Category Archives: Product Reviews
Most fastpitch softball (and baseball for that matter) hitting coaches agree that tee work is one of the most valuable ways hitters can spend their time. By taking the element of a moving ball out of the equation hitters can focus on developing the mechanics that will enable them to hit the ball harder, farther, at better launch angle, and with more consistency rather than simply trying to “make contact.”
The typical tee is great for simulating pitches from just above the knees up to the armpits on all but those on the most extreme ends of the height spectrum. But what about those extra low pitches that umpire strike zones sometimes dictate hitters must be able to cover?
Without understanding the adjustments that need to be made on shin-high, or just-below-the-knee pitches, hitters will be more likely to swing over the top of the ball resulting in a sinking line drive or a weak grounder. Which, of course, is exactly the result pitchers (and whoever is calling pitches) are hoping for when they throw it there in the first place.
This is where the Jugs Short T is such a great addition to your hitting toolbox. Built with the same durable construction and materials as the regular Jugs T, which was previously reviewed here, the Short T makes it easy to get quality reps going after those pesky low pitches.
Getting down to it
The advantage of the Short T is that it can go as low as 16 inches off the ground, then extend up to 23 inches. (The standard Jugs T starts at 24 inches high.) That should cover the bottom of the zone (and then some) for just about any hitter.
The base is the same as that used for the standard Jugs T, which means if you’re tight on space and don’t mind putting in a little extra effort you can carry one base and two tee heights. They also sell a combo kit with both heights if you are so inclined.
The base itself is heavy enough to keep from getting knocked over even by strong hitters who swing under the ball – no need to carry an extra weight around. It also has a convenient carrying handle built in, making it easy to move from a shed, locker, car, etc. to wherever you plan to hit.
The tee section itself is solid enough to hold its height even after repeated use, yet still slides up and down easily. I’ve had my standard Jugs T for several years now and it holds as well as it did the day I got it – unlike some tees that eventually start sinking the minute you put a ball on them.
You can use it with multiple hitters, day after day, with no worries that it will lose its solid performance over time.
While the primary reason anyone would purchase the Short T is to work on low pitches, it can also be used to address another issue that is common with fastpitch softball hitters – the desire to stand up straight as they make contact.
Part of that habit, I’m sure, is driven by well-meaning but poorly informed coaches who instruct their hitters to “swing level” or “keep your shoulders level.” That’s just not how good hitters hit. Instead, they tend to have a shoulder angle that tilts in toward the ball.
Or it could just be that they got into the habit of standing up straight and never learned anything different. No matter the cause, the desire to finish standing up with shoulders level is a problem.
When you think about how little surface of the bat and ball contact each other, even a deviation of an inch – say from starting to stand up, which pulls the bat up – can have a significant effect on the outcome of the swing. Demonstrate you can’t hit the low pitch well and you will see a steady diet of dropballs and low fastballs for the rest of the game – especially if you’re a big hitter.
A phrase I like to use is “get on it and stay on it.” In other words, adjust to the pitch and then stay there. The Jugs Short T helps train that behavior by forcing hitters to go lower and stay down. If they try to stand up as they swing they will either miss completely or just tap the ball.
That’s what Grace Bradley, a powerful hitter in her own right, is working on in this video.
She is building a pattern where she can go down and dig the ball out to get the kind of launch angle that helps create her high OPS.
After a few practice swings on the Jugs Short T we switched to front toss and she was digging out even the ankle-high stuff for line drives that move base runners and let her trot rather than sprint around the bases.
That’s bad news for pitchers too. Because if they can’t throw you high, and they can’t throw you low, you’re going to be an awfully tough out.
Worth the money
Whether you (or your team if you’re a coach) is struggling with the low pitch or you just want to train your hitters to adjust better overall, at $75 to $80 retail the Jugs Short T is a great investment. It will help you create better hitters this year. And for many years to come.
The Pocket Radar company has made a great name for itself in the fastpitch softball (and baseball) worlds over the last few years.
Its original model (previously called Pocket Radar as I recall but now called Classic) was the first reasonably priced radar that could fit in your pocket yet give you readings as accurate as a traditional radar gun costing 4X to 6X as much. Its form factor was also great for coaches and parents at tournaments who wanted to check out the competition surreptitiously because it looked more like a cell phone than a radar device.
