The Ohio High School Athletic Association's decision to move the pitching rubber back three feet this spring in softball to comply with national guidelines seems to be having the desired result.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association's decision to move the pitching rubber back three feet this spring in softball to comply with national guidelines seems to be having the desired result.

"What it's doing is lessening the impact of one player the pitcher," said Roxanne Price, an assistant commissioner with the OHSAA. "That was the goal of the rule change."

Among other findings, an examination of reported scores and published box scores conducted by ThisWeek reveals that the number of shutouts recorded during the first three weeks of the season in the district was down significantly compared with the same time frame a year ago. In addition, the number of home runs was up sharply.

"There are more balls in play, definitely," said Hilliard Bradley senior Kellie Roudabush, a University of Akron signee who is one of central Ohio's top pitchers and hitters. "You kind of just have to accept (that opponents are going to get) more hits against you.

"That means you have to rely on your teammates more and you have to rely on your defense more. It's made it more of a team game, I suppose."

The days of the 1-0 shutout dominated by pitchers and completed in fewer than 90 minutes might not necessarily be on their way out, but offense clearly seems to be on the rise now that pitchers are throwing from 43 feet instead of 40.

Of the 395 total games with reported scores played through April 16, 168 or 42.5 percent of them featured double-digit run totals by at least one of the teams involved.

"I think the increased distance is tipping the scales (in the batter's favor)," New Albany coach Patrick Finn said after his team defeated Watkins Memorial 18-11 in a seven-inning game April 6 that finished well after dusk and featured a combined 25 hits, including three home runs.

The Warriors hit two homers in that game after swatting five the previous day in a 10-9 victory over Big Walnut. Pickerington Central's 6-4 11-inning victory over Pickerington North on April 6 went past three hours.

Some, even a purist such as Bradley coach Kevin Moody, don't necessarily see the offensive explosion as a bad thing, however.

"I think it's outstanding," he said. "People like to see offense, and it's getting everyone in the game more involved."

There were 158 home runs hit this spring during the first three weeks of the season covering 334 games that had published box scores. That's a rate of one homer for every 2.1 games played. A year ago, there were 102 hit during the first three weeks covering 442 games with published box scores for a rate of one home run every 4.3 games.

Although the windy spring weather can affect home run totals, there were 56 more hit this season in 108 fewer games after three weeks.

Additionally, only 31.4 percent of the games through three weeks last spring featured double-digit run totals by at least one of the teams involved. Such games are up 11.1 percent this season.

"(The pitching distance change) is coming at a time when bats are performing at their best, too," Ohio State coach Linda Kalafatis said. "Technology doesn't go backwards."

There also has been a significant drop in shutouts. This season there were 97 pitched in the first three weeks (one every 3.4 games). A year ago, there were 190 (one every 2.3 games).

"The number of strikeouts seems to be down, too," Pickerington North coach Lindsay Bayless said. "I know ours are."

Still, not everyone is convinced the game has been dramatically and even irreversibly altered by the first fundamental change the sport has undergone in decades in the state of Ohio.

Although not all states must comply, the change in pitching distance was implemented on a broader scale by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) following several test seasons in Florida and another last spring in Oregon. Officials in the test states did report an increase in runs, Price said.

"I don't think it's really had that much of an effect," Gahanna coach Jim Campolo said. "What you're seeing, maybe, is a change in pitching philosophy.

"When you move the pitcher back, they know they're going to have to rely more on movement and different types of pitches like a breaking ball. The rule change probably affects the pure power pitchers more, someone like an Emma Johnson (of Groveport), but everyone's still adjusting to some degree."

Many pitchers first played at the new distance last summer when the switch was made in the 18-and-under and most of the U-16 travel leagues. The pitching distance remains at 40 feet in middle school in Ohio.

"I don't really feel a big difference most of the time," Bradley senior pitcher Taylor Young said. "I think we're all getting used to it now, and it just takes a little more endurance from your legs."

For Young, her first chance to pitch at the new distance came right in the middle of a travel game early last summer.

"We were already into the game when someone realized we forgot to move (the pitching rubber) back," she said with a laugh. "Pitching from two different distances (in the same game), now that was a little weird."

