I have heard a lot of debate on using a pitching machine. But to be honest, as a batter and a coach myself, I think it is a great piece of equipment. Sure, it has its fair share of pitfalls. But when you use it wisely and set it up in a way that lets you hone your skills, I think it could be a great addition to your training.
But setting it up the right way is essential. A lot of complaints about the pitching machine come from inefficient use and practicing mindlessly. But if you cannot adapt it properly to your routine, you have no one to blame but yourself.
You can use the pitching machine for two different purposes:
- Hitting drills
- Fielding drills
Even the top-rated pitching machine will fall short of expectations if you are not using it efficiently. You should never just set it up in front of your batter at a fixed trajectory and velocity and forget about it. It requires a hands-on approach to get the most out of it.
Set it up the right way and use it well, and you will never find anything to complain about.
If you are juggling the thought of whether or not you want to use a pitching machine for training, let me clear that cloud for you. In this article, I will give you some tips and tricks on how to use a pitching machine and integrate it seamlessly into your training routine.
Setting Up Your Pitching Machine the First Time
Before I give you my two bits about using it efficiently, let me talk a bit about setting it up when you first get your hands on it. Since each pitching machine is different, the first thing you want to do is go through the instruction manual thoroughly. It should have most of the information regarding assembly.
A lot of the complaints about pitching machines that I heard actually stem from improper setup. So, you want to take things slowly, and go through them step by step. If the instructions feel too difficult to follow, you should ask a friend, a fellow player, or even your coach to help you set it up the right way.
You also want to double-check your list of tools required to install the pitching machine. It should come with several small parts that you need to check.
Typically, the assembly with most pitching machines starts from the legs. And it is extremely important that you get this part right. However, again, since every machine is different, I cannot give you an exact step-by-step walkthrough without knowing about your specific model.
But one piece of advice that I can give you is to check if there is any wobble after setting it up. Once you assemble the legs, place them on even ground and see if it moves or shakes. A wobbly leg in your pitching machine will cause it to miss its target, which will, in turn, impact your training efficiency.
After assembling the rest of the parts, transport your machine to where you want to train with it. Do not turn it on yet. Make sure that there are no balls in the machine and no one standing in the line of fire. If everything is set, load it up with a ball and test fire around.
But you are not done yet. You still need to calibrate the machine to make sure that its aim is perfect. Again, there are a couple of different ways to do it, and each manufacturer tries to do things differently. If it were universal, things would have been much easier.
If you are using a basic pitching machine, then there is a chance that your unit will only require height calibration. Professional-grade pitching machines on the other hand require adjustments for different types of pitches like splitters, curveballs, or even sliders in some cases.
As long as the machine is throwing the ball into the strike zone, you should be fine. Consult the instruction manual for this step again and see what your options are. Once you get it all adjusted, you can load it up and start playing around with it.
How to Use a Pitching Machine Effectively
Setting up a pitching machine can seem complicated at first. But once you go through the manual a couple of times, it becomes quite clear. Using it effectively as a batter, on the other hand, is quite tricky. To maximize your training, you can’t just set it up and keep swinging as it pitches. You need to be smart.
The issue with a pitching machine is that it can make you develop some bad habits quite easily. If you set up the machine to pitch at a certain speed, you can fall into a rhythm. This can mess up your strikes in a real game where the pitcher is constantly switching up his style to throw you off.
In addition, if your swing techniques are not perfect, the constant hitting at a rhythm can cement your bad techniques. It will be much more difficult to shake off later on when you are training under a real coach. So, you need to practice proper batting stance and swing techniques before you start using the pitching machine religiously.
Do not let it intimidate you though. With the right guidance and some simple tips, you will be able to get full use out of your pitching machine. Here are some ideas to help you use them effectively in your training.
- Training with a partner is always a good idea when you have a pitching machine. He doesn’t have to be a coach.
- If your machine comes with speed control, which it should, you want to use it as much as you can. Changing up the speed of the pitch after every few swings will keep you on your toes and simulate the feel of a real game scenario.
- Typically, you want to start with a stride-less approach for the first few pitches. It will help you get into the rhythm of the pitching machine. Get your techniques right and start with a few taps instead of strikes.
- Try to move around as much as you can. Moving around the plate will let you try out different types of strikes as the position of the ball in relation to you will change.
