O'Connell pitcher Jilly Falle delivers a pitch last season from a plate 40 feet from home. This season, the plate is moved back 3 feet. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)
March 20, 2011

A rule change in place this season to make the pitcher’s plate in high school softball the same distance from home plate as the NCAA is expected to have a wide-ranging impact on the game, and area coaches and players have decidedly mixed opinions on the move.

High school ruling bodies across the nation have adopted the National Federation of State High School Associations’s recommendation to move the pitching plate from 40 to 43 feet from home to conform with the dimensions of the NCAA and major travel-ball organizations, including the Amateur Softball Association of America (ASA).

The reason for the move is to take some of the edge away from softball pitchers, who have had the ability to dominate their sport like few positions in any other can.

“It’s become more of a hitter’s game,” said Kaitlyn Schmeiser, a second-team All-Met pitcher for defending Maryland 3A champion Northern. “And it’s a whole new dynamic. At 43, it’s not all about speed; it’s about the movement [on the pitch]. It’s definitely going to make things more interesting.”

The elite softball pitchers have been able to throw in the low- to mid-60s, which, from 40 feet, is tantamount to a baseball batter facing a pitch in the mid- to upper-90s from 60 feet 6 inches.

With softball games lasting only seven innings, batters have fewer chances to pick up a dominant pitcher’s delivery and speed, and can often not have enough at-bats to adjust before the game is over. It’s why seeing a pitcher record 17 or 18 of the game’s 21 outs by strikeout is not uncommon.

“What we saw [in preseason scrimmages] was the ball put in play more,” Northern Coach Robert Earl Radford said, “so it puts a premium on defense.”

By forcing the pitcher to throw an extra three feet, however, the rules now afford batters an extra split-second to see the ball’s movement, and prevent the pitcher from simply relying on speed.

“Even girls throwing from 43, they’re hoping they’ll get more movement on the ball,” said Chesapeake Coach Don Ellenberger, whose team won the Maryland 4A title in 2007 and ‘08. “If they do, they’ll be fine. If not, they’re going to get hit. Bunts are going to be different because now you might start to see people bunting it back to the pitcher because they have more room.”

The NFHS had deliberated this move for more than a decade, according to Mary Struckoff, NFHS assistant director and liaison to the Softball Rules Committee. She said it was initially proposed because the NCAA established the distance as 43 feet more than a decade ago.

Struckoff said the NFHS went to the NCAA for a rationale for its rules change and was told it was done to prompt offense and get defenses more involved.

“That was our ‘a-ha’ moment,” Struckoff said. “It sounded good in conversation, but what would be the impact to our average players?”

Among long-time area softball coaches, this is where the division comes regarding the rule change. While some say it adequately prepares players for college, only a handful continue their careers after high school.

“We’re incorporating women’s rules and these are still girls,” said O’Connell Coach Tommy Orndorff. “It’s a big jump. Good programs have had good pitching along, so they won’t have a problem adjusting. But with other programs, you’re going to see more scoring. Now, at 43 feet, it won’t be surprising to see 21-18 games.”

Schools in Florida and Oregon tried it for a year within the past five years and the NFHS examined data subsequently to find that it did exactly what it had hoped - generate more offense and get more action for the seven players in the field.

“The feedback we’ve gotten is the average pitcher is making the adjustment,” Struckoff said. “She may not be as proficient right away, and it might take some conditioning, but they eventually catch on.”

After learning for much of their development about the need for perfecting technique, pitchers may discover this season that strength might be their biggest obstacle in adjusting.

“You’ve got to be pretty strong to throw a curveball 43 feet,” West Potomac Coach Craig Maniglia said. “It’s helped the hitters out tremendously. All your breaking balls, you’d been throwing to break at 38, 40 feet, and now if it breaks at 38 feet it’s going to be in the dugout.”

Special correspondent Greg Schimmel contributed to this report

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