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Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

The NCAA has again adjusted its obstruction rule, reduced the illegal pitch penalty, adopted three experimental speed-up rules from last fall and brought back the three-foot running lane line among the many new rulings and rule changes for the 2018-19 seasons.

Those rule changes and more were approved by the NCAA Softball Rules Committee and the Playing Rules Oversight Panel in August in Indianapolis.

Thanks to NCAA Secretary-Rules Editor Vickie Van Kleeck for reviewing the material.

Obstruction (9.5.1) 

The reference “in the act of catching” has been deleted from the obstruction rule. The rule now states that a defensive player must have possession of the ball before she can “be positioned between the runner and the base/plate.”

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“There is still an element of judgment (for the umpires),” said Van Kleeck. “You can’t officiate any sport, I believe, without an element of judgment. The important thing is that the defender cannot set up between the base and runner without the ball.”

The rationale is to allow a baserunner a clear path to the base if the defensive player is receiving a throw and does not have possession of the ball in her glove or hand. Defensive players can no longer cause the runner to alter her path to the base by blocking the base/plate or basepath without the ball. The rule change removes the vague notion of “in the act of catching” the ball. 

“We felt that by making the defender have possession of the ball before blocking the base, plate — or in the basepath — it makes it a little clearer whether the defender is obstructing the runner,” said Rich Calvert, committee chair and coach at Drake University.

Obstruction occurs when a defensive player, not in possession of the ball or in the act of fielding a batted ball, impedes a batter’s attempt to make contact with a pitch or impedes the progress of any runner who is legally running the bases on a live ball. It can be intentional or unintentional. It is obstruction if a defensive player is blocking the whole base/plate or basepath without the ball and/or the runner does not have a clear path to the base/plate. Obstruction can occur on a force or tag play.

“In past years, coaches taught their players to block the base, catch the ball and make the tag,” said Van Kleeck, a former longtime coach at Ferrum (Va.) College. “Now defensive players must catch the ball, block the base and make the tag.

“We didn’t make this change because Major League Baseball and NCAA baseball have this language. Baserunners have a right to get to a base.”

The previous obstruction rule stated that the defender could block the plate or base if she was in the act of catching the ball. The committee felt the language can mean different things to different umpires.

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Play 1: F2, with the ball in her possession, (a) blocks the plate and prevents the sliding runner from reaching the base and tags her; or (b) blocks the plate with the ball in her glove and the runner slides into the tag causing the ball to roll out of F2’s glove and onto the ground. F2 then regains control of the all and applies the tag before the runner touches the plate. Ruling 1: F2 may legally block home plate while in possession of the ball. In (a), the runner is out. In (b), once the ball is dislodged, F2 is no longer in possession of the ball and may not impede the progress of the runner. If, in the umpire’s judgment, F2 was blocking the whole plate/base or impeded the progress of the runner after the ball was dislodged, obstruction should be called and the runner awarded home.

Play 2: F6, without the ball, is blocking second base. R1 slides into F6 but does not touch the base as F6 catches the ball and tags R1. Ruling 2: The umpire should call obstruction and signal delayed dead ball. R1 should be awarded second base.

Runner’s lane (New 2.28, 12.5.5 and new 12.17.1.5.2)

The three-foot runner’s lane line is back in the rulebook, including a new definition: The runner’s lane is the area that is the last half of the distance between home plate and first base where a batter-runner must run to avoid interfering with a fielder’s attempt to receive a thrown ball. It is bounded by a 30-foot line drawn in foul territory parallel to and three feet from the first-base line, starting at a point halfway between home plate and the back edge of first base.

Van Kleeck said that in the last two seasons without the lane, runners no longer had a protected area to run from home to first, so the rules committee recommended that the runner’s lane be drawn on the field down the first-base line. “Hopefully (the change) will help all runners,” Van Kleeck said.

The rules committee believed the reappearance of the runner’s lane would help umpires determine whether a runner interfered with the defensive player receiving the throw at first base and to give the runner a clear area where she can run without penalty.

New rules 12.5.5 and 12.17.1.5.2 describe when the batter-runner can and cannot be outside the running lane.

Play 3: B1 chops the ball and causes it to bounce just in front of home plate. F2 fields the ball but does not throw to first base because B1 was running outside the three-foot running lane and F2 thought that she would hit the batter-runner. Ruling 3: No infraction has occurred and the ball remains live. Interference cannot be called unless F2 actually makes a throw to first base.