Do not ignore slow pitches and go straight to fast ones. Practicing to hit slow pitches is just as important as hitting those fast knuckleballs.
Can You Use a Pitching Machine Without a Partner?
Personally, I prefer using a pitching machine with a partner or a coach. It makes training more fun, and the partner can help drop constructive criticism every now and then to make my swings better. But some people do perform better and progress faster when training solo.
If you have an automated pitching machine and want a solo practice experience, I would recommend getting an automatic ball feeder. It will feed the ball automatically into the machine while you swing away to your heart’s content.
Can you add auto-feeders on all pitching machines?
Sadly, you can only use auto-feeders on your pitching machine if it is an automatic model. If you are using a manual paddle-style model like the Louisville Slugger Blue Flame, you still need someone to operate the pitching machine.
Do Pitching Machines Use Real Baseballs?
This is a question that I get asked often, mostly by my student-athletes. And the answer is no, in most cases. A pitching machine can use different types of baseballs and softballs that are specifically designed for this purpose.
You can find different sizes of balls for a pitching machine and your experience will differ drastically depending on the ball that you are using. However, you can also use real regulation baseball and softballs if you want. But it is highly recommended that you don’t as it can damage the balls.
Here are the different types of baseballs and softballs you can find for your pitching machine
1. Mini Balls
Mini balls as the name implies are quite tiny. In fact, it would be more appropriate calling them golf balls as the size is pretty much the same. The main goal with these mini balls is to develop hand-eye coordination. There are two types of mini balls that you can use.
Soft mini-balls – suitable for smaller spaces. They pitch slower and also do not fly far when you hit them
Fast mini-balls – suitable for a larger area. These ones are about fifty percent faster than soft mini balls.
2. Lite Balls
Lite balls come in the same size as a regulation baseball. However, they are made specifically to be used with a pitching machine. There are three variants of lite balls available in the market.
Hard lite balls – Hard lite balls are made using hard, durable polyurethane. The dimpled design of these balls lets them travel faster with high precision.
Soft lite balls – Soft lite balls are the same as hard lite balls. However, they are about fifty percent slower, and also are made with softer materials.
Slider leather lite balls – Though designed to be used with slider-capable pitching machines, these balls can be used with a normal one without any issues. These balls have a low-profile seam that lets them curve after leaving the machine.
3. Real Pitching Machine Baseballs
“Real” pitching machine baseballs have close similarities with a real baseball that you use on the field. Its size and shape are the same, however, you can only use it with a pitching machine that is capable of throwing real weight baseballs. Since these are designed so close to the real deal, you will get the true experience of hitting a real baseball with these balls.
There are two variants to this type of pitching machine balls
“Real” Poly Baseballs – Made using heavy polyurethane and comes with a dimpled design. It is designed to give you a high pitching accuracy.
Leather Pitching Machine Baseballs – Made using leather and comes with a low-profile seam. It can produce a real curve when fired from the machine giving you a real-game hitting experience.
4. Lite Softballs
Lite softballs are made using polyurethane and feature a dimpled design. These are lighter than regulation softballs which give them more accuracy when used in a pitching machine.
5. Real Pitching Machine Softballs
“Real” pitching machine softballs are not actually regulation softballs but rather designed with close similarities to be used specifically in a pitching machine. These are made using super solid polyurethane. They can travel faster than regulation softball. You can find these in both 11-inch sizes and 12-inch sizes.
Pitching Machines That I Use
In my days as a batter, I used to practice quite frequently with a pitching machine. It helped me hone my skills and reflexes to a greater degree. And now that I am a coach myself, I try to incorporate it into my training methods when I feel it appropriate. Although, Pitching machine costs vary from one to another.
Here are two of my favorite pitching machines that I have used over the years.
Louisville Slugger Black Flame Pitching Machine
The Louisville Slugger Black Flame is my go-to option whenever I want a manual pitching machine. It is affordable, handles different types of baseball, and is quite easy to set up. The versatile and lightweight frame of the machine offers reliable performance with a decent range in velocity.
With any pitching machine, velocity range is the first element that you want to check. The Black Flame might not give you a huge range, but it is still decent enough for the price, especially if you are using it to train younger athletes. At the high end the pitching machine caps out at 50 miles per hour, while for slow balls, it can go as low as 18 miles per hour.