Then came the next great upgrade – the Ball Coach RadarTM. The beauty of this product was it was much easier to use. Rather than having to time the pitch, any dummy (even me) could just point the device, push and hold the button, and get a super accurate reading. There were other advantages as well but that one sticks out.
Now Pocket Radar has come out with an even newer and better version of its flagship product – the Smart Coach RadarTM. This one really ups the game (so to speak) because it’s no longer a stand-alone device to capture radar speeds, although it can also be used that way.
No, its real advantage is that there is a free companion app (currently only available for iPhones and iPads, although Android versions are coming so be patient) that greatly extends how you can use it for training. The Pocket Radar app allows you to do a number of things you couldn’t before, but most notably shoot video of the player and have the recorded speed embedded in the video. Like this:
That’s perfect not only for training but for sharing with college coaches. Because rather than taking a separate reading (which may or may not be of that actual pitch) and then holding it up to the camera, the speed reading comes from a trusted source. After all, plenty of college coaches use it themselves.
The Smart Coach Radar is very easy to use from the start. After downloading the app, you’re asked to pair it to your Smart Coach via Bluetooth. Now, if you’ve ever tried to connect a Bluetooth device like a set of wireless speakers you know how cumbersome and difficult that can be, especially if you’re not technology-savvy. (I am, actually, but I know plenty who aren’t.)
The Smart Coach Radar takes care of all of that for you. You don’t even have to go into your iPhone or iPad’s settings. The Smart Coach Radar takes care of everything under the hood. You just hold down two buttons when the app tells you to, answer a few questions about how you plan to use it (such as for which sport) and you’re ready to roll. Nice!
Oh, and after that first time it automatically pairs so you never have to do that again. And it keeps the connection for 30 minutes even if there is no activity and the radar turns itself off to save batteries. As soon as you hit Start on the app it will come back on.
Once you’re in, you have the ability to set up some parameters. For example, you can narrow down the range of speeds you want to measure. The default is 25 to 130, except for softball which is 30-130. But if you know the player you want to measure throws between 40 and 60 mph, you can narrow that range so you’re not capturing passing vehicles or whatever else might wander in the path of the radar. I set mine to 35 to 65 for now.
There is also an option for auto-stop versus continuous capture. It comes with auto-stop enabled right now, but based on user feedback Pocket Radar will be changing that to continuous. If you’re planning to capture multiple pitches, hits, throws, etc. you’re better off on continuous so you don’t have to manually trigger each reading from the app. The Smart Coach Radar will detect it and capture it automatically.
You don’t have to worry about long videos clogging up your phone’s memory either. In the Auto-Edit mode the Smart Coach Radar will automatically edit each video you capture into 8 second bites – 6 before the reading is captured and 2 after as I recall – so you have all the good stuff without the time in-between.
Another setting allows you to decide whether to have your device audibly announce the speed that was captured, which is great if you’re an athlete using it by yourself. I turned it off, because I find if players don’t like the reading they got on one pitch they tend to try to muscle up and make it even worse on the next.
There’s also a Dual Mode which is again great for those working by themselves. Normally when you capture video that’s what you see on your phone’s screen. If someone else is shooting it that’s fine. But if you want to capture the video for later study but want to see the speed now that would be difficult. In dual mode, the full screen shows the speed reading (making it much more visible) while still enabling the video to be captured.
The final major setting allows you to preview speeds while you’re in video mode without actually capturing the video. According to Pocket Radar, this feature was added at the request of scouts who wanted to have the app ready to capture a video when they saw something they liked, but otherwise just wanted to take speed readings. That way they wouldn’t fill their phone’s memory with video they didn’t want.
Finally, in the Advanced Settings window you can select whether to measure miles or kilometers per hour, and whether your phone should use cellular data.
This is the cool thing. You have two options in the main capture screen. The default is just the pitch/hit/throw/whatever speed as you would typically expect with a radar device. I’m just going to say pitch speed going forward, but what I say will apply to all.
If you’re in that mode, after you hit the start button and the speed is captured it will show in the Smart Coach Radar’s LCD window as well as in large red numbers on the iPhone/iPad screen for a few seconds. That’s great if you’re just trying to see speeds. For players working by themselves it’s particularly handy. Just set up an iPad off to the side and you’ll get instant feedback.
