Offseason baseball training - how to have batting practice in the winter
Part 5 of a 6-part series
You can improve your hitting during the offseason
A lot of people work hard to improve their skills during baseball season and then let them lapse over the winter. To keep your skills fresh you really should be practicing all year round. While not everyone can practice their fielding on a nice field in January, you can do batting practice and work on your swing whether you live in Florida or Alaska.
The key to setting up your offseason batting practices is finding an indoor area with a decent amount of room. You'll probably want at least a 10 foot by 10 foot area with at least 8 feet of clearance and no lights directly overhead. Some people have this in their basement, while others use their garage. If you just have an apartment, you might have to move some furniture around.
I'm going to go over some standard devices that can be used during your offseason swing training.
The tee and a net
Probably the most basic of baseball hitting training devices, the tee has been around for a long time. The best tee on the market is the Tanner Tee, and it's the device you'll see most major and minor league teams using when they use a tee. As far as I know, they are only sold on Tanner Tee's website.
Since we're going to be practicing indoors, you'll also want a net or a tarp to hit into. Make sure it extends from ceiling to floor and is loose enough to so it can cushion the blow of the ball hitting it without the ball bouncing back.
If you don't have any valuables around where you are hitting you can just use regular baseballs. If you're practicing in your apartment you'll probably want to get something softer, or maybe even wiffle balls. You won't get quite the same feedback on your hits, but it's better than putting dents in your wall.
Since I assume you're working with a limited amount of space, a full-size pitching machine is out of the question. There are smaller machines that you can use, especially if you have some room in your garage or basement. Jugs makes a great small ball pitching machine, and with a net in front of you and a tarp behind you it can be part of a pretty cool hitting setup.
The only thing that's awkward is setting up the machine in a position where it can pitch to you so the balls are not coming from your right or left side. The best way I've found to do this is to cut a hole in your net and have the machine positioned a few feet behind the net pitching the balls through the hole. Because the balls that the Jugs machine throws are not as hard as real baseballs, even on those rare hits that go back through the hole the machine should be alright.
SwingAway vs. the Solohitter
The SwingAway and Solohitter are both complete hitting packages that can be set up in a basement or garage. They are like a net and tee combo, except you never have to retrieve the balls. There's just a ball connected at the top and bottom to bungie cords and after you hit it it will bounce back to it's original spot. Adjust the ball up and down to work on balls in different parts of the strike zone.
Without a doubt, the SwingAway is better than the Solohitter. The ball bounces back into position quicker, so you can get more swings in every minute. The Solohitter is generally cheaper, but I like the way the SwingAway, and especially the SwingAway Pro Traveler fold away quickly and easily so they don't take up a lot of room when you're not using it. The SwingAway is used by many major league clubs, and I've seen videos of guys like Barry Bonds and Edgar Martinez using the SwingAway in warmups.
The professional outdoor batting cage
For those of you lucky enough to not endure 2 feet of snow on the ground and negative temperatures in the winter, you can practice at home with a batting cage (if you're also lucky enough to be able to afford it).
You can either get a full-size cage with an L screen and a full-size pitching machine, or you can save a lot of money and get a PowerAlley batting cage with a pitching machine attachment. These things are great because the net on the cage is already designed for the pitching machine so you don't have to build an elaborate system of nets to protect the machine.