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Common Softball Questions

by Dave
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I receive a number of questions regarding a myriad of softball rules some of which are generic in nature and should be known by every player. Here are soime of the most common ones:

What is the infield fly rule, how is it invoked, what does it mean?

The infield fly rule is often discussed in the media as the most complex rule in sports. There is no reason to feel confused about it. It is actually quite simple.

The infield fly rule applies whenever there are runners on first and second (or all three bases) with less than two outs and the batter hits a fly ball (not a line drive or bunt) into fair territory which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort. The umpire must invoke the rule - if no umpire calls "infield fly," the rule is not invoked. It is a judgment call.

The rule is on the books in order to prevent an infielder from creating an artificial double or triple play. With bases loaded, a pitcher might allow an infield fly to drop in front of her then quickly throw the ball to the catcher who throws to third and then to second to nail the runners who stayed close to their bases in order to not be doubled up on a caught ball.

When the infield fly rule is invoked and the ball remains fair, the batter is automatically out thereby removing the force for the runners on base. Runners may advance at their own risk. There is no need for a runner on base to advance. If an infield fly is caught, runners may tag up and advance if they choose. But note that they must still tag up if the ball is caught. If a called infield fly is dropped, runners may advance without needing to return to base to tag up. Really the only thing which occurs outside the normal play is the batter is out - there is no force.

If the ball becomes foul, the rule no longer applies. For example, if the infield fly rule is invoked, a ball drifts foul, and the infielder drops the fly, the batter has merely hit a foul ball and continues with her at bat.

The best way to explain the infield fly rule, especially to younger players, is to tell your team that if the infield fly rule is called, simply return to base and wait to see if the ball is caught. If it is dropped and it rolls away from the fielders, advance to the next base if your coach tells you to go. Aside from this, very little time needs to be spent understanding this "most complex" of all sports rules.

What is the pitcher's circle, what is it for, is there anything a pitcher must do or not do when she is inside the circle?

The pitcher's circle is a a circular area with an 8 foot radius measured from the center of the front edge of the pitcher's plate (rubber).

Generally the line will be chalked on the field at the beginning of the game but even if it is not, an umpire can use his or her judgment to gauge whether or not a pitcher is standing within the circle. As a general matter with respect to all lines on the field, a player's foot is said to be inside a line when any part of it is on the line. A pitcher is inside the pitcher's circle when both feet are inside the line. For this reason a pitcher standing with both her feet on the line is standing inside the circle.

The pitcher's circle as far as I can tell exists exclusively as a basis for the look-back rule. The look-back rule refers to the requirement that a runner on base not "dance around" while the pitcher is inside the circle. For example, when a batter gets a hit and rounds first base, if the pitcher is in possession of the ball within the circle, the runner must either advance towards second base or immediately return to first. She cannot juke back and forth in order to draw a throw. If the runner continues to change direction towards first, then second, the umpire may call her out. Likewise if she stops between bases waiting for the pitcher to throw to a fielder, as sometimes happens between pitches, and the pitcher is in possession of the ball within the circle, the runner may be called out by the umpire.

There are no additional rules with respect to anything a pitcher may or may not do while she is inside the circle. There is no reason for any such rule because other rules control the pitcher's behavior. For example, regardless of where the pitcher is standing, she is required to pitch within a specified period of time after receiving the throw back from the catcher or after the umpire declares "play ball." Rules governing use of a rosin bag make no mention of the pitcher's circle. Rules governing going to one's mouth or wiping one's hands with infield dirt likewise make no mention of the pitcher's circle.

The pitcher is not prohibited from throwing the ball to any fielder from within the circle the way she is if her foot is in contact with the pitcher's plate. There are no rules which prohibit a pitcher delivering a pitch to not step outside the circle but there are prohibitions against her crow-hopping during a pitch which I will cover shortly. If a pitcher has a long stride which exceeds 8 feet and she ends up stepping outside the circle, the pitch is not illegal due to her stepping outside the circle.

As with any line on the field, no player may purposely kick dirt on the chalk in order to obscure the line. And as I said a few moments ago, even if no line is visible, the circle still theoretically exists - the umpire uses his or her judgment of where the line is.

What is "crow hopping" and why is it prohibited?

There are really two meanings for the term "crow hopping." A fielder is said to be "crow hopping" when she picks up the ball and takes that little hop while preparing to throw. The second meaning of crow hopping is rather like the first and involves a similar move by the pitcher making a pitch. Crow hopping by fielders is not prohibited. "Crow hopping" by a pitcher making a pitch is illegal.

There is a general requirement that a pitcher not hop (noth feet off the ground) while engaged in the pitching motion. Generally a pitcher is required to keep her pivot foot (the foot she pushes off with) on the ground, dragging it forward as she strides toward homeplate. In practice this is seldom enforced. But when a pitcher actually leaps forward, replants her pivot foot and pushes off with it as she releases the ball, this is clearly an illegal "crow hop." The reason this is prohibited is it effectively gives the pitcher an opportunity to pitch from a much closer range than she would otherwise. For example, in NCAA play where the pitcher's plate is 43 feet from the back of home plate, if a pitcher "crow hops" towards home where her front foot lands about at the line of the pitcher's circle and her back foot lands a normal distance in back of that, she is effectively pitching from a distance of 38 feet. It is hard enough to hit a legally pitched ball thrown from 43 feet. Hitting a 65 mph pitch from 38 feet is near impossible as it roughly equates to a 103 mph fastball at major league baseball distance!