When you use the icon to select video mode, you can capture actual video of the event as well as the speed. What you’ll do here is mount the Smart Coach Radar to a tripod or fence using an optional holder, directly behind the pitcher or catcher at the height of the ball when it’s released and at least 15-20 feet away from the pitcher if that’s possible to get the best readings. Like its predecessors it will capture speeds from up to 120 feet away. Then you can stand anywhere you want to capture whatever video you need.
The video is captured using your iPhone/iPad’s camera, and is stored in your regular video folder. That makes it easy to sort through, review and delete without having to open the Pocket Radar app.
As I mentioned earlier, the speed that’s captured will automatically be embedded in the video. You can then run through it, either at normal speed or stepping through it by scrubbing, to look at the technique (good or bad) that created that speed, just as you would in an analysis app such as Coach’s Eye or RightViewPro.
What it doesn’t allow you to do, at least at the moment is draw on the video to illustrate certain points of emphasis like you can in those other apps. That’s the beauty of having an app, though. I’ve talked to the manufacturer and it’s likely a couple of basic drawing tools will be added in the future.
Even if they’re not, though, it’s no big deal. You can share the Smart Coach Radar video to one of those other apps literally in seconds, and then draw to your heart’s content as though the video was captured in that app. Although it has the added bonus of the speed reading being embedded too.
Viewing the history
As each video or speed reading is captured it is added to the history, which you can access by tapping the clock-like icon on the left side of the screen or the icon with the horizontal lines in the upper right hand corner. The data that’s captured is organized by day, and indicates whether there is video or just a speed reading. You can expand or collapse the days, making it easier to scroll through many readings to find the ones you want.
When used with an individual player that level of organization is no big deal. All readings relate to her. When you’re using it across multiple players like I do, however, that’s not ideal. Fortunately, there is a workaround for that. You have the ability to add or edit as many tags as you like.
To do so, you can tap the tag at the top center of the screen that reads whatever you set it too originally. Presumably that’s Softball since this is a softball blog.
That action will take you to a screen with a button that says Edit List. Tap the button and you can add whatever tag you like. Submit it and save, and that tag is now there, and will show up to the right of the main Softball tag. Tap the new tag and you can continue to add more so you can see which readings apply to which players.
The only issue right now is you have to remember to do all of that before you take the reading – you can’t go back and add a tag retroactively to the history. Pocket Radar also says they’re adding a more advanced tagging feature to the app to make this entire process even easier, and retroactive tagging in the history is expected to be a part of it. If you do need to keep tabs on who did what when, however, you can always export your history into an Excel spreadsheet, then add names or otherwise manipulate it however you want.
As with previous versions, there is also a mode/recall button on the Smart Coach Radar itself that allows you to quickly scroll through past readings if you’re not using the app.
Here’s another clever addition Pocket Radar has made to the Smart Coach Radar. There’s nothing worse than being set up on a field or in a cage only to find that your radar device’s batteries have run out.
The Smart Coach Radar has a port that lets you plug in one of those outboard batteries people often use when their cell phone batteries run low. It uses the same micro USB connection that comes standard on the charger cables. If your battery is running low (as shown by the battery indicator in the lower left corner of the Smart Coach Radar’s screen) just plug in the outboard unit and you’re good to go for another few hours.
By the way, that same USB port can be used to connect the Smart Coach Radar with their new Smart Display, a large-number readout that is visible from more than 100 feet away even in bright sunlight. If you’re a training facility, or a college, or someone who runs camps, that’s a nice added bonus.
The Smart Coach Radar isn’t cheap. As of this writing it’s $399, which is still anywhere from 2/3 to less than half of the cost of more traditional high-quality radar guns. As in the past, though, if you already own a previous Pocket Radar Classic or Ball Coach and want to trade it in for a Smart Coach Radar, Pocket Radar will take $100 off the price. That’s a great deal no matter who you are, and one you won’t find too many manufacturers in any field equallng.
But then, the company has always been great about customer service. Where else do you find a CEO who will answer customer inquiries and walk you through any technical issues himself?
After having tried it, I can definitely recommend the Smart Coach Radar, especially for any coaches, parents, or players who want video tied to their speed readings. It’s a great, durable product with a lot of great features, backed by a company that has proven the quality and accuracy of its technology time after time.
Batting tees are one of the most important tools a hitter can own. They’re great for working on swing mechanics, pitch locations and other techniques. They’re also great for getting in a few warm-up swings before the game.