To adjust the speed of the pitches, you get a digital readout device. You can also shift the trajectory of the pitch using it to switch between fly balls, line drives, or ground balls if you are training your fielders.
Accuracy is another critical part of a pitching machine, and the black flame, if set up properly, is quite precise. Just make sure you secure it well to the ground using stakes or sandbags. Otherwise, it will move slightly after a pitch which will get the next pitch off-target.
One thing that I really love about this pitching machine is its measly weight of only 24 pounds. So, I can easily move it around if I need to change its position. But despite the lighter weight, the frame is extremely sturdy. So even if it takes a beating, it should work perfectly without breaking a sweat.
Of course, it has the obvious caveats of a manual pitching machine. This means if you do not have a partner or a coach to operate the machine, you will not be able to train with it. But personally, I never had an issue with manual machines as they gave me a chance to give pointers between each pitch to the batter or fielder that I am training at the moment.
Jugs BP1 Combo Pitching Machine
The Jugs BP1 is an automatic pitching machine that promises high-end performance at a reasonable price. Though this machine is not exactly cheap, it is priced a lot better than some of the other premium-grade options out there while offering a similar level of performance where it counts.
The best part about this machine is its fantastic range of velocities. You can go as high as 70 which is enough to train even an experienced athlete who plays regularly. Needless to say, it can pitch significantly harder and faster than the Black Flame.
Its slow pitch velocity is also better than many of its competitors at this price range capable of going as slow as 15 miles per hour. This impressive range of velocities makes it a truly versatile machine. If you are a coach, like me, you can use it to train youths of different age groups effectively and hone their skills.
Another element that I love with this unit is its 360-degree swivel capacity. For batters, this might not be that much of a big deal. But for your outfielders and infielders, this can be game-changing. You can run them through full-field defensive drills whenever you want.
When it comes to portability, however, I feel this unit falls a bit short. Its assembly is easy, and you can disassemble the legs anytime you feel like it, but the substantial 75 pounds weight of the unit makes it a bit difficult to move it around unless you are transporting it on a car.
But this also says a lot about the overall sturdiness of the unit, so I guess I can’t complain much. The frame of the machine is made using high-quality stainless steel and it comes with a fair few pieces of moving parts. But I have yet to see one fail on me so far.
Typically, automatic pitching machines come with some built-in safety features to prevent accidents. If your clothing gets caught in the roller mechanism, it can get pretty dangerous. So, the lack of safety features in the BP1 does pose some concern especially if you are training young kids under 12 years old.
Apart from that slight hiccup, I feel that the BP1 is a fantastic machine that can drastically enhance the quality of your training exercises. Whether you are a batter, a fielder, or a coach, you will be able to get some use out of it as long as you know what you are doing.
Honorary Mention: Louisville Slugger Blue Flame Pitching Machine
For coaching little leaguers, if the Black Flame feels too big of an investment, you could even go with the UPM 45 Blue Flame. It is slightly cheaper and comes with a few features toned down slightly, making it arguably a better choice for younger players.
What Is the Difference Between the Blue Flame and the Black Flame Pitching Machine?
Not much to be honest. Louisville Slugger Black Flame Pitching Machine can throw as fast as 50 miles per hour and you can use a throwing arm attachment with it. With the Blue Flame, however, the speed is capped at 45 miles per hour and you cannot add any attachments to it.
Another major difference between the two is its pricing. The Blue Flame considered an entry-level option, costs lower than the Black Flame which is typically considered as an upgrade over the former. If you are looking to save a few bucks, the Blue Flame can be a pretty great choice.
The throwing arm attachment option with the Black Flame does offer a bit more versatility, and it is also a bit more adjustable. But you would not be sacrificing all too much with the Blue Flame if you are mostly coaching little leaguers.
Pitching Machines: Yay or Nay?
I have always been a thorough advocate for pitching machines and other training equipment to make your drills go more efficiently in the field. If used the right way, it will give you a noticeable boost in progress and skill development.
The best thing about using a pitching machine is it lets you look closer at the different technical issues of the player. You can use it for training outfielders, or train your batters on hitting a baseball with power while they are drilling it out on a pitching machine according to your instructions.