The number of errors committed during the first three weeks of this season also has increased. There were 1,635 made in 442 games with published box scores last season for an average of 3.7 per game. There were 1,416 made in the first 334 games with published box scores this spring for an average of 4.2 per game.

That's putting pressure on coaches to address any defensive shortcomings a team might have.

"I think you have to now," Moody said. "Anytime you have more balls in play, there's going to be more opportunity for mistakes, sure."

Aside from having more players impacting a game, there can and likely will be other positives stemming from the change.

The rubber sits 43 feet from home plate at the collegiate level, for example.

"I believe moving the distance of the (circle) in high school will better prepare the pitchers for college," Capital University coach Nan Payne said. "And, since many travel-ball tournaments have also moved (the rubber back), it will bring more consistent results."

"I like it that they've made the switch in the summer leagues because that's when we do so much of our recruiting," Kalafatis said. "For the girls who will go on to play in college, there's no doubt there's an advantage. I think it can help (college coaches) better judge a player's ability, too."

However, the risk of injury likely increases as well as more balls are put in play. That's especially true if they're coming off bats with greater velocity as the increased home run seems to indicate.

"I'm seeing a lot more mouthpieces (in use), I know that," Moody said. "A lot more of the girls are using (face) masks, too, especially the third and first basemen (who usually play well inside their bases). Our third baseman wears one. I've even seen some pitchers using them, and I'm seeing that at younger and younger ages."

Kalafatis said that while the Big Ten Conference is at the forefront of bat testing as a safety precaution, it's far from unusual to find ones that exceed the 98-mph exit velocity limit set by the NCAA. Composite bats, in particular, can become livelier as the materials loosen with repeated use.

Kalafatis also noted that there is no statistical proof yet that livelier bats result in more injuries, but that she often will take extra safety precautions coaching from third base when certain hitters are at the plate.

Bats used at the prep and youth levels are not tested once they leave the factory and doing so would be problematic because of the costs involved, coaches say. The bats must carry the Amateur Softball Association stamp, however.

"That's the best we can do," Moody said. "It's scary when something does happen. A couple of years ago, (Roudabush) took (a batted ball) off the face in our (Division I) state semifinal. Luckily, she had just turned her head to the side a little bit, but it was bruised and swollen. It was quite a shiner."

Some schools could consider moving their fences back if home run totals remain high. The NFHS recommends that fences, which are symmetrical in softball, be set between 185 and 220 feet from home plate. Moody, who said most fields didn't have fences when he started coaching 26 years ago, probably would like to see his at Bradley moved in, however.

"Ours at all three Hilliard schools are 240 feet," he said. "I spent 14 years (combined) at Davidson and Darby, and in all that time I only saw one ball hit out and only heard of it happening twice. Two hundred and forty feet, that's quite a poke."

The sampling ThisWeek examined is much too small to draw any broad conclusions, and most individuals interviewed for this story agree that the swings in statistics currently being seen should even out over time.

"Hopefully, after the adjustment period happens, things will settle down," Kalafatis said. "The (offensive) numbers will still be up, I would imagine, but they'll probably show a little more balance."

Price said the OHSAA would not be concerned if the long-term byproduct of the rule change is more offense. But when told of the time length of some games this spring, she said that would be something the OHSAA would look into if suspended games became a problem.

There is no data indicating that's the case, however.

"I'm sure scoring is up, but that also gives defenses a chance to play more of a role in the outcome," Price said. "But if it's to the point that games aren't finishing, well, we couldn't have that because schools are working hard to keep travel costs down."

A fundamental change in any sport is bound to create conflicting opinions, and there seems to be no shortage of that in this case as the first season of pitchers throwing from 43 feet continues to play out across central Ohio.

"I'm just not seeing (a big effect). In our first six games, we had three shutouts and one was 1-0," Campolo said. "There weren't any home runs, either. And we've never been a strikeout kind of team, so I can't really address that. We've already been relying on our defense to support the pitchers.

"But I know they started with it in Florida as an experiment and they kept it."

At a glance

Taken from published box scores, below is a comparison between the first three weeks of the 2010 and 2011 seasons in numbers of games, home runs, shutouts and errors:

SEASON GAMES HOME RUNS SHUTOUTS ERRORS

2010 442 102 190 1,635

2011 334 158 97 1,416