First conceived as a way to play baseball indoors during months of harsh weather, softball has emerged over time as one of the most popular sports in the United States. Enjoyed by females and males of all ages and at all levels of competition, softball has proven itself distinct from its older cousin in terms of rules, biomechanical techniques, and injuries sustained during play.

Incidence of Play

  • Softball is played in over 100 countries worldwide.

  • Nine to twelve million Americans participated in softball annually between 2008 and 2018.

  • Softball is one of the most popular sports in the United States partly because of its myriad variants, including:

    • Organized grade school and high school softball leagues

    • Organized college softball leagues

    • Female and male professional softball teams

    • Recreational female, male, and mixed-gender team leagues for all ages

    • Fast- and slow-pitch rule variations

  • USA Softball (formerly the Amateur Softball Association of America) registers over 120,000 softball teams annually, comprising over 2 million players.

  • As of 2017, 1678 universities fielded varsity softball teams.

General Principles

Terminology and Rules


  • The rules of softball are similar to those of baseball.

  • Notable differences: softball uses:

    • A larger ball

    • A smaller playing field

    • Underhand pitching

    • Pitching area: pitchers stand in an 8-foot-diameter “pitcher’s circle” that is flush with the field

  • As with baseball, almost every softball league requires helmets for batters and base runners

  • Mercy rules

    • National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) softball: The game ends when one team wins by ≥8 runs after at least five completed innings.

Fast- Versus Slow-Pitch Softball

  • The major variations are with respect to pitching.

  • Rules common to fast- and slow-pitch softball.

  • Field dimensions are the same with 60 feet between bases.

  • Leading off a base is not permitted in softball. Base runners may leave the base after the ball has left the pitcher’s hand in fast-pitch or once the ball crosses the plate in slow-pitch.

  • Games are generally seven innings

Fast-Pitch Softball

  • Primary variant used in competitive high school, college, and professional softball play.

    • Regulation NCAA softball dimensions are a 6½- to 7-ounce ball that is 11⅞–12¼ inches in circumference

  • For the pitch the ball is launched underhand in a 360-degree windmill motion 40–46 feet away from home plate (vs. 60.5 feet in baseball). Distance depends on the league and player age. The pitched ball may have a trajectory that can have an upward, downward, or side-to-side motion. A strike is called if the ball passes over home plate in a zone between the batter’s knees and chest.

  • Bunting and base stealing are permitted offensive strategies in fast-pitch softball.

  • “Slap-hitting” is a permitted offensive strategy, unique to fast-pitch softball, wherein the batter starts at the back of the batter’s box and—once the pitch is thrown—advances toward the pitcher before aiming a bunt, or short “slap” swing, at the ball.

  • “Drag-bunting” is a permitted offensive strategy, also unique to fast-pitch softball, wherein a left-handed hitting batter will essentially start running to first base as she or he is in the process of striking the ball.

  • There are nine defensive players on the field at a time.

Slow-Pitch Softball

  • Main variant used in recreational softball league play in the United States (although certain recreational leagues do use fast-pitch)

  • Whereas most slow-pitch softball leagues use a standard-dimension fast-pitch softball, certain leagues use larger balls up to 16 inches in circumference.

  • For the pitch the ball is usually lobbed underhand in a “half-windmill” motion 50 feet from home base in an arc trajectory. The apex of the arc must be 6–12 feet high for the pitch to be legal.

  • Unlike fast-pitch softball, bunting and base stealing are usually not permitted in slow-pitch softball leagues.

  • There are 10 defensive players on the field at a time.

    • The tenth position is often a “short fielder,” a fourth outfield player who stands in the outfield behind the shortstop or the second base position.

    • Alternatively, the defense will field both a right- and left-center fielder.

  • Slow-pitch softball rules often allow for relatively heavier bats than those used in fast-pitch softball to help increase the power achieved when hitting a slower-moving ball.

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