Our league provides Jugs softball pitching machines for batting cages and field use. These are, I believe, widely used by many leagues and do a pretty good job of pitching balls at game speeds. Properly used, they can provide a very good simulated-ball-pitched-in-a-game experience for the batter (for discussion on some overlooked details of pitching machine use, see the Related Articles below). However, a Jugs Machine can do more than pitch standard batting practice, and I have developed a few batting drills to take advantage of this.
The first drill was developed after my batters struggled with the rise ball. It requires a Jugs Machine fitted with a 12” sleeve, and a mix of 11” and 12” balls. Set up the machine so that a 12” ball comes in at the batter’s eyes (I use about 50 mph on the wheel for my 12U players). Because the 11” ball has more play in the sleeve when it gets fed into the machine, it gets thrown with slightly less velocity and comes in as a strike to the batter without having to change of the machine’s settings. This drill cured my batters swinging at balls in their eyes in one session.
A variation of the first drill is to have the 12” balls thrown as strikes at belt level, which tends make the 11” balls dive toward the ground, acting as a change-up or other off-speed pitch. One thing I do not like about the Jugs machines is that they tend to just groove the ball in the same spot, and batters then just get in the habit of swinging at every pitch. Mixing in a handful of 11” balls cures this problem.
If two Jugs Machines are available, set the first one at a speed slightly faster than the batters are likely to face in a season. Batting against this machine forces the player to generate a lot of bat speed to drive the ball, and so is a good drill in and of itself even if only one machine is available. Now set the second machine to the slowest fastball speed the batters will face. The goal here is to wait for the pitch while still generating the bat speed required against the first machine, and is much easier said than done. Too often, it is the slow pitchers who give team fits and to which are difficult to adjust, and this drill helps batters make that adjustment. Note that it is easier for the batter to go from slow to fast pitching, so make sure they hit against the fast machine first.
Because the pitching machine balls are softer, they tend to be easier to hit than a regulation ball and I have on occasion used real softballs instead of pitching machine balls with the Jugs machine. This gives the batter a true feel of the ball coming off the bat and gives more realistic feedback on how hard the ball was actually hit. If using real balls with a Jugs Machine, ensure that the ball is fed into the machine as a 4-seamer so that it flies true. A Jugs machine puts WAY more spin on the ball than any human pitcher could, and so a real ball will break a whole lot more than it will in a game (and be more dangerous to the batter as well – that is why pitching machine balls are dimpled like golf balls instead of seamed like real balls).
I have used the Jugs Machine for the Bunting Game, but was generally unsatisfied. Because the pitching machine ball is so much softer than a real ball, it is much easier to bunt fair but much harder to control. Bunts tend to spring off the bat instead of dying close to the plate like a regular ball would. And if you want to see *really* crazy bounces, play the Bunting Game with a Jugs Machine and real balls – you will be entertained, but also convinced that the Jugs Machine just was not made for producing realistic bunts.
With a little imagination, the Jugs Machine can be a really valuable tool for teaching batters various hitting skills, and is particularly good at teaching batters to recognize and adjust to different pitches. If not available, they are definitely worth the investment for a League (they cost about $1200). It is hard to imagine my batters hitting as well as they do without using the Jugs Machine and these drills.