The NCAA Softball Rules Committee and the Playing Rules Oversight Panel recently approved a significant amount of rule changes for the upcoming 2022 and 2023 seasons. Several changes were enacted to help with pace of play as well as the adoption of video review.
Changes appear in perceived order of importance.
Referee would like to thank Vickie Van Kleeck, NCAA softball secretary rules editor, for reviewing this article.
Batter’s Box Position 11.2.5. Effect
The NCAA Softball Rules Committee changed Rule 11.2.5 for the 2018 season, prohibiting batters from having any part of their body touching the ground outside of the batter’s box at the moment of bat-ball contact. The penalty had been a dead-ball out on the batter. This year, the committee changed the effect to create consistency with the penalty for an illegal pitch as the committee felt the penalty of an immediate dead-ball out was too harsh.
The new penalty is a delayed dead ball and the coach of the defensive team shall choose either the result of the play or the new standard effect for illegal contact, which is a strike on the batter and all baserunners are returned to the base legally occupied at the time of the pitch. If the defense chooses the standard effect and it results in a third strike, the batter is declared out.
Play 1: With R1 on first and no outs, B2 swings at (a) the first pitch, or (b) a 2-2 fastball and hits a hard ground ball to the shortstop. At the moment of contact with the ball, B2’s left foot is in contact with the ground partially outside of the batter’s box. F6 fields the ground ball, throws it to F4 at second base to retire R1 and then throws to F3 at first, which beats B1 to the bag. Ruling 1: In both, a delayed dead ball is signaled and the defensive coach has the option of taking the result of the play or in (a), returning B2 to the plate with an 0-1 count and returning R1 to first base, or in (b), taking an out on B2 (third strike) and returning R1 to first base.
Play 2: With an 0-2 count, B1 makes contact with the ball while her right foot is partially in contact with the ground outside of the batter’s box. The ball is fouled straight back and out of play. Ruling 2: Since the illegal contact happened with two strikes, the batter is declared out.
Video Review 5.9
In 2020, the NCAA Softball Rule Committee allowed conferences to experiment with video review in regular-season conference games and conference tournament games. New for 2022, video review is no longer experimental and has been approved for use in all games. In games using video review, each head coach has two challenges to initiate a review of certain plays, which will be outlined below. The challenge must be initiated before the next pitch is thrown, before the pitcher and all infielders have clearly vacated their normal fielding positions and left fair territory, or before the umpires have left the field of play. Crew chiefs also may initiate a review of the plays below at their discretion beginning in the sixth inning in any game.
The following plays are those that are subject to review:
1. Batted balls (any ball higher that the top of the foul pole when it leaves the field cannot have that aspect reviewed):
a. Deciding if a batted ball called fair is fair or foul.
b. Deciding if a batted ball called foul should be a ground rule double, home run or hit-by-pitch.
c. Deciding if a batted ball called fair and ruled not to have left the field of play did leave the field.
2. Pitched balls:
a. Deciding if a pitch ruled a dropped third strike was caught before the ball touched the ground.
b. Deciding whether a live or dead ball should be changed to a foul ball.
c. Deciding whether a foul ball should be changed to a foul tip only with no baserunners, or if it would result in a third out.
d. Deciding whether a batter is entitled to an award of first base per hit-by-pitch rule 11.13.
3. Spectator interference.
4. Obstruction and interference (including collisions).
5. Deciding if malicious/flagrant contact occurred. Umpires may initiate this review without requiring a coach’s challenge at any point in the game to ensure student-athlete safety.
6. Timing plays (deciding whether the baserunner scored ahead of the third out).
7. Force/tag play calls: Plays involving all runners acquiring the base before the defensive player’s attempt to put the runner out at any base.
8. Blocked or dead ball and placement of runners: deciding whether a ball not ruled blocked should be ruled blocked, and the proper placement of runners (per the rules/casebook) after any blocked or dead ball call.
9. With no baserunners, a no catch can be changed to a catch at any time. With runners on base, a no catch can be changed to a catch if it results in the third out.
There are several criteria for games using video review. Some of that includes the review being conducted on-site by the crew chief or having an off-field official at a centralized location; coaches have 30 seconds to verbally or visually lodge a challenge; and once a final decision is made, a coach may not argue the decision, doing so is an immediate ejection.