Illegal pitch penalty (10.8)

The penalty for an illegal pitch has been reduced to a ball on the batter and no automatic base award for any runner on base. The rules committee felt that an illegal pitch has no affect on a baserunner since she cannot leave the base until the pitch is released. The committee felt that awarding a ball on the batter and a one-base advance for any runner was an excessive penalty on the pitcher’s illegal action. 

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Play 4: R3 is on third. B3 has a 2-2 count and fouls off a pitch as U1 calls an illegal pitch on F1 for leaping. Ruling 4: A ball is added to B3’s count and R3 remains at third base.

Outside the box (11.2.5, 11.15.1 and 11.21.4)

At the moment of bat-ball contact, the batter may not contact the pitch when any part of her foot is touching the ground outside the lines of the batter’s box.

The rules committee believes that it is increasingly difficult for plate umpires to assure the delivery of the pitch is legal, track the pitch, be aware of the position of the batter in the batter’s box on a hit by pitch and see if the batter has stepped completely outside the box at the point of contact. The change also ensures slappers do not gain an unfair advantage that other batters do not have by being allowed to contact the ball while outside of the batter’s box.

Rules regarding pace and flow

To increase the pace and flow of the game, coaches are allowed to make projected substitutions by notifying the plate umpire any time the ball is dead. Substitutes will not be required to enter the game at the time the substitution is reported. This will allow coaches to report more than one change at the beginning of the inning.

No-huddle defense

Under new rule 9.1, the defense cannot huddle after throwing the ball around the infield after an out. The defense is allowed to throw the ball around the infield, but then must throw the ball directly to the pitcher. If a team violates the rule, the umpire shall warn the violator and her coach for the first offense in the game. For any subsequent offense by any member of the warned team in the same game, a ball is awarded to the batter. During the 2017 season, several Division I conferences experimented with the rule.

Technology (3.3.1.7.2)

New rule 6.7 addresses media format, allowing teams two minutes between innings and at the start of the game for warmups for televised games. The media format may be used by mutual agreement between the two teams or by conference of tournament policy.

When using the media format, teams will be allowed only seven charged conferences per seven-inning game. Each team is allowed one charged conference per half-inning for each extra inning. If a team doesn’t use all of its seven conferences in regulation, they do not carry over into extra innings.

Several Division I conferences experimented with a time limit between innings and restricted number of conferences during the 2017 season.

Technology (3.3.1.7.2) 

Technology has crept its way into player equipment. During the game, players can use bats with data tracking sensors embedded into the knob, but the data cannot be retrieved or accessed until after the game. 

The bat shall have a knob of a minimum of one-quarter inch protruding at a degree angle of 90 degrees or less from the handle. It may be molded, lathed, welded or adjustable, but must be permanently fastened. A “flare” or “cone” grip attached to the bat will be considered altered. The knob may be taped or marked for identification as long as there is no violation of the rule section regarding bat knobs.

The knob may be solid or hollowed out to house an embedded metric sensor. If a sensor is used, it shall not affect performance. It shall be secured by a locking mechanism and a back-up mechanism to keep it in place and have a distinguishing “off-line” mode to prevent data from being accessed during a game. 

Bats with adjustable knobs allow hitters to use one bat and have the benefit of adjusting the knob to different lengths to provide hand stability that a traditional knob provides, but do not provide any type of unfair advantage, according to the rules committee’s rationale. The metric sensor allows for the increased advances in technology of bat construction and will offer hitters feedback on their swing after the game. 

Pitching (10.2.1.1)

Both feet must be on the ground in contact with the pitcher’s plate.Any part of each foot in contact with the ground or pitcher’s plate must be completely within the 24-inch length of the pitcher’s plate.

The rules committee removed the language that “a portion of the pivot foot must be on the top surface of the pitcher’s plate.” This rule as currently written is difficult to enforce, but would still require both feet to be on the ground and in contact with the pitcher’s plate.

Rules and mechanics change (12.10.12 and 7.1.1.2.5.a )

If a runner misses home plate and the fielder misses or makes no attempt to tag the runner, the umpire should make no signal, verbal or non-verbal. The committee felt that if the umpire gave the safe signal, it could be confusing and the offense would have no reason to think that the player missed home plate. That notifies the offense and defense that something needs to occur before a ruling can be made.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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