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VOL. 132 | NO. 34 | Thursday, February 16, 2017

Memphis Baseball Academy Bets on HitTrax Technology

By Don Wade

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It wasn’t that long ago that Ryan Huber, 26, was still a small-college baseball player and stepping in the batter’s box for one-on-one showdowns with pitchers.

But it in another way, it seems like a lifetime ago.

“No talk about launch angles, analytics and swing planes,” Huber said. “It was just grip it and rip it.”

Data isn’t just at the fingertips of MLB executives or their coaching staffs now. It’s filtering down. Huber is a hitting instructor at the Memphis Baseball Academy (MBA) in Cordova. And MBA now makes use of “HitTrax” technology and has leased a building on the property (The Lab) of neighboring GameDay Baseball, which has 10 fields and hosts youth tournaments and leagues spring through fall.

Memphis Baseball Academy teaches pitching, hitting and fielding to youth players and teams and has filmed players hitting in the past; that’s not new. But the HitTrax motion-capture technology that MBA owner Kerry Sweeney purchased combines the culture’s reliance on detailed data for almost everything and people’s desire for visual interconnectivity.

The building at GameDay that Sweeney holds a two-year lease on is outfitted with several large flat screens positioned around a batting cage with a pitching machine. HitTrax “video capture and analysis” can display just about anything imaginable from one swing taken in that batting cage – whether that swing is taken by minor league catcher Ridge Smith (Germantown High School) getting in some cuts before spring training, University of Memphis outfielder Chris Carrier, or a 10-year-old with big-league dreams.

The simulation can put the hitter in almost every major-league ballpark. So say a high school sophomore takes one swing. That one swing might show a line drive clearing the infield and landing in shallow center field at Houston’s gimmicky Minute Maid Park, or Boston’s Fenway Park (Green Monster included) and that it traveled 197 feet, had a launch angle or elevation of 17 feet, and an exit velocity off the bat – a stat that’s all the rage in MLB – of 77 mph.

With a couple of taps on the keyboard below the main monitor Sweeney can have that swing and all the data in a parent’s in-box a minute or two after it happens. For a closer look, visit http://www.memphisbaseballacademy.com/thelab.php.

Purchasing the system was a significant financial investment for Sweeney. He says he believes in it so much he would have bought in even if he didn’t have the ideal location. Which he does.

“It’s cutting edge,” he said. “But yeah, you’re sitting among 10 fields – 60 teams every weekend.”

He just implemented HitTrax in January, but already it’s popular enough that several competitive youth teams have had sleepovers on the weekend at MBA to ensure all their players could try it and they can mine the data so they have a starting point for working with hitters going into the season.

Other data included in HitTrax: batting average, hard hit average, percentage of line drives versus ground balls and fly balls, spray charts, and hot-and-cold zone charts.

Because of all that data, it’s possible for teams, players and facilities such as MBA to compete in HitTrax leagues and tournaments with hitters they’ve never seen. For training facilities such as MBA, it’s another way to get the revenue stream flowing.

“You can actually play a game on the system,” Huber said. “It’s like Backyard Baseball, no-holds barred, kids talking smack and having fun, `Oh, I just knocked a double at Fenway.’”

Sweeney regularly charges $225 for a package of five hitting lessons; now, that fifth lesson can include use of HitTrax for an additional $25.

“It breaks up the monotony and they can see how they’re progressing,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney says for years hitters were taught to try and “hit the top half of the ball” and that even now there are high school coaches teaching that. This technology, he says, will knock that theory down.

“It’s not true,” he said. “You want to be on plane with the ball. You don’t want to be too far under it or too far on top.”

Presently, MBA is the only hitting facility in the area that has HitTrax. It’s gone over well with competitive youth teams, but older players such as Smith and Carrier were able to come in and use it on their own and make adjustments because of all the data and because they’ve taken tens of thousands of swings and already have some feel for what they did right or did wrong.

Notre Dame was the first Division 1 team to employ HitTrax with their hitters. Memphis isn’t using it on a formal basis, but U of M hitting coach Clay Greene says the technology is a useful tool.

“I preach bat speed and it gives you exit velocity and a good visual,” he said. “It gives instant feedback so they can make a quick adjustment.”

For younger hitters, adjustments take longer. But Huber believes HitTrax has the capability to help hitting coaches and their young pupils stay connected with one another and the purpose at hand.

“This separates us from everyone in the area,” Huber said. “It’s not just some guy telling you need to do this or do that. And anybody can take video with a phone; we’ve been doing that for a long time. But to pair that with exit velocity and launch angle … people that want to utilize this can change a swing in a week or two, if the hitter puts the work in.”

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