Three years ago, a bunt, overthrow, or bobbled grounder led to a 1-0 win or loss.
This spring, seven Desert Mountain softball players have hit home runs, including the Wolves’ No. 7 and No. 8 hitters.
“It took three years after we opened the school before someone hit a ball over the fence (1998),” Wolves coach Rick Sharp said.
Take that, perceptions: Softball is now about swinging the stick. A lot.
Since the 2010-2011 season, when Arizona high school softball adopted the national regulation of 43 feet from home plate to the pitcher’s mound (it had been 40 feet), softball is back to swinging the stick. A lot.
According to MaxPreps.com, 50 schools in Arizona have already scored at least 150 runs this season as of early, a range of five to seven runs per game based on schools having played anywhere from 15 to 23 games, meaning a range of 10-20 games remain.
In 2009, the final year of a 40-foot pitching distance, 60 teams reached 150 runs for the season.
Of course, there are qualifiers to those figures. It’s based on schools which put every game’s statistics on MaxPreps.com, and includes tournament games which are sometimes lopsided scores because coaches use tournament games to do a variety of different things outside the norm.
“We are not facing overpowering pitching these days, but when we do, my team still finds it difficult to hit,” said Cactus Shadows coach Danica Gianni after a loss to Phoenix Greenway.
Then again, Red Mountain’s second-leading hitter (Alex Wiley at .452) is hitting No. 9 in the lineup. McClintock surrendered an opposite field home run to a Corona del Sol reserve player, and six Arizona schools are averaging at least one home run per game, according to MaxPreps.com.
“Coming from someone who has been a hitter my whole life, I can tell you that if pitchers continue to not throw the ball in different planes and change speeds and eye level they will not be as successful,” Chaparral coach Stefanie Ewing said.
“On the other side, hitters have the advantage if they know the ball is going to be inside or out. That’s only two aspects to worry about. We as a team are hitting lights out this year simply because it’s very easy to prepare my team to look for inside or outside pitches.”
A dozen East Valley coaches offered reasons for the upswing. The pitching mound being pushed back to the national (and college) standard was the most popular one offered, along with the idea that players are simply better all- around hitters given instruction, year-round club ball, and evolution of bats.
Some believe the pitching quality isn’t as top-heavy, but deeper than a few years ago, when the likes of Dallas Escobedo (St. Mary’s), Sam Parlich (Basha), Mel Willadsen (Red Mountain), Kenzie Fowler (Tucson Canyon del Oro) and more ruled the roost. Others believe pitching has gone downhill. Still others believe nothing has really changed, that a true “ace” will still be responsible for 70 percent of a game’s outcome.
Mountain View’s Val Kaff has arguably been the most dominant East Valley pitcher this season (0.84 earned run average and 250 strikeouts). A dozen others have played their part more often than not: McBride (Chaparral), Tamara Statman (Horizon), Danielle Block (Desert Vista), Lynsey Duncan (Gilbert), Jillian Leslie (Perry), Janelle Hunt (Valley Christian), Marian Ruff and Bre Macha (Red Mountain), Andy Wellins (Desert Mountain), Xavier’s freshman duo of Karlee Johnson and Caitlin Dickman, and McKenna Isenberg (Corona del Sol).
“As long as they’re hitting their spots, it doesn’t matter,” Queen Creek coach Katie Bundy said.
But if they don’t, it’s no longer a bunt hit or seeing-eye single. It’s what Basha’s Brooke Breland did in the bottom of the seventh inning against Desert Ridge last week to win the game: Launch one.
As for how long will the hitting last, only time will answer that rhetorical question. As Hamilton, Ewing and Apache Junction’s Ed Matlosz all noted, if you follow the game long enough, trends invariably shift between opposite points of the spectrum over time.
Back and forth.
“I am of the opinion that at any distance — 40 or 43 feet — a quality pitcher will still dominate a game,” said Hamilton coach Rocky Parra, who saw some Division I pitching domination during the Bullhead City tournament earlier this season.
“Overall the level of pitching in Arizona high school is down compared to other years and that is why you are seeing more offense. We have not seen the last of the great pitchers in Arizona high school softball. I think that in the next two or three years we’ll once again have some dominate pitchers in the high school pitching circle.”
Until then, however, many noted this growing oggling over offense has been a good thing. It’s brought out a more casual fan, the players (other than perhaps pitchers) are much more involved offensively and defensively, and coaches have to do more.
Pressure has mounted for defenses to be flawless and not allow extra at-bats, while simultaneously allowing a team the chance offensively to make up for a defensive error or two.
The ball — and relying on extra chances — may not fly as much come May, when the state tournament becomes a best pitching-defense-timely hitting contest and runs scored will invariably shrink.
It’s why some believe close, low-scoring, tight games are paramount to slugfest shootouts in the regular season.
“It teaches us to be mentally tough, it’s good in the beginning (of the season), to have that intensity and determination, so when the state tournament comes you know what it feels like,” Bundy said of pitchers’ duels. “I want them to feel that pressure. I don’t want to them to collapse mentally when it comes again later.”
“Later” begins in less than three weeks, where it’s appearing to be no longer a given an ace pitcher equals victory. There’s already rampant numbers of results which suggest three runs allowed is considered the new “shutout”.
“I like the game right now,” Hamilton said. “I’m a traditionalist but it makes me coach all facets better. It makes the players get better at everything because they have to. Now you have to be a team and play defense and hit the ball. There’s nothing more evident to that than this season.”