In high school and college, girls and women play softball while boys and men play baseball. Although they’re often used as gender-segregated equivalents, softball and baseball are actually two different sports.
While there are some professional leagues for softball players, they are not as popular or as profitable as the MLB.
Since softball is treated as a “girl’s sport,” some people may think that it’s not as difficult to play as baseball. But science can shed some light on which sport has a higher difficulty level.
Is softball harder than baseball? Softball is harder than baseball in several respects. Due to the size of the field and differences in equipment, softball is harder to play than baseball.
We’ll explore what makes softball different from baseball and why softball has an edge over baseball.
A Note on What Kind of Softball We’re Discussing: For the purposes of this article when we compare baseball to softball, we’re specifically talking about fastpitch softball. Fastpitch softball is the style of play used at the most competitive levels, and it’s what most people think of when they think of competitive softball.
Size of the Ball: Which Is Harder To Handle?
One of the most visible differences between baseball and softball is the size of the ball. A baseball is much smaller and lighter than a softball, although both are made of the same materials.
They’re generally filled with cork and rubber, then covered with leather and stitching on the outside.
At first glance, it seems simple. The game with the bigger ball must be easier to play, right?
Not So Fast
When it comes to making contact with the ball, it seems like it would be easier to connect with a bigger ball (if all else was equal). However, making contact with the ball is not the same thing as making good contact with the ball.
Consider the so-called sweet spot. On a baseball, there is less area that a batter can come in contact with, but there is less margin for error if they do hit it.
With a softball, since there is more surface area, a batter can connect with the ball in the wrong spot. This means that hitting a softball effectively is more difficult than hitting a baseball effectively.
They’re also more difficult to throw. Considering the ratio of a pitcher’s hand to the ball, the baseball fits much more comfortably in the palm of most pitchers. That makes it easier to grip and gives the pitcher a higher level of control over the ball when they throw it.
Taking into account that most women’s hands are smaller than men’s and they’re throwing a bigger, heavier ball, we can conclude softball the ball is one aspect that makes softball more difficult than baseball.
Distance of Basepaths and Size of Outfield
While both fields are the same shape, a softball field is much more condensed than a baseball field, especially at the professional levels. On one hand, this can make it easier for runners. Players who are on offense and trying to score have less ground to cover in softball than in baseball.
But fielding teams have a much more difficult time in softball than in baseball. Softball players have to react much more quickly to get players out because runners don’t have as far to run as they do in baseball.
The difference in baseline length is 30 feet! Baseball players have to run 90 feet, whereas softball players have to run 60 feet. That means if you put a baseball outfielder or baseman on a softball-sized field, they would have two-thirds less time on average to get the ball where they need it to be.
Additionally, in baseball, the outfield is much bigger. The furthest point from home plate is 400 feet on a baseball field compared to 220 feet on a softball field.
This means that if a baseball batter hits a ball far to the outfield, the fielding team has to cover a lot more distance to get the ball back to the basemen.
This favors the batting team, especially if they have batters who can make those big, powerful hits to the outfield. But the base runners do have further to go in baseball, giving everyone more time to act.
Distance from the Mound to Home Plate
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the difficulty level of softball when compared to baseball is the reaction time of the batters. The distance from the mound to home plate is 43 feet in softball and 60.5 feet in baseball. That means that the distance to the pitching mound is almost 1.5 times longer in baseball than in softball.
Now, it’s a fact that baseball have a faster average speed than softballs. However, even taking into account the average speed of a baseball and softball compared to their respective travel distance, softball players consistently have less time to react to a softball that is thrown at them.
On average, baseball players have about 0.44 seconds to react (which is still an insanely small amount of time) compared to softball players who have 0.35 seconds to react.
So softball players have less time to react and a wider margin for error, which means that softball batters have the harder job.
Another big consideration is the way that the ball is thrown. In baseball, the pitcher uses an overhand throwing motion. In softball, the ball is thrown underhand after the pitcher “winds up” by rotating their arm around several times before releasing.
While neither of these pitching styles are particularly good for a pitcher’s shoulder and elbow, what does this mean in terms of difficulty?
A lot of what makes a softball harder to hit has to do with the way the brain processes motion. It is much easier for our brains to process objects moving towards us in a downward motion. The old adage “keep your eye on the ball” is used to tell players to not only watch the ball but to adjust to it.
Due to the way a baseball is released from the pitcher’s hand, it will generally move on a downward trajectory as it moves through the air. The pitcher’s mound on a baseball field is also elevated compared to where the batter stands, which also means the ball is likely to track downwards as it comes towards the batter.
By contrast, the softball pitcher will release the ball from a low position, meaning that it will track up through the air as it gets closer to the batter.
Since our brains are better at reacting to and thus calculating a proper adjustment for a ball moving downwards, it’s easier to make those small adjustments to hit a baseball. With softball, it’s a much more difficult task for the brain to complete well, so batters are more likely to swing and miss.
And remember that a softball batter has less time to react to a softball, as well! Therefore, it’s scientifically much more difficult to hit a softball than a baseball.
Baseball bats tend to be longer, heavier, and have a greater diameter than softball bats. Combine this with the fact we discussed earlier about how the sweet spot in softball is much smaller compared to the overall size of the ball.
That means it’s easier to clip a softball or hit it incorrectly. Now we know that softball players have a smaller bat diameter to hit that spot, thus increasing the difficulty once again.
One area where it stands out that baseball is more difficult than softball is in the endurance of the players. As mentioned, baseball players have to run and throw across greater distances, and their games have more innings.
Baseball players will have at least nine innings, whereas softball players are only on the field for seven innings. Baseball players at the professional level play many more games than professional softball players, which increases the lifetime impact on their bodies.
It’s Harder to Make a Living Playing Softball
This is unfortunately the reality with many women’s sports. Although no one would say it is “easy” to play professional baseball, those players who are interested and dedicated to their sport of baseball have many more opportunities.
The MLB has 30 teams and an entire Minor League. There are going to be between 6 and 8 professional teams in the Women’s Professional Fastpitch league that will start in 2022.
And as for pay, there is no comparison. The average MLB salary is $4 million a year. Professional softball players make around $6,000 a year if they’re lucky. Pro softball player Delanie Gourley took to Twitter in 2019 and stated that the New York Yankees’ bat boys made more money than she did as a professional player.
And as we have just discussed, they’re playing a much harder game overall without the massive structural support of an organization like MLB teams who invest millions of dollars a year into their players’ physical health.
Hopefully, these statistics will change, since softball is the fastest-growing sport in the NCAA in terms of revenue. People like softball, and hopefully that will translate to more opportunities at the professional level.
Although we’ve broken down things like reaction times and field size, we’re not suggesting that either of these sports are easy to play, especially at elite levels. The fact is that baseball and softball are similar sports that are incredibly demanding both mentally and physically.
From a big picture perspective, softball is more difficult in a lot of aspects than baseball when you did into the science behind the fundamentals of the games. This is to say nothing of individual players’ strengths and weakness, but it’s rather a broader look at averages across the sport.