The father of one of my new hitters recently asked if he could take his daughter to the batting cages in between our lessons in order for her to hit fast pitching off a machine. He asked this question, because he was aware that I rarely use a pitching machine during workouts with my hitters. I let him know that I was fine with her hitting off a pitching machine periodically, but I cautioned him about some of the potential risks.
This hitter is a freshman in high school, with nice potential. She is tall, athletic, and is a hard worker. After only a few lessons, this young hitter has made great progress with her new hitting mechanics. It is obvious that her bat is faster, her power is improving, and her confidence is rising. She has made this fast progress without hitting off a pitching machine even once. Our workouts have been limited to tee work and front toss.
A typical workout for my hitters during a 30 minute session consists of at least 10 minutes of tee work. As I wrote in a previous post, “Perfect to a Tee” https://torque-hitting.com/2013/08/24/perfect-to-a-tee/ , the best way to learn and work on hitting mechanics is by using a batting tee. With a tee, we can easily isolate and work on each of the hitting keys I teach to ensure proper execution. I also videotape my hitters doing their tee work, because if any of their mechanics are breaking down with the ball just sitting on the tee, they will surely break down when the ball is pitched to them. A good slow-motion video analysis program can easily identify even the smallest swing issues. The goal for tee work is to hit the ball with nearly perfect mechanics 90% of the time.
After a hitter has demonstrated sound and repeatable hitting mechanics off a batting tee, I will spend the next 10-15 minutes throwing the ball underhanded from behind a screen from approximately 15 feet. With the first bucket of balls, I will try to work on the same hitting keys we focused on during the tee work. I have found that young hitters typically have a difficult time transferring the proper mechanics from the batting tee to front toss, even though the ball is coming in slow and from a short distance. After working on the basic hitting keys, I will often work on directional and situational hitting for the remainder of the front toss session. The goal for front toss is to hit the ball successfully 75% of the time.
Finally, I like to end a 30 minute workout the way it began….hitting off a tee. Hitting a few balls off a tee at the end of a workout allows hitters to recover from any inconsistencies from the front toss portion of the workout, and end on a positive note. I have seen too many hitters leave the cage frustrated with their performance after hitting off a pitching machine. Spending the final few minutes of a workout hitting off the tee also allows me to remind hitters what they need to work on when they practice on their own. It also gives me an opportunity for me to provide some final words of encouragement or to constructively challenge the hitter.
At this time of year, when the fields in the midwest are covered with snow, I believe hitters should focus their workouts on hitting off a tee and front toss. There will be plenty of time to hit off full speed pitching from a machine or a teammate before the season begins. I believe the risks of spending too much time hitting off a pitching machine in the offseason far outweigh the benefits. Here are a few of my concerns:
- It is more difficult to isolate and improve important hitting keys and the overall swing
- If the speed of the machine is set too high, hitters are susceptible to developing bad habits
- Depending on the quality of the machine, the sequence of the swing can be negatively affected due to the inconsistent release from the mouth of the equipment.
- The short time between pitches also contributes to the breakdown of hitting mechanics, as hitters become tired.
- It is more difficult to provide instruction when hitters are trying to hit a ball coming at them every few seconds. Their attention is naturally on the pitching machine and not on the instruction.
When I feel a hitter is at the 90% proficiency level off a tee, and the 75% proficiency level during front toss sessions, then I will encourage them to hit off a machine or live pitching. The ultimate goal for all my hitters is to hit the ball successfully 50% of the time off live pitching. For elite hitters, this means hitting between .400 and .500 with great bat speed, power, and consistency. This is achievable at the high school and college levels in softball and baseball for those hitters who don’t rush their progress in the offseason.