HitTrax comes to The Turf
January 20, 2015
For decades, baseball players have taken to batting cages when winter rolls around, honing their swings by launching ball after ball into the narrow netting of the long, rectangular enclosures.
The problem with that approach, however, is that it’s hard to know exactly where a hit ball would have gone on an actual baseball field. Was that smash into the left side of the cage a double down the line, or did it end up in foul territory?
That problem has been solved by the HitTrax machine, a device designed to track launch angle and exit speed of every batted ball and to project the hit onto a virtual baseball field. HitTrax even has defensive algorithms in place to determine whether a ball likely would have been caught by a defender of the batter’s same ability.
Designed by InMotion Systems, the HitTrax machine gives batters the data they need in order to improve their swings during the long winter months.
InMotion Systems owner Mike Donfrancesco, a lifelong baseball fan, said the idea for HitTrax came from seeing what sports like golf were able to do with virtual analytics.
"We designed it for the analytics," he said. "We wanted to create a tool, a training aid. You saw a lot of the golf analysis and simulators, but nothing’s been introduced to the baseball world. Our thought was to provide that kind of analysis for baseball."
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The Turf, an indoor baseball facility in Kimball Junction, located across from Jupiter Bowl, recently purchased a HitTrax machine to use for lessons and games alike.
"For the first time ever, we’re actually able to show empirical data to the kids on what the impact of changes in their swing mechanics are," Brent Milner, owner of The Turf, said. "We can actually show them how far they can hit the ball, what the launch angle on the ball is and the distance. Then, we have the joy of being able to play actual games, because the algorithm records outs, hits, doubles, triples and home runs at every age."
Players can play in virtual parks designed to the same dimensions as famous Major League Baseball stadiums from around the country, with the outfield walls and defensive skill levels adjusted for age level.
"If the 8U kids want to come in and play, we can play in [St. Louis’s] Busch Stadium at 235 feet to center field," Milner said. "If the high school kids want to come in and play at Yankee Stadium [in New York], we’ll play at 365 feet to center field."
But, the most important part of the HitTrax machine is the immediate feedback given to the players.
"In the past, there’s been nothing visual for them to see," Donfrancesco said. "You don’t know if you hit it at 70 miles-per-hour or 75. And you never knew where it went. That’s a big plus with this — seeing where the ball went. Especially with the younger kids, immediate feedback is important."
Milner tells a story about a player who was able to make a small adjustment and immediately see the results, rather than having to wait until the spring season to know if all the hard work paid off.
"We had a nine-year-old in here the other day who had a couple lessons at The Turf and came in above-average in power and contact for his age," he said. "We were able to take him over, put him on the machine and I asked him if he wanted to hit the ball 20 feet farther. We made a couple mechanical changes following [former Major Leaguer and Turf instructor] Robin [Jennings]’s philosophy in hitting. He instantly hit the ball 17 and a half feet farther and we were able to capture that. It’s no longer a ‘you need to believe, trust us’ concept — they can see the progress immediately."
Donfrancesco and InMotion sold the first HitTrax beta unit in December of 2012 after a long development process.
"We came up with the concept about 15 years ago, almost," he said. "The technology just wasn’t there at the time. Being in the motion-tracking industry, we watched as the sensors got cheaper and computers got faster. Back in 2010, we decided that we could put a prototype together."
Now, he added, the company is targeting a variety of different markets for the product, including equipment manufacturers, high schools and colleges.
"Right now, the majority of our customers are indoor batting structures like The Turf," he said. "That was our first goal — to introduce it to that market.
"With all these metrics that are out there, we feel this is a great recruiting tool. The colleges that we do have right now, like Notre Dame, they’ll be looking for the exit ball velocities and launch angles from the kids they have. They’re getting more info they can use to evaluate players and they’ll be using this data to help them on the recruiting side."
Then, Donfrancesco said, he’ll try to expand HitTrax into foreign markets. In fact, the first unit is being shipped to South Korea next month.
But, here in Park City, the next steps for the HitTrax machine are hitting leagues for players of all ages.
"At all ages, the boys enjoy playing games," Milner said. "We are slowly starting adult and age-specific kids’ leagues on Fridays and Sundays. The boys seem to like 5-on-5 at this point, so they get lots of at-bats in a game. We can play virtual games within an hour’s time."
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