Why do I hear people saying "never make the first or third out at third base?" What do coaches mean when they say "never advance from second (with no force) when the ball is hit in front of you, always advance if it is hit in back of you?"

Base running is as much art as it is science but you often hear coaches refer to "golden rules" such as never make the first or third out at third base. If you are at second base with no outs, it should be a simple matter for the next batter to sacrifice you over to third from which you can score on a sacrifice fly with one out. Also, there is little advantage to taking a gamble and make third with two outs since you cannot score on that same sacrifice fly. These are "golden rules" taken from baseball. The first is an absolute whether in baseball or softball. The second one is less applicable in softball since, arguably, second base is not quite the same "scoring position" it is in baseball. Girls often have difficulty scoring from second on base hits straight at outfielders. In baseball, I judge that 75% of runners on second score on the typical base hit but in softball that percentage is probably more like 40% or less depending on what level you play. So the golden rule in softball is never make the first out at third and try to not make the third out there unless your base coach is egging you on!

With respect to base running with grounders while you are on second when there is no force, it is best to pre-program yourself to freeze if the ball is hit in front of you. There is no need to get a jump from second when the ball is hit into leftfield - chances are pretty good you will not be scoring unless the ball gets past the fielder. And you should be able to make third if the ball gets through unless the leftfielder is playing very close in which case a jump is probably not going to help you much. The best approach is to leave second when the ball is released by the pitcher, freeze if it is hit in front of you, and make for third if the fielder throws on to first. You have a perfect view of the fielder when the ball is hit in front of you. Chances are pretty good that nobody has had time to cover second so the fielder is unlikely to throw back at your base and risk not getting any out on the play. You wait to see the fielder make the throw and then take off for third.

It is also a pretty fair idea to pre-program yourself to always run when the ball is hit in back of you (but don't forget to never make the first or third out at third!). And there are different rules for very slow runners like me - never run unless you are forced to or one of the coaches is screaming at you to go. The throw from a second baseman or first baseman to third is very hard when a runner from second is sliding into the bag. If there is one out, you are on second and a grounder is hit behind you, the worst case scenario is you will be thrown out trying to advance to a position from which you can score on a sac fly - that's aggressive softball and nobody should crucify you for being aggressive.

Why should a batter always be told to take a pitch when the count is 3-0 and told to be prepared to swing when it is 0-2?

You often hear somebody grumbling in the stands because a batter facing 3-0 takes a strike down the middle of the plate. That's the best pitch she's gonna get. Why should she just automatically take it? The theory is that the pitcher has immense pressure to throw a good pitch and the batter is likely to smash the ball out of the park on a perfect pitch. Actually the truth is that if the pitcher is having trouble getting the ball over, chances are pretty good that she will not groove one even if she tries to pitch it down the middle. The batter also has far too much pressure to smash it if she expects the pitch to be perfect. She is better off just letting the pitcher get the ball over once and then looking to the next pitch to be a strike she can drive.

But when the count is 3-0, please do not school your girls to pretend to be bunting. For one thing it is very much "bush league" to do this. Boys usually only engage in this kind of behavior until the age of 10. After that, chances become greater that the pitcher will figure he's gonna walk a batter anyway so there's no harm in hitting him in the head with the next pitch. But that's not the only reason to not pretend you are going to bunt. When you get a free chance to examine the pitcher's motion and watch a free pitch come into the strike zone, this is a chance for learning. The batter gets a free pass to learn the strike zone while also gauging the pitcher. Assume your normal hitting position and imagine yourself taking a swing even though you know you are not going to so much as flinch. Focus on the pitcher's release and the movement of the ball. Don't be bush league and miss an opportunity to study a pitcher.

When the count is 0-2, a batter must assume the next pitch will be a strike. She must learn to "protect the plate." The reason is that most pitchers are not good at "wasting one" by throwing outside the strike zone and thereby making the batter swing at a bad pitch. Even top level pitchers who waste one usually throw it obviously outside the zone which is easy to hold up on. You want to be aware of this and not swing at a ball a foot outside and over your head but you must expect a strike. Typically when a pitcher tries to waste one on 0-2 and she misses badly, this will throw her off her rhythm. The pitch following a bad waste pitch is usually a mistake that is too good. So by being prepared to swing on 0-2 and letting a really bad one good by, you really improve your position even though you are still down in the count.

If the pitch is in or even near the zone on 0-2, you must be prepared to swing because umpires typically cut the pitcher more slack on 0-2. Umpires are, after all, people too and they don't often sympathize much with batters who take too many close pitches. This becomes more true depending on game situations. The umpire who just wants the inning to end so they can get a drink of water is more apt to call a strike on 0-2 with two outs. If the pitcher has been owning the batters all day, the umpire is generally going to give a few her way because he or she subliminally thinks she deserves it. If one team has not hit a ball the whole game and been taking a ton of called third strikes, you gotta figure the ump is going to give the pitcher the edge when it comes to calls.

Conclusion

Softball is a thinking girl's game. You need to know the important rules of the game whether those are actual rules from the rule book or "golden rules" which other players seem to know. If you want to be a big time player, you need to know the answers to these few questions we have addresses above.


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