What is an Illegal Pitch in Softball? 5 Motions to Avoid

Softball can sometimes become a game of which team makes the least amount of mistakes. These mistakes can include base running errors, not playing the correct defensive alignment, keeping a pitching in to long, and many more.

One of these mistakes, which leads to runners advancing is when an illegal pitch is called. But we don’t want that to happen to you. This article outlines what an illegal pitch is in softball, the 5 most common types, and what happens if one is unfortunately called.

What is an illegal pitch in softball? An illegal pitch in softball involves using physical motions that do not follow established rules. Usually, pitchers use illegal foot movements or they step outside of the boundaries of the circle or pitching lane. These illegal movements give pitchers advantages over the batter.

Imagine an important game, and the pitcher performs one of these illegal pitchers with a couple of runners on base. A single pitch that is not allowed and caught by the umpire can have an immediate impact on the game. Illegal pitchers are called by the field umpire and not by the plate umpire. In most cases, the umpire behind home plate is busy watching where the pitch crosses the plate, and is therefore too difficult to keep an eye on pitcher motions as well.

When an illegal pitch occurs, the umpire declares the pitch a dead ball. The batter receives a ball toward the count if there are no runners on base. If, however, a runner is on base, the pitch is called a balk and the runner gets to advance to the next base.

Types of Illegal pitches

Before we look at the types of illegal pitches there are in softball, you might also wonder what it means to be a legal pitch. A legal pitch involves moving toward the batter in one step using the non-pivot foot. The step starts at the rubber (illegal pitches include stepping or hopping to give the pitcher an advantage). The legal pitch needs to first be presented to the batter, then thrown underhand in softball. Here is a list of the different pitchers thrown in softball.

The most common pitching offenses in softball include failing to present hands apart when stepping on the rubber. The others involve footwork that results in re-planting, stepping outside of the lane, removing the back toe from the rubber, and crow hopping.

The 5 illegal pitches in softball right now are:

  • crow hopping
  • replanting
  • stepping out of the lane
  • forgetting to present the ball with hands apart
  • moving back toes off the rubber

Crow Hopping

Crow hopping is one of the most common illegal pitches – especially with older, more experienced pitchers.

During the pitch, one foot must remain on the ground. Pitchers should drag the back foot, not letting it leave the ground. When crow hopping, both feet leave the ground during the pitch to give the pitcher more power. Crow hopping is very common in advanced softball leagues, and it happens so quickly that umpires often miss the call (see this discussion).

Here is an example of crow hopping:


Replanting is like crow hopping, but with a stop in the middle of the pitch.

The pitcher starts by dragging her foot. Then, she stops and continues dragging. Like the crow hop, it happens quickly and umpires often miss it. Pitchers can check themselves by paying attention to their pitching rhythm. If they stop after the drag, they are replanting.

Stepping Out of the Lane

Pitchers have a circle to work inside of, and the circle actually has a lane the width of the pitching mound. During sanctioned tournaments, the pitching lane is outlined in chalk. If it’s not, then pitchers usually don’t have to worry about the rule.

The plate umpire is supposed to call this illegal pitch, but they usually don’t see it because they are watching where the ball crosses the plate.

Moving Back Toes Off the Rubber

Before beginning the forward motion of the pitch, the pitcher needs to keep both feet on the mound. Some pitchers lose contact with the rubber when they start rocking forward. The field umpire is supposed to notice if the pitcher removes her back toes from the rubber.

Forgetting to Present the Ball with Hands Apart

When the pitcher steps on the rubber, her hands must be apart.

Young pitchers often forget that they need to present the ball before they begin their pitching motion. If they forget, many umpires give them warnings. However, if the pitcher repeatedly forgets to present the ball, the umpire will start to call the problem as an illegal pitch.

After stepping on the mound with the hands apart, the pitcher can bring them together for the pre-motion and pitch. Practicing the correct moves creates a routine that stops the illegal pitch problem.

Breaking Bad Habits to Prevent Illegal Pitches

Because softball involves repeated movements, illegal pitches come from repeating bad habits. When pitchers practice crow hopping, they end up doing it in games as well.

The best way to avoid receiving illegal pitch calls is to practice legal pitching moves. Umpires do not want to call illegal pitches because their actions affect the game. However, umpires will call them, especially if pitchers break the rules repeatedly.

Differences between NFHS and NCAA

The National Federation of State High School Associations is the organization that sets rules for high school sports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (or NCAA) does the same for college sports. These organizations have many similar rules for fast-pitch softball, but with some variations for illegal pitches.

In the NCAA, pitchers can make one and a half revolutions with their pitching arm in the windmill motion. In the NFHS, pitchers must make no more than one and a half revolutions in a clockwise motion. At the end of the pitch, the pitcher cannot make any more revolutions once releasing the ball. In high school softball, the pitcher should not continue to wind up after moving forward or after releasing the ball. Other than these subtle wind-up differences, the rules for illegal pitches are the same in USA Softball, NFHS, and the NCAA.

Penalties for Illegal Pitches

The penalties for illegal pitches were standard across the NCAA and NFHS. However, the penalties changed recently for high school games.

The previous rule awarded base runners with an automatic base after an illegal pitch. This rule has changed. Any illegal pitches with runners on base only award a ball to the batter. If the illegal pitch is called ball four, then the batter gets first base. If a runner is on, the runner advances, only if the advance is forced.

In the NCAA, illegal pitches give base runners a free base, and the batter gets a ball added to her count. Umpires rarely call illegal pitches in collegiate softball games, so these penalties rarely affect the game.

Sometimes, batters hit illegal pitches before the umpire can call the ball dead. If the batter reaches first base safely on an illegal pitch, the batter can stay on the base. The illegal pitch call is nullified and the batter receives a hit in the scorebook.

Are hitters allowed to hit illegal pitches?

Batters have a split second to decide whether or not to hit a pitch. They aren’t watching the pitcher’s performance and form.

Because batter’s don’t know if a pitch is illegal until the umpire calls it, batters do hit illegal pitches. If the pitch is illegal and the batter safely makes it to first base, the illegal pitch call is nullified.

Umpires will not take away a hit from a batter, even if the pitch is thrown illegally.

Do runners advance on illegal pitch?

In high school softball, runners do not advance on illegal pitches. In collegiate softball, runners do advance on illegal pitches.

Conclusion on Illegal Pitches in Softball

I hope that this article has helped you understand what illegal pitches are in softball, and how to avoid them. There are 5 main illegal pitches for a pitcher to avoid during a game unless they want to put themselves at a disadvantage! In many cases, it is hard to tell if you are doing something wrong as it could be a small technical issue that coaches could help with.