Product Review: Personal Pitcher pitching machine
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.