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Photo Credit: Jim White

With first base only 60 feet away from home plate in softball compared to 90 in baseball, the left-handed slap hit is a major offensive tool used in softball. The slap hit has placed great scrutiny on the batter’s feet in relationship to the batter’s box in recent years.

Very seldom do the batter’s box lines come into play in baseball. Sometimes a batter will set up as far back as possible and the rear foot may be barely on the back line. The back line also gets obliterated as the game goes on so it becomes difficult to discern where it should be. Once in a while a batter may step on home plate when he squares around to sacrifice bunt and gets called out.

In softball, the batter’s box lines are likewise almost always wiped out early in the game. With the slap hit being such a big weapon, the defensive coaches don’t want the offensive players gaining an unfair head start running to first base when they contact the pitch.

That call in softball for years has been a difficult one. The first and most important priority for the plate umpire is tracking the pitch and calling balls and strikes. Asking umpires to watch the batter’s feet is asking them to take their focus off the ball.
In order to violate the rule, the batter has to have her foot contacting the ground at the moment of bat-ball contact, with the batter stepping forward just as she was contacting the ball. Video has shown many times the foot is barely above the ground at bat-ball contact.

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The NCAA rulebook notes, “In cases in which there are no batter’s box lines evident, good judgment must be used, and the benefit of any doubt must go to the batter.”
Some coaches would accuse umpires of “showing off” or making a “grandstand call” if they made the out-of-the-box call. Indeed, many experienced umpires have warned me about looking for that call.

My technique over the years was proactive umpiring, which is encouraged by the NCAA, by the way. I would watch and be aware of every left-handed slap hitter the first time I saw them when I was behind the plate. If I observed anything unusual about her footwork (stepping too far forward or toward home plate) I would make a mental note of her uniform number and watch for a clear violation in the future. I would also mention discreetly to whichever base coach walked by me at the end of the half-inning that a particular batter looked close to violating the rule. In that way I hoped they would try and correct it before her next at-bat. Or at worst they wouldn’t be surprised if I called the violation later in the game.

I never liked it when a defensive coach would yell for me to watch for it. If I then made the call I would be accused of letting that coach call the game, which would lead to future comments and arguments from both teams. I would always just reply, “I will watch for it,” but would continue to umpire in my usual fashion. The wiser coaches would quietly mention it to me in passing or during a lineup change to please watch for the infraction. That way I was alerted without them looking like they were whining for an out call.
Because of video evidence and slow motion replays, the 2017 mechanics manual included a section focusing on illegally batted balls. The section noted that slappers using the crossover step are close to being out of the batter’s box. Four keys to look for were provided:

  • Where is the batter starting her attempt at hitting the pitch?
  • On bat-ball contact, quickly look down to view the location of the batter’s feet.
  • Is the batter in front of the batter’s box when the bat contacts the ball?
    • Is the batter’s box still visible?

That evidently wasn’t enough to have more violations called. The NCAA made a rule change aimed at helping plate umpires with that violation. The 2018-19 rule states that 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 removed mention of the batter touching home plate or having her “entire foot … completely outside the lines of the batter’s box.” Their rationale was that it is increasingly difficult for plate umpires to ensure 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 is supposed to ensure slappers do not gain an unfair advantage that other batters do not have by being allowed to contact the ball while outside the batter’s box.
Is the NCAA trying to have the plate umpire do too much? The need to call an accurate strike zone has been emphasized repeatedly over the years; now the out-of-the-box call is getting more attention.

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Most coaches want accurate ball/strike calls. Those other calls may look good for an NCAA evaluation but not help with your reputation and coaches’ evaluation, which I think are more important to running a smooth flowing game.

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