There are all types of tees out there – all rubber, all plastic, a combination of the two. Lately, though, the most popular design has been a metal pipe-style with an inverted rubber cone on the top. You’ll typically find them in facilities with batting cages.
They’re not much to look at, and they often have a weight ring at the bottom of them to keep them from getting knocked over, but they get the job done.
The venerable Jugs Sports company is out to change all of that with their new professional style Jugs T. Retailing for $74.95, it improves on previous designs from other manufacturers in several ways, making it a great choice for facilities, coaches and individual hitters.
The first thing you’ll notice is how beautiful it looks. First-generation tee designs looked like they were built with steam fitting pipes and plywood from the local hardware store. The Jugs T appears to be made from highly polished aluminum with a solid metal base (more on the base in a minute). The bottom section is a deep, shiny blue, while the extension section is natural silver in color. You feel good just taking it out of the package.
It assembles in about 30 seconds – just screw the extension section into the base and you’re good to go. The rubber cone also feels thicker and more rigid than earlier tee models.
That comes in handy if you live up north like I do and leave the tee in the car during cold weather. With other tee designs if the cone is bent while it’s sitting in the trunk it takes a while before it holds a ball reliably.
Not the Jugs T. The thicker material bounces right back and is ready to go. I know – I tried it.
All of that is nice. But the real differentiator, in my opinion, is the base. It’s a solid metal plate instead of wood, and it is heavy – 10 lbs. according to the Jugs website. No need to put a 10 lb. barbell weight on this tee. In fact, the first couple of days I had it I kept handing it to people and telling them to feel the heft. It also has a pentagonal design that keeps it from going over the side if someone swings too low, and the entire base is coated in rubber so it won’t scuff gym floors.
Don’t worry about carting it around, however. The base also has a cutout that forms a convenient carrying handle. It’s easy to transport from cage to cage, or from the dugout to a practice area.
Another issue tees can sometimes develop is the inability to keep the ball at the desired height. You set the ball on it and the shaft starts to sink. So far that doesn’t seem like it will be a problem with this tee. It feels very solid when you raise and lower it, a good sign that it will continue to hold its ground even after repeated use. The adjustment range is a standard 23 inches to 46 inches – comparable to other tees I’ve used – making it ideal for your smallest players as well as your tallest ones.
Overall, like everything Jugs produces it’s a high-quality piece of equipment. If you’re looking for a professional style hitting tee that will stand up to tough use year after year, the Jugs T is a great choice.
These days it seems like the Young Adult book category is crowded with stories of dystopian futures and heroic main characters doing the near-impossible. While they make for fun (and profitable) adventures, they may be a little difficult for the average teen to identify with.
There are no such issues with Fast-Pitch Love, a sweet story of young love that takes place over the summer of 2000. Written by first-time author Clayton Cormany it uses the development of a 12U rec league fastpitch softball team as the centerpiece for self-discovery of several of its characters.
The book is essentially the story of Jason (Jace) Waldron, a central Ohio boy and cross country runner who will be entering his senior year in high school. Jace has a crush on new girl Stephanie Thornapple, whose blue eyes and auburn hair make her the prettiest girl he’s ever personally known. Unfortunately for Jace, she is the girlfriend of tough-guy nose tackle Carson Ealy, who threatens anyone who even looks at her for too long.
As classes empty out on the last day of school, Jace’s best friend Stick – who is quite aware of Jace’s not-so-secret crush on Stephanie – informs him that Carson will be away for quite a bit of the summer working in a lumber yard in Michigan and checking out colleges, creating an opportunity for Jace to try to get in with Stephanie. All he needs is an excuse.
That excuse seems to present itself when Jace goes to the library to make copies of the roster for the softball team his mother will be coaching and his sister Phoebe will be playing on that summer. One of the players is Tina Thornapple; even better, SJ Thornapple is listed as the assistant coach. Jace begs his mother to allow him to help out with the team, figuring it will provide the perfect atmosphere to get to know Stephanie and win her away from Carson. She agrees, gets league approval for an extra assistant coach, and the stage is apparently set.
At least until the first day of practice when SJ Thornapple turns out to be Sylvia, Stephanie’s slightly heavier and somewhat less attractive sister. Once Jace realizes his mistake he starts thinking of excuses to back out but agrees to stay until the first game. In the meantime, Sylvia immediately recognizes why Jace signed up and offers to help him start dating her sister, even if he leaves the team.
