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Everybody wants to talk about the curveball and the rise ball, but during the NCAA tournament this year, you may have heard a somewhat unfamiliar term in softball. The fastball is making a comeback in our game, but did it ever really leave? Let's take a look at some headliners in college softball that still utilize their fastball.
The name Kelly Barnhill has become synonymous with college softball in the past four years. Barnhill is well-known for her rise ball and this year she surpassed Florida Gator great, Stacey Nelson, to become the all-time strikeout leader at the University of Florida. As her senior season progressed, it was noticeable that along with her signature rise ball, Barnhill also started to work lower in the zone with a two-seam fastball. Her two-seam featured downward movement with the occasional arm-side run. Because of this, it gave Barnhill a different look during her senior campaign. Yet she still achieved the same strikeout success:
-358 K's in 287 Innings Pitched in 2019
-358 K's in 286.1 Innings Pitched in 2018
During the Norman Regional, the Oklahoma Sooners had their NCAA leading 41 game winning streak snapped by the University of Wisconsin. The winning pitcher was Kaitlyn Menz who held one of the nation’s top offenses to only one run, scattering five hits throughout her complete-game effort. Stifling the Sooners lineup is a challenge in itself, and Menz did so by only throwing a fastball and a change-up. Menz consistently throws in the mid-'60s (mph), topping out at modest 66-mph. Yet she was able to beat some of the best hitters the game has to offer, spotting her fastball effectively. She lived low in the zone and commanded her devastating change-up.
Miranda Elish has been one of the nation’s best pitchers over the last two seasons and was most recently heralded for her performance in the Austin Regional, winning all four elimination games to help the Longhorns advance to a super regional after dropping their opening contest against Sam Houston State. Miranda lives mostly on her drop ball and rise ball combination, but she also throws a 2-seam fastball that cuts to the outer part of the plate (right-handed hitter), similar to a curveball. So, not only can a pitcher throw a 4-seam fastball with 12-6 (on a clock) downward movement, which is how Elish throws her drop ball. Pitchers can also throw a 2-seam which will cut to the outer part of the plate or run to the inner half based on your grip and hand placement at release.
In the video below, Elish talks with Megan Willis of Longhorn Network about how she throws her different pitches. To hear Elish talk about her two-seam fastball, fast-forward to 1:06.
29 innings in 29 hours. 429 pitches. 31 Ks.@elish_miranda was a beast in the circle this past weekend to send @TexasSoftball to the Super Regionals. She showcased her pitches with @MeganJoWllis ahead of the NCAA Austin Regional. pic.twitter.com/nDgNu17TNT
— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) May 20, 2019
Before we dive into the reasons why the fastball is still important, let’s take a second to ask why this is even a question, to begin with. The fastball should be the foundation of all pitching mechanics and a staple in every pitcher’s toolbox, so why is it that many believe the fastball is no longer utilized at the college level? Why is it assumed that every elite pitcher throws only traditional “movement pitches” when there are many that still feature a fastball?
I think the answer is simple. Many pitching coaches and many players within the softball community are under the misconception that a fastball is a straight pitch with no movement, which is incorrect.
If thrown properly, with correct topspin, body positioning, and mechanics, a fastball should have the highest speed threshold of any pitch and have substantial downward movement. In other words, a good fastball should look like a drop ball. Below are three different views of a fastball thrown with topspin.
I believe part of the misconception of a fastball being a straight pitch comes from the lack of emphasis on teaching and encouraging young students to perfect the spin of their fastball and mechanics before moving onto other pitches. This leads to a lack of understanding about what their fastball should be doing. Instead, pitchers are taught secondary pitches before they have learned to command their fastball properly with adequate spin. Secondary pitches, like the curveball, rise ball, and screwball each require different hand positioning in order to get the desired spin and movement. If a pitcher is not trained to understand and execute the proper positioning for a fastball then other pitches and spins may bleed together, creating bullet spin, which does not produce much, if any, movement.
Barnhill, Elish, Menz and many other collegiates and professional pitchers are proof that the fastball, when thrown correctly, showcases exceptional movement and speed. If they can dominate opposing hitters while still utilizing their fastball, then I’d venture to say the importance of this fundamental pitch is not lost in our game.
Stay tuned for an instructional video on how to perfect your fastball spin.