In high school softball, it’s all about the spin. At least for the pitchers.

It’s been nine years since the National Federation of State High School Associations moved the softball pitching rubber back three feet, from 40 to 43, to create more offense in a game that decidedly favored a hard-throwing pitcher.

In the years immediately after the move, hitters had the advantage as pitchers adjusted to having to throw the ball an extra three feet. There were more hits, more runs, more balls put in play and fewer strikeouts.

Now it appears pitchers are regaining some of their dominance. In the last few years, teams with superior pitching staffs have risen to the top of the sport, increasing strikeouts, and allowing fewer hits and runs.

“The elite pitchers have mastered (43 feet),” said Rusty Worcester, the long-time coach at perennial Class B power Oceanside in Rockland. “They’ve made themselves tougher to hit. They’ve gotten stronger and faster.”

But there’s more to it than just speed. As Bucksport Coach Mike Carrier said, “Every (hitter) can time up the speed eventually.”

Keep your eye on the ball: Portland High senior Jess Brown delivers a pitch in this sequence of images from a May 2 practice.

More pitchers are working at their craft year-round, and training at a younger age with pitching coaches. And what they’re learning is how to spin the ball, or make it move. Curve. Screwball. Change-up. Rise ball. Drop pitch. They are deceptive pitches – much like those of their baseball counterparts – and they are making a lot of batters look bad.

“You see a big difference in the junk balls,” said Thornton Academy Coach John Provost. “That three feet has made a huge difference on the spins. You’re not going to get away with just throwing a fastball anymore. You’ve got to be able to spin the ball. The most successful pitchers are the ones who can make the ball spin.”

Consider Portland High senior Jess Brown. As a junior she was named Maine Gatorade Player of the Year when she went 12-2 with a 1.29 ERA and struck out 134 batters in 1002/3 innings, leading the Bulldogs to their first regional final in 13 years.

Unlike contemporaries Chloe Griffin of Scarborough, Raegan Kelly of Noble and Grace McGouldrick of Gorham, Brown doesn’t throw the ball in the high 50s or even 60 mph. She’s in the mid-50s.

But she puts such a spin on the ball that she gets a lot of swings and misses.

In this year’s opener, Brown gave up just six hits and struck out 14 in a 2-1 loss to Gorham. Her counterpart, McGouldrick, struck out 11 and allowed just four hits.

“She is so tough to hit,” said McGouldrick, who is receiving a scholarship to play at the University of Maine next year. “Every pitch has a spin and it’s really distracting to the hitters. There were so many girls in the dugout saying how her spin is so eye-catching and that’s all they were staring at when they were hitting. I told them to relax and not focus on the spin.

“But it is a huge distraction. As a hitter we want to know what’s happening but (the spin) tends to make people overthink.”

Brown, who recently decided to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, can’t throw 60 mph. But that doesn’t make her any less effective.

“I think both styles have an advantage,” she said. “You have the intimidation factor when you’re throwing that fast. If you’re getting up to bat and hear the snap of the glove every time, it does get to you after a bit. But I think just having the element of surprise, too, is valuable.

“I don’t overpower girls. I move the ball around and try to get them off-balance.”

High school softball statistics aren’t kept statewide, but data kept by some of the top programs offer a clue about how the game is evolving.

Bucksport is one of the state’s top Class C programs, winning four state titles in the last six years. The Golden Bucks saw a big jump in offense from 2009 (the last year at 40 feet) to 2013 (a championship season). They had increases in runs (79), hits (40) and walks (34), with 76 fewer strikeouts.

Then consider the difference between 2013 and 2017, another championship year: Bucksport scored 11 fewer runs, and had 44 fewer hits and 14 fewer walks, while striking out 37 more times. And the Golden Bucks are traditionally one of the best hitting programs in northern Maine.

Then consider some pitching statistics from some of the state’s other top programs.

In 2009, Class A champion Scarborough allowed 48 hits and 12 runs on the season, striking out 196 batters. The Red Storm won another state title in 2013, but allowed 20 more runs and 20 more hits, and struck out 52 fewer batters than in 2009. They also walked 20 more batters.

Jump forward to another state title season in 2017, when Scarborough threw Lilly Volk (now at UMaine), Abbie Murrell (Saint Anselm) and Griffin (heading to Southern New Hampshire University) at teams. The Red Storm allowed 17 fewer runs, three fewer hits and 17 fewer walks than in 2013.

And then there’s Noble. From 2015 to 2017, the pitching staff saw a dramatic decrease in hits allowed (168 to 95) and runs allowed (95 to 61), and a big increase in strikeouts (108 to 183). A big reason is Kelly, the sophomore with the overpowering stuff.

Clearly, among the best programs, the advantage is swaying back to the pitchers. One of the reasons, said Nick Caiazzo, is 43 feet is the new normal.

“It was a big deal when they moved it back three feet,” said Caiazzo, one of the owners of the Edge Academy and Maine Thunder travel softball program. “But now everyone practices at it nine months of the year. … They’ve been pitching at it since middle school. Over that time there’s certainly been enough repetition for those girls to get a feeling of being more comfortable (at 43 feet) than they were when it was first moved back.”

Jenn Plourde, the coach of two-time defending Class B champ Old Town, agreed.

“Softball pitching has evolved from that distance change,” she said, noting that the best pitchers start working with private pitching coaches at 7 or 8 years old. “If you want to strike out batters, you’ve got to work at it.”

Plourde should know. She has two of the state’s best pitchers in senior McKenna Smith and junior Olivia Albert. Each one has been the winning pitcher in a state championship game. Smith struck out 19 in last year’s 2-0 win over Fryeburg Academy.

“You have to have something more than just a fastball,” said Plourde. “When you throw in a curve, or a rise, or screw or drop, at least it makes the batter think, ‘What is this ball going to do?’ Batters are always looking for that one fastball they can hit.”

These days, batters need to expect the unexpected.

“When you’ve got a (pitcher) who can really move the ball the right way, that’s special,” said Scarborough Coach Tom Griffin. “The pitchers have adjusted and realized what they have to do. Even at 60 mph, you’re not going to blow the ball by people. And most aren’t at that speed. You need pinpoint control.”

And, just about every coach says, you need a good defense behind you. “The ball is in play more and it’s in play harder,” Griffin said.

Chloe Griffin pitches for the team and said she relies on her teammates a lot. “I’m not a strikeout pitcher so I use my defense,” she said. “Spinning the ball and using your ‘D’ is the new thing.”

Scarborough is a team that stresses defense in every practice. “In the winter it’s all about hitting,” Chloe Griffin said. “But once we’re here, it’s defense, defense, defense.”

Liz Winslow is Scarborough’s pitching coach. She played for Tom Griffin, earning Maine Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 2000, and then played at the University of Delaware. She’s not sure all pitchers are spinning the ball but those who do are certainly the most successful. Like Chloe Griffin.

“Of all the pitchers we’ve had, we’ve always said she’ll have the most success at the higher level,” Winslow said.

Chloe Griffin said that’s simply how she has to throw.

“Coming into high school I had a wake-up call,” she said. “I wasn’t going to throw as hard as Lilly (Volk) or Abbie (Murrell), that’s not really my method. So I started working on spins with my dad.”

Jamie Smyth, who this spring won his 500th game as the softball coach at St. Joseph’s College, said 40 feet may have actually handicapped some really good pitchers.

“Maybe that just wasn’t enough distance for your curve or screwball to jam the hitter,” he said. “Now there’s three more feet for your pitch to break.”

And pitchers are now using those final three feet to take control of the game again.