If batting stations are an important part of every practice (and they are), then each station should be set up to maximize its effectiveness for batters. Pitching machines are an obvious choice for a batting station when available, and if used properly can do much to help a batter work on their swing and get their timing down. As a coach though, there is more to setting up a machine and using it to full advantage than meets the eye.
One common mistake that I see is the batter standing at the wrong distance from the machine. I have seen 10U batters standing 40 or even 45 feet from the pitching machine in the batting cages, when the pitching distance for 10U is 35 feet. Alternately, I have seen the pitching machine set directly over the pitching plate when it is used on the field. To me, it seems to make the most sense to set the pitching machine about where the pitcher releases the ball, which is a few feet in front of the pitching plate. The rule of thumb I use is
2 feet in front of the pitching plate for 8U (or 28 feet in the batting cage)
3 feet in front of the pitching plate for 10U (or 32 feet in the batting cage)
4 feet in front of the pitching plate for 12U (or 36 feet in the batting cage)
5 feet in front of the pitching plate for 14U (or 35 feet in the batting cage)
Et cetera. I usually eyeball the distances, but have been known to break out my measuring wheel to make sure the distance to the batter is correctly set.
Because we want the pitching machine to copy live pitching as much as possible, a coach should provide a windmill windup prior to feeding a ball to the machine so that batters can time their load and swing to the pitch. From personal experience, it is next to impossible to catch up to a pitch with no windup from the machine unless the pitch speed is set ridiculously low. If the pitch speed is too slow, then the batting station is not emulating pitches very well.
As far as the speed of the pitch, I typically set the machine speed to the pitch speed of the next pitcher my team is going to face. Since I usually determine a pitcher’s speed via video (see the related article below) and not by radar gun, I have to calibrate a pitching machine’s speed to the video speed of a pitcher beforehand (I usually spend an hour or two before the season doing this). If I do not know the speed of the next opponent’s pitcher, I usually set the machine speed to a faster setting.
Finally, I try to set the release of the ball at hip height because that is from where the ball will come in Fast Pitch Softball. Some machines lend themselves better to doing this than others, so choose a machine that can shoot a ball from about 2 ½ to 3 feet from the ground if possible.
A pitching machine can be a great tool for batters if set up properly. However, I have heard too many coaches say, “We hit well in the batting cages, but don’t do anything during the games,” because they do not put in much thought into what they are doing differently using a pitching machine that is not being done by a pitcher in a game. Use the above tips to make hitting off a pitching machine as game-like as possible.