Slap-Hitters – Think Outside The Box

Softball has a unique “play” that is not part of the baseball world – slap hitters. 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. In softball, the batter’s box lines are often wiped out early in the game. Make it easier on yourself – be watching for, and penalize when you see, players intentionally erasing lines of the field. And be careful of the deceptive act of pretending to smooth out the dirt in the batter’s box, but in so doing a bunch of dirt ends up covering a line. If the batter’s box lines are bit evident, good judgment must be used, and the benefit of any doubt must go to the batter.

With the slap hit being such a big weapon, the defensive coaches do not 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 must have any part of her body touching the ground outside the lines of the batter’s box at the moment of bat-ball contact. The batter’s foot is usually the culprit; to clarify – it is a violation if any part of the foot is touching the ground outside the lines of the batter’s box at the moment of bat-ball contact. At one time the rule mentioned only the foot, but when slap hitters started putting their knee on the ground outside the box, the wording of the rule was changed to “…her body.” Be sure of this call – video has shown many times the foot is barely above the ground at bat-ball contact, which is not a violation.

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 make the out-of-the-box call.

One technique to help you see the infraction when it happens can be put into the category of proactive umpiring, which is encouraged by the NCAA. Watch for and give special attention to every left-handed slap hitter the first time they come to bat. If you observe anything unusual about her footwork (stepping too far forward or toward home plate) make a mental note of her uniform number and watch for a clear violation in the future. You might also try this – mention discreetly to whichever base coach walks behind you at the end of the half-inning that a particular batter looked close to violating the rule. Perhaps the coach will talk to the player and she will correct it before her next at-bat. Or at worst the player and the coach will not be surprised if called for this violation later in the game.

Sometimes a defensive coach will yell from the dugout to watch for it. Now if you make the call you may be accused of letting that coach call the game, which would lead to future comments and arguments from both teams. The best response at this time is “I will watch for it” but continue to umpire in the usual fashion. The wiser coaches will quietly mention it in passing or during a lineup change to please watch for the infraction. This is a more professional way to alert the umpire without them looking like they were whining for an out call. We all wish more coaches would use this method

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 was not 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. The plate umpire must have an accurate strike zone as their top priority. 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. In that vein, the base umpires are now instructed to also make this call when it is a clear violation from their perspective.