The game of softball underwent a significant change in the summer when the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a new rule that overhauled the art of slap-hitting.
Batters are now prohibited from having any part of their foot touch the ground outside the batter’s box when bat-ball contact is made. If the rule is violated, it’s an automatic out.
Previously, a batter’s foot was able to step outside the box so long as part of it was touching the chalk.
“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,” it says on Referee.com.
Here’s a good visual of the change:
Arizona coaches and players are not a fan of it.
“It sucks,” said UA senior Ashleigh Hughes. “Anything you do one way for your whole life then out of nowhere it just changes, obviously it’s going to affect you a little bit.”
In March, longtime Arizona coach Mike Candrea said it’s hard to play small-ball anymore because of the rule change.
“They’ve almost taken the slapper completely out of the game,” he said.
The slappers’ feet are watched by the home-plate umpire who also has to call balls and strikes. That can be as difficult as it sounds, so some umpires hardly ever call batters out for stepping over the line.
But there’s also those who strictly enforce it, so there’s not a whole lot of consistency from game to game.
“If you look at my numbers, I’ve been called out of the box a lot of times this year,” Hughes said. “So obviously you have to worry about it, but it really honestly depends on the umpire. You can do it 10 times in a row and they won’t say anything. Then you get one umpire who looks for it all the time. So it kind of just depends.”
Arizona’s slap-hitters worked during the offseason to adjust to the new rule, doing things like starting their at-bat further from the plate or altering their footwork to ensure they stay inside the box as they swing.
“It’s different,” said UA freshman left fielder Carli Campbell, who is hitting .313 this season. “Now you have to adjust the whole way you move into the box and out of the box. I don’t really like it, but you’ve got to work with it.”
“It just sucks,” Hughes said once more, ”because when you’re in the box you really don’t want to be thinking about your technical stuff.”
Hughes, a member of the All-Pac-12 Second Team last year, has not had the type of senior season she would like.
Her batting average has dropped from .386 to .276, nearly a career-low. She was moved down to ninth in the batting order before an injury to second baseman Reyna Carranco forced her back to the top.
Candrea said the new rule has made hitting a challenge for Hughes and the rest of the team’s slappers (whose ability to get on base and/or move runners over is crucial to an Arizona offense that has been inconsistent in conference play).
And not just because they can be called out and lose an at-bat over the rule, but also because it makes it increasingly difficult for them to cover the entire plate.
Slappers are now more vulnerable to outside pitches, and they are seeing more and more of them.
“Because it’s awfully tough to cover that pitch unless you do get part of your foot in the inside part of the box,” Candrea said.
Slapping less and less these days, Hughes has launched a career-high three homers this season, including a walk-off last Friday against Cal.
She has five hits and three stolen bases in her last three games.
“Luckily, I have multiple dimensions to my game,” Hughes said. “It’s not ruling me out.”
Freshman outfielder Jenna Kean, who is batting .231, was having trouble slapping, so she opted to use a traditional swing for some of her at-bats against Cal last weekend. She wound up having one of the best series of her young career, driving in three runs in the sweep.
But she — and Campbell — got called out for stepping outside the batter’s box during that series, too.
It was the first time it’s happened to Kean, who’s had 39 at-bats this year. She called it a “shock” but “it is what it is.”
“It’s a tough rule,” Candrea said. “Because it’s tough on an umpire having to call balls and strikes and watch a foot. Truthfully, if they are 1,000 percent correct and they see it, then they have to call it. I have no problem with that. But it can’t be a borderline maybe-she-did, maybe-she-didn’t. And I just think that it’s a rule that will be looked at this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if that rule changes.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire