner, the fielder must maintain the possession of the ball for the runner to be called out, similar to when a fielder makes a catch and immediately collides with another player, umpire or the fence or falls to the ground – she must maintain possession of the ball for the play to be ruled an out.
This interpretation is different than most other bat-ball rule codes but provides consistency in maintaining possession of the ball, whether the play is a catch, force or tag play.