Jump On The Bandwagon: An Amateur's Guide To College Softball

Keeping track of everything Jolene Henderson can make a softball do with an underhand motion is quite a challenge.

All season long you’ve been glancing at the headlines, hearing about the rankings: ‘whoa, Cal softball is really good!" But they’ve had all of one game televised, and that one was tape-delayed! But now the playoffs have rolled around, games should start getting televised, and you want to jump on the bandwagon!

Well, welcome aboard! I’ve been on the bandwagon for a month or two, and I highly recommend it. If you’re like me, you don’t know a ton about softball. I mean, I know the basics. It’s like baseball, except the ball is bigger, you pitch underhand, and the field is smaller. But the reason I love baseball is because I understand the nuances, the strategy. When does it make sense to sacrifice? What does it take to steal a base? How is a slider different from a curve ball, and when should you consider a platoon? That’s the type of stuff that makes baseball endlessly fascinating.

With Cal softball dominating, I want to learn everything I can about those types of nuances as quickly as possible. So join me as we together explore everything the internet can teach me about the game of softball! But be forewarned - I come from a position of general ignorance. If you're someone in the know, please add on for the edification of all! To start, here are some important rules to know that differ from MLB baseball rules:

  • NCAA softball uses a designated hitter that can substitute for any position player in the lineup. Softball refers to that player as a ‘Designated Player.’ It’s that rule that allows Valerie Arioto to both hit and pitch in the same game. Cal tends to have their designated player bat in place of their catcher.
  • You can steal a base, but you can’t leave the base until the pitcher has released the ball – in other words, you can’t take a lead away from the base and you can’t anticipate the pitcher’s delivery. This makes it marginally more difficult to steal bases, but still very possible. A runner is out if they leave their base too early.
  • Substitution rules are significantly more flexible. In baseball, if a player is removed from the game they cannot ever return, even for an injury. In softball, that isn’t the case. Each starter is entitled to be replaced and to re-enter the game one time as long as she assumes her original position in the batting order. This is a critical distinction, because Cal couldn’t substitute Val out at 1st base so that she could warm up, then put her in at pitcher*. Additionally, a substitute cannot be taken out and then reinserted into the lineup like a starter.
  • The strike zone (well, according to the rule book, at least!) is from the sternum to the top of the knees, which is subtly different from MLB’s definition of bottom of the knees to line at the midpoint between the top of the batter's shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.

(More after the jump!)

PITCHING

By name, the pitches are mostly the same as in baseball: Fastballs, changeups, curveballs, screwballs. But with a different ball and an entirely different throwing motion, the movement of these pitches naturally differ from their baseball namesakes.

Fastball: Like in baseball, there are two-seam and four-seam fastballs, with differing amounts of movement and consistency. But the principle is universal: The classic pitch that ideally gets by your opponent before they have a chance to react and swing. Most college pitchers throw in the high 60s and the elite arms might get into the 70s.

Changeup: A pitch noticeably slower than the fastball, but delivered in a deceptive manner. Your fastball won’t be as effective without a good changeup, and vice-versa.

Dropball: Conceptually and strategically like a sinker – this pitch is thrown especially when you want to induce a ground ball. The pitch is thrown with top-spin, which creates the intended downward movement.

Curve/Screwball: Two pitches that move towards/away from a batter. Unlike most breaking pitching in baseball, the softball curve/screwballs have a largely horizontal break without much downward movement, which arguably makes them difficult pitches to use. A ball that breaks along the plane of the bat will still be hit, so it takes precise control to put these types of pitches in the right location.

Riseball: The pitch that really separates baseball and softball. With an overhand pitching motion it’s impossible to throw a pitch that rises – gravity takes over. But when you add a little top spin to a pitch thrown with an underhand windmill you get a pitch that rises, and it can be a devastating strike out pitch. Of course, if it doesn’t properly rise, it can also be a devastating home run against the pitcher when it’s left sitting up in the zone.

BATTING

The nature of softball means that the life of a hitter can be pretty difficult. A smaller field of play means that there’s less space for hits to fall. A shorter distance to the mound and arguably a greater variety of pitches and movement makes for a challenging at bat. The very best pitchers in college have ERAs that look microscopic compared to typical baseball numbers. That means that strategy is usually quite different.

The one advantage batters have is a smaller distance from home to first, which means that premium speed can make a huge difference. Players like Jamia Reid can turn a simple bunt or a high chopper into an easy single because they can get to first base so quickly. You’ll see players make bunting/slap hitting a key part of their offensive repertoire as they try to bunt/slap while simultaneously beginning their run towards first base – hopefully without leaving the batter’s box before the bat hits the ball, which is still illegal.

Cal doesn’t play as much small ball as other teams in part because they have an embarrassment of riches in terms players that can hit a home run or are willing to take a walk. But it’s a strategy that pretty much every team will employ, particularly when they are facing an elite pitcher.

*It’s probably not a coincidence that Val has zero appearances as a reliever, though Jolene ’26 complete games’ Henderson doesn’t really need the help.

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