Collisions 9.5.3 Effect and 12.13
The rules committee amended the rule to add that a runner will be called out and ejected on a deliberate collision with a fielder regardless if the fielder has possession of the ball. The previous rule allowed a runner to be declared safe if obstruction was ruled, even if the runner collided flagrantly with the fielder. Even though the runner was still ejected, a substitute could take her place on base or have a run counted if the obstruction was at the plate. The new rule and penalty now make the runner out and ejected and no run would score if the collision is at the plate. This change protects players in the interest of safety.
Play 3: With R2 on second base, B2 hits a single up the middle. R2 rounds third base and heads for home. While there is no play at the plate, F2 is blocking the plate. R2 raises her arms and flagrantly runs over F2 and then steps on home plate. Ruling 3: R2 is ruled out and ejected and her run does not score. Although there was obstruction by F2, R2 is not entitled to flagrantly collide with her despite not having the ball.
This rule change clarifies the definition of “out of the baseline” to mean “can’t reach the base” and treats this violation as interference (as shown in the PlayPic below). This change also allows the option to issue a team warning when this behavior is not egregious enough to warrant an immediate ejection. The current effect for sliding out of the baseline in order to slide directly at a fielder is an out and an immediate ejection. In some instances, this action does not rise to the level of an ejection, but should be penalized with a team warning. And since this is now treated as interference, if the act prevents the fielder from making a play, interference will be ruled.
Play 4: With R1 on first, B2 hits a ground ball to short. F6 tosses the ball to F4 at second base ahead of the slide of R1. R1 slides to the right of the bag in a direct line toward F4 and not in reach of second base. There is minimal contact between R1 and F4 as R1 slides into F4’s shoes. F4 has no play on B1 at first. Ruling 4: A team warning shall be issued to the offense for sliding out of the baseline and directly at a fielder. However, the contact was not egregious and there was no play on B1 so there shall not be an ejection or interference ruled on R2.
Pitching Position 10.1.1
This rule change allows pitchers to have their stride foot on the pitcher’s lane line/pitcher’s plate, rather than within the 24-inch length of the pitcher’s plate. This change allows consistency with pitcher’s lane line rules and acknowledges common practice. This allows pitchers a little more freedom and takes away the penalty of an illegal pitch for having the stride foot on the pitcher’s lane or just in contact with the pitcher’s plate but not completely within the 24-inch length of the pitcher’s plate.
Time Between Innings 6.6 and 6.7
For all games, regardless of media, teams are allowed a maximum of 90 seconds between innings and at the start of the game for warmups. During this time, the pitcher is allowed to throw any number of warmup pitches; however she may only throw to first base once. The time limit may be shortened by mutual agreement between the two teams, conference or tournament policy. If a media agreement requires a longer time between innings, that time will become the maximum allowable time. The penalty for not being ready at the end of the time limit is either a strike on the batter (if the offense is not ready), or a ball on the batter (if the defense is not ready). This change is designed to help with the flow of the game by having a standardized set of time between innings. The current rules allowed a maximum of two minutes for media games and no set time for non-media games.
Play 5: Team A’s pitcher throws seven warmup pitches in the top of the first inning. Team A’s catcher throws the ball down to second base and the team is ready to play after 90 seconds. Ruling 5: No penalty. The pitcher is allowed as many warmup pitches as she’d like as long as the team is ready to play at the end of 90 seconds.
For all games, whether media or non-media, each team is allowed seven charged team representative-to-player conferences per regulation game with a maximum of one per half inning. An additional defensive conference is allowed for each pitching change if that pitcher has not already pitched in the half inning, however that conference still counts toward the seven allowable conferences. There will also be seven player-to-player conferences allowed per regulation game with a maximum of two per half inning. Each team will be allowed one conference of each type per half inning for each extra inning.
Any remaining conferences from regulation do not carry over to extra innings. The penalty for initiating an unallowed conference is an immediate ejection of the player or team representative who initiates the conference. The reason for the change is to improve the flow of the game by limiting the number of conferences.
Play 6: In the third inning, F2 goes to the pitcher’s circle to have a conference with F1. A pitch later, after allowing a home run, the pitching coach requests and is granted time to have a conference with F1. Two batters later, F2 goes back out to the pitching circle to have a conference with F1. Ruling 6: All three conferences are legal and the team will be charged with one representative-to-play conference and two player-to-player conferences.
Positions of Offensive and Defensive Teams 6.5 and 6.6
This rule change prohibits teams from coming out of the dugout during stoppages of play, including during conferences, pitching changes, substitutions and injuries, except for those players directly involved in the situation. This change prevents teams from leaving the dugout during conferences to rile up the crowd which has been increasingly happening.
