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Three feet no small change

Three feet doesn’t seem like a long distance.

But 36 inches could mark a significant change in high school softball next season.

The National Federation of State High School Associations voted last summer to move the pitching rubber 3 feet farther away from home plate, changing the pitching distance from 40 to 43 feet, in an effort to involve more offense and defense in the game. Forty-three feet is the distance used in college softball.

Some states made the move this season. Nevada is one of 19 states that will implement the change in spring of 2011.

“Our main thrust is getting the defense more involved,” National Federation assistant director Mary Struckhoff said. “When more balls are hit into play, the defense is more involved in the game, thus enhancing skill development.”

It seems simple.

Move back the rubber and give batters more time to see and hit the ball, taking away some of the advantage the top pitchers currently have.

Most varsity pitchers’ fastballs travel at least 50 mph, if not closer to 60 mph. Even though the rubber currently is at 40 feet, the ball usually is released at closer to 37 or 38 feet from home plate, taking into account the pitcher’s stride.

At 50 mph, it takes approximately half a second for the ball to reach home plate.

Moving the rubber back three feet should give the batter an extra .04 of a second to react. Again, not much, but it could make the difference between foul and fair balls and contact and no contact.

“The reaction time for the batter will help a little bit,” Green Valley coach Lauren Taylor said.

But it’s not quite that easy.

The top pitchers in the area don’t just throw a fastball and changeup. They throw pitches that curve, drop and rise, making them more difficult to hit.

As the ball travels farther, it loses speed, and the movement is more pronounced.

“For pitchers, it’ll be a positive thing,” Palo Verde junior pitcher Melissa McCormick said. “My ball moves a lot more from farther away.”

McCormick and Cimarron-Memorial junior Carrie Sheehan both throw from 43 feet in club softball in the summer.

“It makes the ball move so much more. It’s really better for a pitcher,” Sheehan said.

Pitchers who play for 18-and-under teams and the elite-level 16-and-under teams no longer will have to adjust for the high school season. The distance will be the same.

“They have to throw like that in college and in club,” Palo Verde coach Kelly Glass said. “It’ll be easier on the arms of the pitchers because they don’t have to change. They can train all year from 43.”

But not every pitcher has an elite-level arsenal. At the junior varsity level and on the varsity level at some schools, pitchers try to survive on a fastball and a changeup and often have trouble locating the strike zone from 40 feet.

“When I look at some of the weaker teams, especially the JV level, I see 43 feet as being a major issue,” Taylor said. “There are some kids who can’t reach at 40. High school is supposed to be looked at as a learning situation, and for some of those younger kids, it’ll be trouble.”

Said McCormick: “For a hitter, it’ll be harder against the better pitchers, the ones who are college material. But with the pitchers who aren’t as strong, it’s going to be home run derby.”

Moving the pitching rubber back 3 feet doesn’t eliminate strikeouts. College pitchers still rack them up, some at an alarming rate.

The NFHS gathered data from experiments in Florida and Oregon, where it said coaches were “overwhelmingly supportive of the change.” The data indicated more balls were put into play.

“It’ll be more true softball,” Glass said. “The kids that want to go play collegiately, it’s the greatest thing for them. They’ll be more prepared.”

Contact reporter Bartt Davis at bdavis@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5230.

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