February 19, 2010 10:23:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The distance — three feet — is negligible.
At one or two steps, most players travel that distance countless times in the blink of an eye during a game.
But that three feet could turn out to play a big difference in Mississippi High School Activities Association fast-pitch softball this season.
MHSAA teams will play on fields with pitching rubbers at 43 feet. Last year, the pitching rubbers were at 40 feet. It might take a blink of eye to cover the added three feet, but any added time players get to see pitches could help give them an advantage at the plate.
For pitchers, the new distance means figuring out a way to get their pitches to rise, to curve, or to drop out of the hitting zone.
How the change will affect state teams, many of which will play classic games the next two weekends, remains to be seen. Some coaches feel the new distance could help hitters, while some believe it won’t impact the game.
“It should affect hitting in that we should be able to hit better, but we’re not seeing it at the moment,” New Hope High School coach Tabitha Beard said. “It is going to slow the pitching down some. That could be a good thing for the hitters, and I am hoping it will take away those teams that have dominating pitchers.”
Beard said she is concerned some of the younger pitchers aren’t ready to make a jump to 43 feet. She said some of the younger pitchers recently competed from rubbers 35 feet away, and an eight-foot jump could be a lot for them to handle. She said older pitchers should be stronger so the change shouldn’t affect them as much.
Beard said everyone in the state knew the rule change was in the works and that it would happen. In June, the National Federation of State High School Associations Softball Rules Committee decided to move pitching rubbers from 40 to 43 feet effective with the 2010-11 school year. The change was one of four rules revisions approved by the NFHS Board of Directors in July. States were allowed to make the changes for this season, and Mississippi decided to put the rule into effect for 2009-10.
Getting the defense more involved in the game was the rationale behind the change.
“When more balls are hit into play, the defense is more involved in a game, thus enhancing skill development,” said Mary Struckhoff, NFHS assistant director and liaison to the Softball Rules Committee.
Beard is more concerned she will have only 19 days from the start of practice Feb. 8 to get her team prepared to play its season opener on Feb. 27. She said teams traditionally had a month and a half to prepare for the start of the season. And while many fast-pitch softball teams weren’t at full strength early in the year because of basketball season, she feels less practice time could impact teams at the start of this season.
New Hope High’s Lauren Holifield and D.J. Sanders pitched from 40 feet as members of the varsity team last season. Each pitcher had time in the summer to adjust to the change.
In fact, Sanders, an eighth-grader, works with a pitching coach who moved her back at 43 feet last year. Holifield, a freshman, moved back to 43 feet a short time later, and both said they don’t feel the added distance will affect them.
“I think it is going to affect a little bit with speed, but it is only three feet, so I don’t think it will affect it that much,” Holifield said.
Said Sanders, “It probably will only affect me in hitting. Hopefully my hitting will get better.”
Mississippi State softball coach Jay Miller, who also serves as the coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team, doesn’t believe the change will affect the game.
“After two weeks I don’t think anybody will notice a difference,” Miller said. He said fast-pitch softball has been through the change at the international and college levels as well as the 16- and 18-and-under travel ball levels. In each case, he said there has been little difference in the results of games. He said a few more balls might be put into play, a few less strikeouts might be recorded, but that’s about it.
“The good pitchers are still going to be good, the bad pitchers are still going to be bad, and the average pitchers are still going to be average,” Miller said.
Miller said it wasn’t the intention for high schools to be one of the last levels to implement the change. He said the National Federation of High Schools usually is quick to act when changes to the game involve safety, like facemasks for helmets or the use of metal cleats. He said the NFHS typically is a “follower” when it comes to most other rule changes. He said coaches, players, and parents shouldn’t worry about what pitching from three feet back will do because it is a “fairly easy change and a relatively easy thing to do.”
E.T. Colvin, the president for the Amateur Softball Association in the state of Mississippi, said the change was designed to give pitchers a smoother transition to college, where the pitching rubber already is at 43 feet. He said many of the age-group pitchers should be adjusted to the new distance by the time they are ready to play in college.
This season, Colvin doesn’t feel the change will be a big deal.
“Ultimately it will help the better pitchers if they know how to move the ball,” Colvin said. “If they know how to move ball up down and in and out an extra three feet will allow them to put more movement on the ball.”
Colvin said one benefit that could result in pitchers having to throw from 43 feet is that they will have to add other pitches to their repertoire. He said the added distance will make it difficult for pitchers to rely solely on fastballs or changeups because hitters will have a little more time to look at those pitches.
East Webster High coach Ken Williamson hasn’t seen much difference now that his pitchers are throwing from 43 feet. Williamson, who was an assistant coach to Bill Brand last season in the team’s march to a state title, shares the sentiment of many coaches who feel the change will help hitters the most.
“It has got to help the hitting game,” Williamson said. “I think that was the purpose behind the change. It was also a safety issue.”
East Webster will play this weekend at a tournament in Eupora. It will play in another preseason tournament in Oxford next weekend before opening its season. The tournaments will feature four-inning games, and pitchers will be allowed to throw only two innings.
That should work out well for the Lady Wolverines, who have four to six pitchers. Williamson said three of those pitchers are seventh-graders. He doesn’t believe the young pitchers will have a problem moving to 43 feet.
Williamson said juniors Swayze Hollenhead, who played third base last season, and Cayley McClelland figure to be his team’s top two pitchers. He expects seventh-grader Celia Tate and freshman Bailey Williams to see a bulk of their innings at the junior varsity level.
Williamson feels the change won’t affect many pitchers because they already play a lot of games with their travel ball teams in the summer. He said that experience gave those pitchers valuable experience and time to adapt to the change.
Still, it remains to be seen how much of an impact the three feet will have on the game.
“We kind of noticed our hitters making more contact (in practice),” Williamson said. “Maybe putting more balls in play is one thing we will be looking at, but I wouldn’t think three feet will make that big of a difference.”
Like Beard, Williamson thinks the later start time for the beginning of practice could play a bigger role, especially early on. He said his team lost three days due to bad weather since the start of practice Feb. 8 and had to move inside.
Williamson also said East Webster is hurt because its players don’t have the luxury of having an athletic period the last class of the day, which has limited their practice time even more. He said he isn’t sure why the start of practice was moved back, especially considering the state finals, which will be played May 22, a
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.