Then the games start up, and the young Valkyries take a pummeling. Although Jace was never big on baseball when he played he feels bad for the girls and decides to stick around a little longer to help them learn the game. He and Sylvia work closely together to teach them how to throw, catch, field balls and hit. Sylvia is true to her word and helps Jace land his first date with Stephanie. As the summer goes on the Valkyries begin to improve – but that isn’t the only change.
Soon Sylvia starts letting her hair down and wearing makeup to practice and Jace finds himself attracted to her, even as he continues to date Stephanie. The latter sets up a confrontation with Carson when Jace is spotted at a carnival with Stephanie by one of Carson’s friends – just at the time Jace is beginning to wonder whether he is dating the right sister.
While it takes a little while to get going at first, Cormany does a great job of creating characters you care about – and feel you know. As I got deeper into the book I found it difficult to put down. Adults who remember their youth fondly will relate to the uncertainty and mixed feelings of the characters, which create tension without getting too deep into teen angst. Their feelings seem real. The young adult audience will likely either identify personally with the primary characters or feel they have friends like them.
The softball games are described with accuracy for the level. Neither the Valkyries or their opponents are portrayed as top-level travel teams. In fact, players are told at the beginning of the season they’ll be playing 11 games through summer plus the league tournament. That’s like a week in a travel team schedule, so hard core travel players and parents need to get past that.
Given the level of play, the game descriptions themselves stay true to form. Cormany describes them in great detail, giving you the feeling you’re reading a recap of a real game. There are errors and difficulties for both teams, again true for the level of play, which helps ground it in reality.
As a long-time travel coach myself I’m not so sure that the practices Jace uses to help the team improve will really work, and one in particular goes against what would be considered a best practice. But really, that’s a quibble. The key is the relationships between the characters and the overall development of the team. Both of those ring true.
There aren’t many stories out there that have fastpitch softball at the center, so young players and their families should enjoy that part of the book particularly. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read that will have you rooting for the characters to succeed – and to do what you know is the right thing – give Fast-Pitch Love a look.
Fast-Pitch Love is currently available digitally from Barnes and Noble at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fast-pitch-love-clay-cormany/1120679928?ean=29401503840 or at Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Pitch-Love-Clay-Cormany-ebook/dp/B00P744M7Q. The price is normally $4.99, but the author says he occasionally discounts it to $1.99 or even 99 cents so keep an eye out for that. There are also plans for it to come out in hard copy, although it hasn’t happened yet.
Do me one favor. Once you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.
If you are into pitching at all, or work with pitchers, you’ve probably heard about the Pocket Radar. It’s a device about the size of a mobile phone that makes it easy to gun pitch speeds, overhand throws, exit speed of the ball off the bat and (allegedly) the speed of car whizzing through your neighborhood.
I recently upgraded from the original Pocket Radar to the new Ball Coach version. While it’s an $100 more expensive than the original, I feel like it’s worth the extra money. The Pocket Radar Ball Coach retails for $299, which is still considerably less that a Jugs or Stalker gun – and it does a very comparable job.
The thing that got me to upgrade (other than a $100 rebate being offered for sending the old one back) was the ease of use. With the original Pocket Radar you had to time pushing the button just right to get the maximum speed. It was as much an art as it was a science.
The new version takes that timing issue out of it. In other words, it’s radar speed measurement for dummies. With the Ball Coach version, you point the unit at the source of the pitch, hold down the big blue button (as opposed to a red button on the original) and keep holding it until you get a speed reading. Nothing could be simpler.
When I first got the new version I immediately tried it next to my Jugs gun. While they didn’t always match exactly, they were always within 1 mph of one another. Sometimes the Pocket Radar read higher, sometimes the Jugs gun did. But close enough for my purposes.
The real acid test, though, came this past weekend when I took it to a couple of games and (somewhat) discretely timed the pitchers from behind the backstop. In one case I was well behind it. But it seemed to give me good readings on all the pitchers.
Another advantage to the Pocket Radar Ball Coach is the ability to have it automatically take up to 25 reading in automatic mode. You can set it up on a tripod or a mobile phone holder, click through to automatic mode, and it will give you the readings. You can then page through to see what the player got – which is great for batting practice, pitching practice or whatever.