Play 7: In the top of the sixth inning, team A hits a home run to tie the game 1-1. After the batter-runner finishes running the bases, the defensive pitching coach requests and is granted a conference with the pitcher. During the conference, the team A dugout comes out onto the field and starts waving towels and motioning their arms to pump up the crowd. Ruling 7: The umpires should warn the violators and if the violators do not immediately comply, the umpire should eject them.
Hit Batter (by Pitch) 126.96.36.199
The rule has been amended to state that a batter hit by a pitch in the strike zone or a by a pitch that does not reach the plate but would have been in the strike zone had it not hit the batter shall not be awarded first base. The amended wording hopes to eliminate batters trying to get hit by pitches before they reach the plate that would have been a strike.
Play 8: F1 throws a curveball to B1. B1 is standing in the front of the batter’s box and is hit by the pitch as it is breaking toward the plate. The ball never reaches the plate, but the umpire rules the ball would have been in the strike zone had it continued. Ruling 8: The umpire should rule dead ball and charge a strike to the batter.
Interference by Batter 11.20.4 Note
If the batter swings and misses a pitch but accidentally contacts the catcher or the ball on the follow-through, it is a delayed dead ball and the defensive team has the option to take the result of the play or it is a dead-ball strike and all baserunners must return to the base legally occupied at the time of the pitch. The rationale is to allow the defensive team to choose the result of the play or return baserunners to the base legally occupied at the time of the pitch. The previous rule did not mention the catcher and it was an immediate dead ball. This new rule keeps the ball live and allows the defense the opportunity to make a play.
Play 9: With R1 on first, B2 swings and misses a pitch, but accidentally contacts F2 on her follow through. R1 takes off for second and F2 throws to F4 who tags R1 out before she reaches second base. Ruling 9: The out at second base would stand.
The rule change adds a runner may not intentionally distract or run at a fielder in an effort to distract her while not making an attempt to run directly to a base. The effect would be a warning to the player and pertains to any defensive player regardless if the defensive player is the one making a play on the ball. If the defensive player is making a play on the ball, interference would be called. Previously, there was no recourse to penalize a batter-runner or runner for intentionally distracting a defensive player not making a play on the ball and this change is aimed at removing those types of plays from the game.
Intentionally Pitching at a Batter 10.14.1 Effect
Previously, the rule regarding intentionally throwing at a batter stated the pitcher and catcher would both be ejected without warning. Now, the pitcher may be ejected and the head coach and/or catcher may also be ejected, if appropriate. It is not required that the catcher be ejected if the pitcher is ejected if the umpire deems the catcher is not responsible, but the umpire retains the option to eject both the catcher and head coach, if appropriate.
Pitcher Substitution 188.8.131.52.1
This rule change allows the pitcher an unlimited amount of warmup pitches if media goes to timeout during a pitching change. This change addresses the waiting period pitchers were often faced with while waiting for media to come out of commercial after the pitcher already threw five warmup pitches. This change allows the pitcher to continue throwing to stay warm during a commercial break.
This rule change allows umpires the authority to issue a pregame or postgame ejection for unsporting behavior that occurs from the time the umpires arrive at the competition site until the umpires leave the competition site. The current rule only provided umpires with jurisdiction from the time they arrived at the field until they left the confines of the field. Umpires now have the ability to penalize unsporting behavior that occurs outside that time frame that would otherwise be punishable during the game.
Play 10: As the umpires are in their locker room dressing for the game, the home team head coach comes in and starts criticizing the crew for plays that occurred in the game the night before. Ruling 10: Umpires should eject the coach as they have jurisdiction once they arrive at the competition site.
Fence Distance 184.108.40.206
The committee added a recommendation for all newly constructed fields to be 200 feet in left and right fields. The current rule only stated the minimum of 190 feet. This new recommendation encourages institutions to extend fence distances to acknowledge the continued offensive production in NCAA play.
Foul Pole Height 2.16.2
This changes the recommended foul pole height to at least 40 feet as opposed to the current rule which only recommended 20 feet. By raising the height of the foul pole, it will help umpires in making home run calls down the line which can be tough to judge on fair versus foul calls when balls cross the fence near the foul pole.
Ball Specifications 3.2.1
This rule change standardizes ball specification with NFHS and USA Softball to a maximum compression of 275-375 pounds. The required implementation is Jan. 1, 2024. It will help to improve inventory availability and assist in cost containment.
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