A Primer On NCAA Softball's Illegal Pitch Problem

Sara Nevins, here making a legal pitch. What makes certain pitches illegal? And why are only some of them called?

Sara Nevins was under heavy scrutiny from the nitwit umpires in Game 1 of last weekend's Super Regional against Hofstra. She was called for a total of five illegal pitches, after having not been called for any since the opening weekend of the season. There are a lot of ways to get called for an illegal pitch, but let's focus on the most common violation of the rule. From the official NCAA softball rulebook:

10.4 STEP/STRIDE

10.4.1 In the act of delivering the pitch, the pitcher must move toward home plate by pushing off the pivot foot from the pitcher's plate, taking one step/stride forward toward home plate and landing on or within the lines of the pitcher's lane.

10.4.2 A portion of the nonpivot foot must remain in contact with the pitcher's plate at all times before beginning the forward step.

Note: If the pitcher has toed the pitcher's plate and, without stepping or sliding backward, simply drops her heel that forces her to lose contact with the pitcher's plate, there is no violation.

10.4.3 It is legal to slide the pivot foot forward or across the pitcher's plate provided contact with the pitcher's plate is maintained. Exception: Physical contact with the pitcher's plate may be lost if all of the following apply:

10.4.3.1 The pivot foot is considered to be pushing off the pitcher's plate when the pitcher, while still in contact with the pitcher's plate, turns, twists or bends her pivot foot.
10.4.3.2 If the pivot foot has not reduced the distance to home plate.
10.4.3.3 The pivot foot must remain in contact with the ground; however, rocking onto either the toe or heel is allowed.

10.4.4 Leaping is not allowed. The pitcher may not become airborne on the initial drive from the pitcher's plate. The pivot foot must slide/drag on the ground.

10.4.5 Crow hopping is not allowed. The pitcher may not replant, gain a second starting point and push off her pivot foot. Once having lost contact with the pitcher's plate, the pivot foot may trail on the ground but may not bear weight again until the pitch is released.

EFFECT-(10.4.1 to 10.4.5)-Illegal pitch. (See Rule 10.8.)

It isn't that the rule is bad or that Nevins isn't breaking it. You can see her foot sometimes lose contact with the ground as she pitches. It's that the application of this rule is incredibly inconsistent.

We obviously couldn't see every softball game USF played this season, but I think it's much more likely that Nevins got away with some illegal pitches because the umpires decided not to call them, rather than it being an issue that only cropped up again last Friday night after months of dormancy. This shouldn't be like how basketball referees wait much longer than three seconds to call a three-second violation. If it's against the rules, call it or change the rule. And if you're the NCAA, and you're serious about getting illegal pitches out of the game, don't decide to have umpires start calling it again after months of not calling it.

There's also a line of thinking that the penalty (a ball for the batter and a free base for all of the runners) is too harsh, especially if games are low scoring like they were last weekend. So it's believed that umpires won't call illegal pitches at certain times of the game, like with a runner on third or with the game on the line.

The problem now is that umpires are going to be watching Nevins' foot when she pitches. Although Nevins is a boss and Ken Eriksen has a coaching background in pitching (plus he was the chair of the NCAA's softball rules committee up until last September and presided over this very topic), I don't know if this is something that can be solved in less than a week. Between the scrutiny and the will-they-or-won't-they application of the illegal pitch rule, we may have to hold our breath more than we would like on Thursday afternoon.

(There's a lengthy and mostly interesting discussion about the illegal pitch rule on the Ultimate College Softball forums. That thread was very helpful in writing this post.)

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