If you’re reading this in Canada, or anywhere else that uses the metric system, you’ll be glad to know the Pocket Radar Ball Coach can be switched to read in kilometers per hour. The instructions explain how.
The Pocket Radar Ball Coach comes with a handy soft shell pouch that clips onto your belt. That’s another nice upgrade over the original, which came with a hard shell case you had to keep in your pocket. I still kept mine in my pocket, but it takes up less space. In addition to the case it also comes with a wrist strap and a pair of AA batteries (Eveready alkaline batteries, not those cheap no-name ones that often come with many electronics these days.
If you’re at all interested in measuring speed I can highly recommend the Pocket Radar Ball Coach. With its (relatively) low cost, high accuracy and ease of use it’s a great investment.
I’ve been a big fan of products from Jugs Sports for several years. I own a Jugs pitching machine, a radar gun, a quick-snap protective screen and two of their original pop-up screens. I’ve used the screens for drills in practice, and for soft-toss before games.
Most of the time they work well. But as you know if you’ve ever tried using them in breezy conditions there is a bit of a challenge in keeping them upright.
That’s why I was excited to get a chance to check out the new Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen. It’s a large (7′), durable, square screen with a base that keeps it upright both in the wind and hit after hit.
The Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen is easy to put together once you’ve done it once. (I may lose my guy card for this, but I did have to look at the directions once to figure out how to attach the screen to the frame.)
The pieces of the base are bungied together, and only two require working with the quick-snap locking device. The sides and top of the frame are also bungied together, and slip together easily. The net is also easy to put in place, and stretches tight against the frame. One person can put it together in about five minutes; it’s even easier with two.
Despite its light weight it seems to be very durable. My team, the IOMT Castaways, has been using it all season at practice and games and it still looks brand-new. We not only use it for soft toss, but also as a temporary backstop for front toss to our hitters. The netting is thick and strong, and the vinyl appears to be very strong as well.
Taking it apart is even easier. Because all the pieces except two just slip together you can pull them apart and put them back into the carrying bag quickly.
The 7′ height is nice because it cuts down on those errant balls hit when your hitters drop their back shoulders and take a big upper cut swing.
The Jugs Complete Practice Travel Screen retails for $149. It’s well worth the money. If you’re looking for a screen that sets up easily and can handle a heavy load, give this one a look.
Recently I had the opportunity to see Cindy Bristow demonstrate the use of Zip Balls, a training aid she developed to help fastpitch softball players learn to pitch, hit and field better. It was at the NFCA Coaches College course on team practices; she was working with some D1 pitchers, and used the Zip Balls as part of the training.
I had seen Zip Balls advertised for a while, but wasn’t really sure if they would be worth it. I’m not big on gimmicks and gadgets, so I always tend to look at such things a bit skeptically. But I can tell you now from first-hand experience that they are definitely worth the investment.
If you’re not familiar with them, Zip Balls are little softballs. They are slightly larger than golf balls, with full seams and all, but they weigh as much as regular balls. It’s a little disconcerting the first time you pick them up.
The object of using them is to feel how the fingers are used on the ball. Because they’re so small you’re forced to use the finger pads to throw them.
I’ve used them with several different pitchers and have found them to be great for teaching all sorts of things. For example, with a beginner who was having trouble getting the feel of the basic motion, Zip Balls helped her learn to use her arm properly. With the small ball she was able to relax and lead her elbow then pull her hand through the release zone.
Where they really seemed to be effective, though, was with more experienced pitchers learning movement pitches. For some it was a matter of feeling how to position the hand properly. When Cindy demonstrated them she said to tell the pitcher to be very aware of what her hand is doing. It usually takes a few times before they can actually do it, but they do start feeling it.
With one of my most accomplished pitchers we were able to really sharpen her movement pitches, especially her curveball. She already had good break on her curve, but after using the Zip Ball it broke quicker, sharper and more dynamically.
If you purchase a dozen you also get a DVD that shows you more uses for Zip Balls. Most are pretty intuitive – you can use them for hitting, fielding, training catchers, etc. — but it’s worth a look anyway.
Zip Balls are definitely a good investment, especially for pitchers. Just one word of caution — they can get through the netting on typical batting cages very easily. If you’re using them indoors, be sure there’s a tarp so something behind the catcher or someone outside may get hurt!
