Collegiate and international fast pitch softball competitions have strict rules governing all aspects of the game, including pitching. Softball pitchers must keep their rear pivot foot in contact with the pitching plate until the ball is released. If a pitcher fails to adhere to this necessary requirement, the umpire can call an illegal pitch, resulting in an automatic penalty of one extra ball added to the pitch count and all runners being allowed to advance one base, according to National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
The most common illegal pitch, crow hopping, occurs when the pitcher removes her rear pivot foot from the pitching plate and replants it before delivering the ball. The pitcher often takes a small hop off the plate, inspiring the illegal pitch’s name. Leaving the plate in such fashion cuts the distance to the batter, giving the pitcher an unfair advantage.
Softball pitchers also must keep their trail foot in contact with the ground, dragging it behind them as they push off from the pitching plate. If the pitcher lifts both feet off the ground at the same time, the umpire can call her for leaping and issue the standard penalty of one ball for the batter and one base for all runners.
Not as common as crow hopping or leaping, side stepping occurs when the pitcher steps too far to either side while delivering the ball. The pitcher doesn’t necessarily have to step straight forward with her front leg, but she must remain within the 24-inch span of the pitching plate.
When a pitcher throws an illegal pitch, the umpire generally declares it illegal in a loud, clear voice, alerting everyone on the playing field. However, the ball remains live, and the batter can swing and put the ball in play. If the batter gets a hit and all existing runners safely advance one base, the batting team can elect to take the results of the play rather than the penalty. If an illegal pitch hits the batter, the batter takes first base, and all other runners advance one base. If the illegal pitch results in ball four, the batter takes her walk, and all other runners advance one base.
Many softball fans dislike the severe penalties for illegal pitches, citing the significant impact such calls can have on games and the inconsistencies umpires display when calling illegal pitches. Because of this controversy, the NCAA considered implementing rule changes, such as awarding the batter one ball but only allowing runners to advance one base after the team’s fifth illegal pitch.