Ted Williams was fond of saying that the toughest thing in sports is hitting a round ball with a round bat. Williams was right, just not as precise as he could have been. The toughest thing in sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat when the round ball is thrown underhand from 40 feet away.
In the 2000 Olympics, the gold-medal-winning U.S. softball team allowed only seven runs and 24 hits in 10 games. This year, Team USA won again and was even more dominant. In nine games, the Americans allowed one run and 18 hits. Granted, American softball players are the best in the world. (They’re currently on a 79-game winning streak.) But it’s usually not just Team USA’s opponents who struggle to score. In 2000, in their six games against China, Japan, and Australia—arguably the Americans’ toughest competition—the U.S. team scored only six runs.
Though the Americans did much better this time around with 51 runs in nine games, when great players face off, softball is clearly a pitcher’s game. In this year’s Olympics, there were 19 games that didn’tinclude weak sisters Greece and Italy. In those games, an average of 3.8 runs were scored per seven innings. By contrast, the typical American League game last year included 7.65 runs per seven innings.
So why is hitting a softball so hard?
Distance, time, and uncertainty. In international competition, the pitcher’s plate (or “rubber,” as baseball fans know it) is only 43 feet from home plate. What’s more, thanks to liberal rules, softball pitchers release the ball from even closer than that, slightly less than 40 feet—about 20 feet closer than a baseball pitcher. Top softball pitchers like Jennie Finch can throw roughly 70 miles per hour, the equivalent of a low-90s fastball thrown from 60 feet away. There are, of course, many hundreds of human beings who can hit a low-90s fastball. But most of them play professional baseball, and nearly all of them are men. And anyway, fast-pitch pitchers don’t just throw fastballs. They keep the batters guessing with rise balls, drop balls, curves, and in-shoots. Pitchers with speed and a varied repertoire—like current U.S. Olympians Finch, Lisa Fernandez, and Cat Osterman—make life almost impossible for even the best hitters.
In softball, there are no famous hitters, only famous pitchers. Which isn’t to say there aren’t great hitters—of course there are. It’s just that the conditions of the game simply don’t allow even the greatest hitters to be successful often enough for anybody to notice. (It’s worth noting, though, that pitchers don’t dominate the game to the same extent in men’s fast-pitch softball. Perhaps that’s because the hitters are stronger, which opens the game up offensively in a couple of ways: The men hit more home runs, and they can also do more bunting because the infielders have to back up a little.)
Fernandez, perhaps the greatest softball pitcher ever, faced major league all-star David Justice after the 1996 Olympics and struck him out on three pitches. Since Jennie Finch took over as a co-host of This Week in Baseball, she has consistently struck out current major leaguers who’ve dared to take the “Jennie Challenge.” Eddie Feigner—the star of the famous barnstorming team The King and His Court—was supposedly once clocked at 104 mph, and in a two-inning exhibition in 1967, he struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Roberto Clemente. As Feigner recently observed, “In fast-pitch softball, you have to swing four or five inches above the ball or four or five inches below the ball. If you swing at the ball, you’ll strike out every time.”
So why don’t baseball pitchers just throw fast-pitch-softball style if it’s so effective? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that the typical fast-pitch motion is technically against MLB’s rules. A couple of years ago, the Kansas City Royals considered signing a hotshot Canadian softball pitcher before realizing that his style was illegal. And the second is that pitchers can throw harder overhand, and real men like to throw the ball hard.
But softball can still teach us something about baseball history. The terminology used to describe pitches in fast-pitch softball—rise ball, drop curve, in-shoot—is essentially the same as that used by baseball pitchers a century ago. Why? Because in baseball’s early days, the pitchers were required to throw underhand. As the game’s rules were liberalized, the names for the pitches eventually changed. But if you’d like to know what the game was like around 1900, Olympic softball is probably a better analogue than the current iteration of Major League Baseball. In the 1905 World Series, New York Giants legend Christy Mathewson tossed three shutouts, allowing only 14 hits in 27 innings. That’s roughly what Finch, Fernandez, and Osterman did these two weeks … except they didn’t allow as many hits.