One of the challenges fastpitch hitters often face is getting the opportunity to get in a lot of quality swings outside of practices. While you can go to the batting cages to work with a live tosser or off a machine, that isn’t always possible — especially for younger players who don’t drive yet. So many players are limited to working off a tee in the back yard or garage.
Don’t get me wrong. Tee work is great for working on your mechanics, and I highly recommend a lot of it. Still, at some point you have to make the transition from a static to a moving ball, to work on your timing and ability to track the ball.
One product that makes it possible (and within reach of the average softball family) is the Personal Pitcher pitching machine from Sports Products Consultants. For $119 for the standard version or $149 for the deluxe version you can get a machine that shoots dozens of plastic golf balls in a timed progression to give you an opportunity to work on your vision, timing and swing. It’s like the best of pitching machines and soft toss with small objects.
I recently had the opportunity to test the deluxe version with some of my students, from age 10 through 16. (Full disclosure: the machine was sent to me to test by the manufacturer, although with the understanding that my review was my review, whether I liked it or not.) They definitely found it challenging. More on that in a bit.
The Personal Pitcher is a fairly simple machine. A wheel on the top drops balls into the delivery area one at a time. You can set the interval between balls for five or eight seconds, I used eight seconds, and wouldn’t recommend going less than that unless you’re trying to get a workout instead of work out your swing.
Inside the lower area are two wheels that catch the ball that’s been dropped and shoot it out a hole in the front. According to the manufacturer you can set the speed for 35, 45 or 55 mph. Considering you need to set the Personal Pitcher up about 15-20 feet from the hitter that’s plenty of speed. You can also set the unit I had to throw curve balls, sliders and screwballs, although I didn’t have the opportunity to play with those.
The Personal Pitcher mounts onto any standard camera tripod, allowing you to adjust the height to suit the hitter, and make up for non-level ground. The entire unit with the tripod is very light weight, making it easy to move around a field. It operates on a battery that carries a roughly four-hour charge, making it perfect for setting up as a hitting station at a team practice as well as setting up and taking down around the house. You can use it in the back yard, on the driveway, in the garage or even in the basement if you have the space.
While the unit comes with an instruction sheet that tells you to check for some things shifting during shipping, mine was perfectly set up and charged, so it was almost ready to go out of the box. The only things I had to do were connect the wires for the circuit board and battery — simple operations that require no technical expertise.
So, what did I think about it as a hitting device? Well, my first recommendation is the hitter should already have good swing mechanics before moving to the Personal Pitcher. Hitting those little golf balls, especially when they start veering off in different directions, isn’t easy. A hitter with poor or under-developed mechanics will probably abandon any sense of having a good swing in order to try to make contact with the ball. That will be counter-productive to your goals.
Once good mechanics are in place, however, it is definitely challenging. One of the toughest parts for hitters, at first, was getting the timing down. The Personal Pitcher has a green LED light on the front that glows brighter as it gets ready to deliver the ball, then goes dim right before it shoots out. For the first three trials, however, we used it in bright sunlight, making it difficult to see the changes in the LED. On the last one we tried it in the evening, when it was still light out but the sun was low. Definitely easier to see changes in the LED that way.
Not knowing when the ball was going to come out made it difficult to get the “load” part of the swing down. Since I emphasize load it threw everything else off. However, after a little while I would watch the balls get ready to drop into the lower chamber and say “load.” That helped the hitters figure the timing better. An audible alert, such as a click or electronic “beep” before delivery, would be a nice enhancement.
Once they got the timing down the Personal Pitcher really helped the hitters to learn to focus on seeing the ball. You would also see their determination go up after the first few misses, which was a positive in my book as well. The more hitters can learn to focus and concentrate at the plate the more their performance will improve. The Personal Pitcher definitely helps on that score.
I believe the more hitters work with the Personal Pitcher, the better they’ll get at dealing with its nuances, such as timing issues, which will allow them to take more quality swings. That was certainly my experience with it. Each hitter struggled at first, but improved as the session went on and they figured out how to work with it.
One other improvement I’d like to see made is a battery meter or some other type of warning that lets you know the battery needs recharging. If you’re using it at home it’
s probably not that big a deal. But if you’re using it in a team practice it would really be helpful to know how much time you have left on that charge, so you don’t show up to a field and have it shut down 10 minutes into practice. Of course, that would probably shoot the price tag up as well.
