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43 Feet!

by Dave
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Those of you who have read this blog before know that in addition to skills, practice sessions, etc., I also like to inject my opinions regarding rule interpretations and changes.   This piece is of the rule change opinion variety.   Today I would like to talk about pitching distance.   Specifically, I believe all high school ball as well as 18U and 16U youth play should be pitched from 43 feet and I'm willing to back up my opinions with some facts and points to ponder.   Here goes:

First of all I would like to begin with some math and biological realities.   If we examine human reaction time and pitching distance, then factor in the landing point after leg drive and before ball release, and then take a look at various pitching speeds, we have a decent view of just how demanding this game can be on the batter.   If we add to this equation the pitcher's distance from contact point of a hit ball as well as the general speed of a well hit ball, we see that the batter is not the only person concerned with reaction time.   While doing this, I would like to draw some comparisons to baseball just as a reference point.

Human reaction time is roughly 200-230 milliseconds (.20 - .23 seconds).   World class athletes can train themselves to develop faster speeds of around .15 seconds.   Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that a reasonable reaction time for a fully mature, well trained high school athlete - not a world class one - is around .175 seconds, well below the low point for the average person.

(Before I get into pitch speeds, let me apologize for an error I have been making for about 2 decades.   Somewhere along the way I began making the mistake of portraying 60 mph as equivalent to 66 feet per second.   Obviously, that's wrong.   The proper ration is 1 mph is equal to 1.4667 feet per second.   All articles on this blog following this one will be referred to as ADVC (after Dave's velocity correction) and all previous posts are DDIP (during Dave's idiocy period).   OK, back to the analysis.)

Let's assume that a high school varsity pitcher hurls around 55-60 mph.   Obviously, some throw faster and some throw slower but I need to fix a point so as not to get too complicated.   60 is good, 55 very average to slow.   Some reach 65 and even higher but I'll only mention those kinds of power briefly.   Let's also assume a 6 foot leg drive.   8 is great but 6 is common.   That makes the pitching distance, from release to plate, 34 to 37 feet, depending on whether the plate is at 40 or 43 feet away.   At 55 mph from 40 feet, the ball arrives in .42 seconds.   At 43 feet, it gets there in .46.   If you up the pitch speed to 60, you get .38 seconds and .42, at 40 and 43, respectively.   That means the difference in reaction time for the additional 3 feet is about .04 of a second.   It is actually a little less than that but I've rounded the numbers for simplicity.

Now .04 of a second doesn't seem like a lot but when you consider a reaction time of .175, that forty milliseconds increases the time the batter has to react by about one fifth.   Using my rounded numbers, it works out to about 28%.   But if you want use the real numbers, without rounding, your result will be a difference of about 19% - 21%.   That's significant.   If you had 20% more time to sleep, that would be almost an extra two hours.   If you had 20% more time each week, you'd have that extra day and a half you're always wishing you did!

Now let's draw a comparison between baseball and softball just to get a benchmark regarding reaction time.   Assuming a high school varsity baseball pitcher throws around 80 - 85 and leg drives out 6 feet, the net pitching distance is 54 feet and the time the ball takes to get to the plate is between .46 seconds and .43 seconds for 80 mph and 85, respectively.   That means a 55 mph softball pitcher, average at best, gives the hitter less time to react (.42 seconds) than an 80 mph hour baseball pitcher (.46 seconds).   Actually a 55 mph softball pitcher gives the hitter just a little more than an 85 mph baseball pitcher.   A 60 mph softball pitcher is right around where a 95 mph baseball pitcher is.

I suggest to you that a 95 mph baseball pitcher is a far rarer commodity than a 60 mph softball windmiller.   In baseball's major leagues, there are a select couple of guys (maybe 2 or 3) who can bring it anywhere over 95, once in a while breaking 100 on a legitimate gun.   There's a slightly larger handful who gun in around 95.   And the vast majority live between 88 and 92 when they reach mid-season form in June.   The vast majority of NCAA Division I Women's College World Series pitchers were at or above 60.   By comparison, in the men's college championships, there weren't many guys who broke 90.   Most threw in the mid-80s.

Of course speed isn't everything in pitching but we are examining reaction time here.   And, if an average high school softball pitcher gives the hitter no more time to judge the ball and swing than does an above average college baseball pitcher, there might be something wrong with the structure of the game.   That's even before we take into account the natural differences between men and women.

When you move the pitching distance back to 43 feet, the results are telling.   A 60 mph softball pitch at 43 feet is somewhere between close to an 88 mph baseball pitch.   A 55 mph softball pitch is close to an 81 mph baseball pitch.   I believe this is a more appropriate parallel.

