I have been playing softball for over 16 years and coaching softball for almost 10 years. I have been to thousands and thousands of practices, spent countless hours on the diamond and in the batting cage. Coaches bring all sorts of equipment to these practices, from different types of balls, different types of bats or swing-aids, but one piece of equipment that seems to follow most people around to a large number of these practices is the PITCHING MACHINE.
Pitching machines have their uses and benefits, but they can also be very detrimental to the TIMING of a hitter, which, in my opinion, is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL a hitter HAS to have. There are also different types of pitching machines, and some are better than others. If you have the benefit of using an automatic-fed pitching machine, like an Iron Mike, you know how this can give you good reps without upsetting your timing. However, this article is directed mostly at the human-fed pitching machine (pictured above), where the coach or another player actually has to feed each ball through the hole. Here are four ways a pitching machine may be hurting your hitters instead of helping them, as well as what we can do instead. I have also included great alternate uses for machines at practice as well.
1. RHYTHM AND TIMING
Every pitcher has their own wind-up, their own special rhythm and delivery. As hitters, it is OUR JOB to match the rhythm of the pitcher, not the other way around. A pitcher will rock back, roll forward and explode off the mound in her own special way, giving a hitter countless visual cues to determine when she will release the ball, where it is going, and how fast it will get there. These all tell the hitter when to load, when to stride, and when to release their bat into the zone. Without these cues to help us gain an advantage, we become 100% reliant on reaction. Reaction is a nice skill to have, but we are much better as hitters when we can somewhat predict what the pitcher is going to throw.
Think about this: if you had to take 100 at bats, and you had a choice between knowing where and how fast every pitch is going to be, and not knowing where any pitch was going to be, which do you think would produce a higher batting average? As hitters, we are always better when we can use visual cues to predict which pitch is coming and the speed of it. Pitching machines upset this rhythm because it is an unnatural, stagnant delivery that doesn't allow us to get a feel for the rhythm of the game. It makes us stand still, takes away our ability to load before we hit, we just end up swinging and hoping we make contact until the drill is over. Some coaches will try to fight this by adding their own wind-up to the delivery of the pitch, but it usually is choppy and disconnected from the actual ball that we have to hit, and it can often do more harm than good.
2. RELEASE POINT
Human-fed pitching machines are designed to be feeder-friendly more than hitter-friendly. Do you ever notice that the hole that we feed the ball through is at the top of the wheel? That is usually right around the waist or belly button of whoever is feeding, which, coincidentally is not where a pitcher releases a ball. This is so whomever is feeding does not have to bend over very much to feed the ball through, which does become quite helpful. However, most pitchers release the ball anywhere from the top of their knee to the mid-thigh, which is considerably lower than the machine releases the ball. So what we are teaching our hitters is to have our eyes higher than the actual release point of the pitcher. Considering how many reps of machine swings a hitter takes in his or her lifetime, this can train us to have bad habits.
Pitching machines are good for one thing, RISE BALL TRAINING, because that is all they throw. Not only that, but pitching machines throw the world's best rise balls, because they spin straight backwards. This is why most hitters swing underneath machine-thrown balls for the first few swings before they get the hang of it. We can tilt the machine lower, and the pitch will end up lower, but it is still spinning backwards and fighting gravity. Most 8U-14U pitchers don't throw a great rise ball, especially not low in the zone. However, these are the age groups in which we see the most pitching machine use. So what are we training these girls to do? Hit a pitch they haven't seen yet, over and over again. I haven't done an extensive study on pitching machine success vs. failure, but usually what I notice is that the hitters who can hit well off a pitching machine tend to struggle off of live pitchers, and the hitters who struggle off a pitching machine tend to be much better off of live pitchers. Again, that is only my experience as a hitting coach and player, but something I have noticed over the years.
Pitching machines can throw harder than most of us, which is why, I believe, most people buy them or use them. They are portable, easy to use, and they can crank up the speed that most of us can't throw. This can be useful, however, only in moderation. A lot of times in practice, coaches will crank up the pitching machine to give girls a feel for faster pitching. By the end of the practice, the focus has been on faster, faster, faster. However, in a game, you will often notice those same hitters, who could hit the fastest machine pitch, struggle with slower pitching. "I couldn't hit her, the pitch was too slow" is one of the most common phrases I hear in my cage, because there was little-to-no training spent on slower pitching. SLOWER PITCHERS ARE OUT THERE, and you have to face them just like you have to face the faster pitchers. Faster does not always equal better, so when we train girls to hit faster pitching, we aren't always training them to hit BETTER pitching. Sometimes those slower pitchers can be just as effective, if not more effective than their faster counterparts. Both Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman are lights-out pitchers, and there is a good 10 MPH difference (maybe more) in their pitch speeds. We need to train our girls to hit both types of pitchers if we want them to be complete hitters.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
Coaches, buy a screen with a hole in it, and front-toss to your girls. I grew up with a baseball background, and I see a lot more coach-thrown batting practice behind an L-screen than in softball. If you can't throw underhand, teach your girls how to front-toss to each other. You will get the benefits of rhythm with the arm swing that goes back before it comes forward. You will get the benefit of a natural spin and release point that will be mimicked in a game. You will get a reasonable speed that, in terms of reaction time, will be replicated in a game. If you need to increase or decrease the speed, just move the screen closer or further away from the plate.
Of course, the absolute best thing we can do is have LIVE HITTING PRACTICE. Have your pitchers throw to your hitters, from the proper distance, just like they do in a game. There is no substitute for this, the more live-hitting you see, the better off your hitters will be. Plus, it is good for your pitchers and catchers too! You can easily do this in a cage, and if you are worried about your pitchers getting hit, throw a screen in front of them that has a big enough hole to throw through. If we want our hitters to be great hitters in a game, when it counts, let's give them the most game-like practice in a controlled environment.
GREAT ALTERNATE USES FOR PITCHING MACHINES
While pitching machines may not be great for hitters, they are great for fielders! They can really help catchers with blocking, if you tilt the machine downwards to bounce just behind the plate. They are great for outfielders, you can tilt the machine way upwards and work on high pop-ups. The same works great for infielders and catchers to work on pop-ups for them as well. Machines can also hit a great ground ball for your infielders, so you can make sure the ball goes to a specific spot if working on backhands, forehands, high choppers, etc. They are also fantastic for catchers to teach them how to frame inside, outside, high, and low pitches. They can also help ease the fear for catchers who catch faster pitchers, since you can crank up the speed. You can also use pitching machines very effectively for bunting practice, since it helps hitters learn to bunt the top of the ball. Pitching machines have all sorts of wonderful uses, but please use them in moderation with your hitters. There is no substitute for front-toss and live pitching, as both are hands-down the most effective way to get our hitters where they need to be.