The standard version comes with 24 balls, while the deluxe version comes with 48 balls. Two loads of 48 balls is just shy of 100 swings, which is a pretty good workout. At eight second intervals you can hit 48 balls in roughly six minutes. That’s a lot of swings in a short period of time — as long as they’re good swings.
For more help with vision drills you can also purchase a dozen Focus Balls — a set of plastic golf balls with different colored stripes on them. Hitters can either stand and call out the color of each ball, or do so while trying to hit them. Use them alone or mix them in with standard white balls to help train hitters to see the ball better.
The construction of the Personal Pitcher is mostly plastic, but it seemed sturdy enough for normal use. If you treat it with the same care you would use for a camera or porcelain bowl (set it down, don’t throw it around) it should last a long time.
All in all, I think the Personal Pitcher is a great investment for serious fastpitch hitters and teams. It breaks up the monotony of endless tee work, and the different variations provide plenty of challenges to keep things interesting. The best part is hitters don’t need anyone else around to use it. They can set it up and get it going all by themselves.
If you’re looking for a device that gives the feel of hitting a moving ball with some speed yet is still affordable, check out the Personal Pitcher. At half the cost of a good bat it’s definitely worth the investment.
Anyone who has ever purchased a fastpitch softball bat knows that unless you’re getting the same bat a teammate has it’s an act of supreme faith. You basically have two options.
One is to go online, check out a few user reviews and make a selection. You then wait one to ten days (depending on how much you’re willing to spring for freight) to see if you’ve made a good choice.
The other is to go to a local store, where you can pick it up, feel it, and see if it looks like it might be good. If you’re really gutsy, you might try to find a little open space in the store where you can take a few swings. (Just remember to look around to see if anyone is near you before you take that home run cut.)
Either way, it’s the equivalent of buying a car without a test drive. And given that a good bat these days costs about as much as a car payment you’re taking an awful chance — especially if you’ve waited until right before the season to make your purchase.
That’s why I was excited to check out a new store that opened in Libertyville, Illinois called The Batterz Box, which my friend Jill Griffin turned me on to. First of all, they offer a nice selection of the top-level bats from Louisville Slugger, Demarini, Easton and more instead of the low-to-mid-end bats you’ll usually find at a big box store. But what is really cool about it is you can actually try the bats out before you buy them, to make sure you find the one that’s right for you.
The Batterz Box has six small batting cages where you can bring a baseball or fastpitch softball bat you’re interested in, and then soft toss or front toss to see what it feels like when you swing it full out — and make contact. No more worrying about hitting some little kid running through the aisle at a big box store! I didn’t notice any tees there, but hopefully they’ll be putting some of those in as well.
The entire store is very clean and well-lit. They have a very good selection of bats, as well as catcher’s gear, gloves, mitts, bat bags and other gear. They say they’ll be getting more in as well, so if you check it out right now and don’t see what you want just let them know what you’re looking for.
It’s all serious gear too. You won’t find track suits or other clothing items made for people who want to look like they’re athletic when they’re really going to sit on the couch and eat potato chips. This is a store for players.
The director of softball operations is Michelle Oswald, who is an accomplished private instructor and the hitting coach for the Lake Forest College Forresters fastpitch softball team. Michelle has obviously put a lot of thought into what type of store she would’ve wanted as a player, and has advised the owners well.
So you’re probably wondering at this point how much of a premium you have to pay for this radical comment. But actually their pricing is the same as you’ll find on the Internet. Oswald told me they’re very careful about that. So not only do you get to try before you buy, you pay the same as on the Internet but without the wait. Or the freight charges.
If you’re in the Chicago area, either as a resident or a visitor, be sure to check it out (and tell them Ken Krause sent you; it doesn’t get you anything special but it always sounds good). The store is located at 1336 S. Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, in the Red Top shopping center. Their website is a work in progress right now, but you can like them on Facebook too to get more information.
Wish I would’ve thought to take a couple of photos while I was there. But I’m sure I’ll be back again, so I’ll take couple and post them then. Or if Michelle sees this maybe she can share a link.
And in case you’re wondering, no, I have no financial stake in The Batterz Box. I just think it’s really cool, and a place that will help fastpitch hitters (and players in general) up the level of their games by getting the equipment that’s right for them.
So what do you think? Cool concept? Do you know of anywhere else that you can do the same thing?