Please don't think that I am trying to make girls fastpitch softball more like baseball.   I'm not.   As a baseball fan, you might call me a purest.   I love pitching duels.   While I don't disagree that the moves baseball has made in the interests of bringing more offense to the game have made it more exciting, I still remember fondly the days of the 2 hour, 2 - 1 baseball classic game.   But as a general rule, softball remains far too dominated by pitching.   You've got 9 ladies on the field.   Why should one get 80% of the credit or blame for the outcome of the game?

A few years ago we frequented the games of a local NPF team.   One day game we went to had just a couple hits and ended 2 - 1 within less than 2 hours from start to finish.   That was a pretty good game so we decided we would come back the following night.   Even though it was a night game, with just a two hour duration, we figured the kids would get to bed before 10:00 so they'd only be out a little sleep.   But something got in the way and we didn't go to the game.   That was lucky because it lasted well into the wee morning hours, eventually ending after more than 20 innings, 1 - 0, I believe on an error.   That would have been a classic but the following game was similarly low scoring.   So was the next one and the next one, and so on.   There aren't many high scoring NPF games.   The same can be said of college and high school.   But at least in college games, there is the chance of an offensive explosion.   The 2005 WCWS championship series in which Michigan came back by hitting some home runs was the most exciting softball I have ever seen.

In the many high school games I have watched, one team scoring a single run IS an offensive explosion.   I've never seen so much as a 5 - 4 game in high school when the teams are evenly matched.   Last year I watched a local high school championship game pitting two pretty good teams against each other.   Both had good pitchers, though underclassmen.   And both sported some of the best hitters in the county.   But the hitters batting averages took a hit as, I believe, there were only two or three hits in the entire game.   The thing remained scoreless well into the ITB innings.   Finally, one team took the championship when the initial runner at second stole third and the catcher made an error allowing the runner to score.   That was an exciting game and I wouldn't change it per se, but that represents much of our experience in watching high school games.   There isn't much offense - not nearly as much as comparable levels of baseball.

Pitching duels make both baseball and softball more exciting to me, the purest, but as I said before, a pitching duel should be a classic - somewhat rare.   Only the extreme top-level pitchers should be able to accomplish, say, a perfect game, no-hitter, or shutout more than once or twice in a year.   As it is, this is a far too common occurrence in fastpitch softball.

The next item I would like to turn to is pitcher safety.   There are two schools of thought on this.   The first says the pitcher is provided greater safety by being back 3 feet from the batter.   The second claims the pitcher is in more danger because the advantage the batter has gained by the move back.   They say the batters will hit the ball more sharply which poses a greater danger to the pitcher.   I suppose that is true since you don't need to do the math to realize that the batter has gained more reaction time to the 60 mph pitch than the pitcher has gained when you consider the well hit ball is probably around 98 mph.   But here's the thing.   A 98 mph hit ball takes just .24 seconds to hit the pitcher after pushing off from 40 and landing 34 feet from home while it takes .26 seconds if she pitched from 43.   .24 is just too close to the average human reaction time for me.   That extra .02 (8%) reaction time is worth having even if it needs to be used more frequently.

Florida high schools experimented with the 43 foot distance during the 2006 season.   I'm not sure what their findings pointed to or if they are going to continue using it.   But I assume they are since I've heard nothing about them abandoning it.   And there are other considerations I have with respect to using the further distance.

When I was a young boy, we played baseball on a diamond on which the distance between bases was 60 feet and from the rubber to the plate was 46 feet.   I think it was at 12U when the pitching distance was moved back to 55 and the bases to 75.   Then at 13, we played on a regulation diamond - the same size as the professionals used.   When I got involved with girls youth softball I was surprised to learn that beginning at age 9, girls use the full base distance - the same as the pros, but pitch from 35 feet.   What struck me was that the base distance was full right away.   I thought it should be shorter.   I didn't think much about the pitching distance being close.   Then at 12U, I was surprised that the distance went back to 40 feet and that didn't change until college.   I agreed that at 12U, you needed to have the pitcher back to 40 since the batters wouldn't have any chance from 35.   But it struck me as odd that pitchers would pitch at this distance for say 6 years until age 18 or 19 when they went to college.   Why do high school freshman boys play at pro distance while girls play at a middle one?

In terms of what this difference means to boys and girls, consider that pro baseball scouts evaluate buys playing high school baseball while college softball scouts have to either go only to ASA Gold (where 43 feet is used) or try to make mental adjustments when evaluating all girls not in ASA Gold.   I know full well that college scouts do go to ASA Gold and are disinclined to view high school games since their season is in full swing during the HS season.   But even the stats from HS are made invalid since it uses the 40 feet distance.   And girls who play HS ball have to make the continual adjustment to pitching from 40 feet in the spring to 43 feet the rest of the year.   That's a bit unreasonable in my book.

You may be of a mind that the best girls can make this adjustment between distances without that much effort, but why should they have to?   I've seen top level pitchers struggle with it.   It isn't so much that they can't make the distance or they have to change location to deal with the added time opposing batters have.   It is a matter of perfecting pitches.   A 60 mph pitch takes a half second to reach home.   During that half second, gravity causes the ball's trajectory to fall.   At the end of that half second, the ball's trajectory is moving towards the Earth at a speed of 16 mph.   The additional .03 of second the pitch takes to arrive when thrown from 43 feet causes the final resting point to drop by 6 inches.   That makes a strike at the knees into an obvious ball and a pitch otherwise at the nose into a strike at the letters.   Any pitcher who has struggled to get the dropball to graze the bottom of the zone can tell you how difficult it is to move back even a foot and not bounce it in front of the plate.

The same sort of analysis needs to be applied to sideways movement as is applied to downward movement.   A screwball on the inside corner becomes a ball when you move back 3 feet and throw it the way you have the past couple of months.   Drop curves can bounce outside the catcher's reach.   Riseballs go up and out of the zone.   Etc., etc.   It takes a substantial amount of time for pitchers who already spend a lot of time to acclimate to different distances.   Your whole release point for each pitch changes.

It isn't only the pitchers who have to adjust their pitches when the distance jumps from 40 to 43 and then back again.   The batters have to adjust as well.   A batter sees a pitch as flat to them.   That's because our incredibly capable brains adapt to the natural arc of the ball.   To see what I mean, get in the cage against a slow pitcher and then a fast one.   Check and see the manner in which you missed when you swung.   Most often a person adjusting to faster pitching will swing under the pitch.   That is because in addition to adjusting to the speed, you have to account for the difference in the arc.   Your brain expects the pitch to drop more than it does.   This is why using a pitching machine in a confined space is inadvisable.   You can adjust the speed the ball is pitched to reflect the shorter distance but that changes the arc - it's different from a pitched ball.   We once ran a batting practice for girls who were used to slow pitching.   We had a very fast pitcher but the girls couldn't hit her.   They came to time it OK but they always swung under the pitch.   So we moved the pitcher back a few feet and they hit her fine.   Their timing was no better but they judged ball location better.

When it comes to being evaluated by college coaches, girls who play on a field with 43 feet pitching distance regularly and who don't have to continually make adjustments have a decided advantage.   That's probably as true for hitters as it is for pitchers.   43 feet provide more time for hitters to react to pitches and this gives the game more offense, making 9 players almost equally responsible for success or failure.   Pitchers also get more time to react, however small, and that's worth doing for safety reasons.   There's no valid reason to turn an average high school pitcher into the equivalent of an above average high school baseball pitcher.   The truly exceptional should and will standout if the pitching distance is moved back to 43 feet.   And while moving the distance back won't make school ball play more valid to college coaches who don't have time to come watch, it will make the relative statistical success of high school pitchers more valid when evaluating candidates.

I started this conversation by saying, "I believe all high school ball as well as 18U and 16U youth play should be pitched from 43 feet."   I've addressed high school broadly.   So I better at least mention 16U and 18U.   First of all, ASA Gold level play already pitches from 43 feet.   I'm not sure I get why ASA "A" or "B" should be at a different distance since it presumably has girls who aspire to Gold.   PONY changed its championship distance to 43 feet for this year's nationals.   But they allow tournament directors of national qualifiers to determine for themselves whether to use 40 or 43.   It would be more valid if these qualifiers were pitched from 43.   Ideally, all kinds (ASA, NSA, FAST, Little League, etc.) of 18U play ought to be pitched from the same distance.   Boys youth baseball at 18U doesn't involve multiple pitching distances.   That's because the results of it would be absurd.   Girls should be treated similarly.

Boys and girls age at different rates from each other.   Girls mature more quickly.   And if we make 13 year old boys pitch from 60 feet, 6 inches, why do girls pitch from a closer location than their older cohorts?   I won't go as far as to say that 13 year olds ought to pitch from 43 feet but that's only because I want to focus on the older girls first.   Just about every girl playing 16U who also plays school ball competes with 18 year olds.   For that reason, they shouldn't be excluded from the 43 distance anymore than freshman baseball ought to be thrown from 55.

So, there you have it.   Today's diatribe is my advocacy of a uniform 43 feet pitching distance for all fastpitch softball over the age of 14.   You can write me to explain why this shouldn't be but there is no need to do so if you'd like to see 14U pitched from the same distance - so would I.   If you are a pitcher or pitcher's parents reading this, take one thing away from it.   If you truly aspire to one day play Gold level ball, you are going to have to practice your pitching from 43 feet.   You shouldn't bounce back and forth since that will mess up your location but you ought to consider deciding a time when you will begin throwing from the longer distance.   And give yourself a couple months to make the adjustment.   Best of luck to all!

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