By STEVE KRAH
Taking technology and using it to train and entertain.
That’s what owner Mike Branch is doing with his baseball and softball training facility in South Bend called Teddy Ballgames.
Opened in 2016, the place features six indoor batting cages.
One cage is set up with the HitTrax Baseball Simulator, a state-of-the art video capture system capable of tracking the path of a batted ball and displaying it on a big screen monitor.
“This generation is visual,” says Branch. “They don’t realize how cool this is. For somebody our age, we didn’t have this when we were growing up. We didn’t have video. We didn’t have the information that made us better hitters. You either hit or didn’t.”
Branch said the system takes instruction and training from the old “keep your eye on the ball” and allows the player to see what the mechanics of a swing look like.
With patent pending HitTrax technology feedback data telling them the location and speed of the pitch and their average exit velocity plus distance and location of hits (spray chart), they learn things like taking the outside pitch the other way and what pitch they can strike with the biggest probability of getting a hit.
“Eventually, they become their best hitting coach,” says Branch. “My son is 13 and I still work with him quite a but I’ll have him go through some of his swings and assess himself.”
HitTrax users start out with a baseline assessment and can be tracked for progress over a period of time.
Branch notes that not all players and coaches will embrace the technology, preferring to stick with age-old methods.
“Men have egos,” says Branch. “The fact is you can’t see everything at full speed.”
But the lifelong baseball fan (the Bridgman (Mich.) High School graduate roots for the Detroit Tigers) says this is where the game is going.
“This is how the pros train (with video),” says Branch. “They use video of the pitcher and they use video of their own swing to determine what they’re doing so they can make those small adjustments.”
Because of the considerable investment in the system (there are not that many available to the public in Indiana), Branch charges more for the HitTrax cage, but has tried to keep it just a little higher than bowling alley fees.
HitTrax offers a data plan subscription where registered users can flag their videos and have access to them on a mobile device. Branch charges $12 a month for this service. Otherwise, players can see their videos at the facility.
Branch and Teddy Ballgames instructor Greg Harris (head coach at South Bend Riley High School) are both certified through the Mike Epstein rotational hitting program (TB throwing instructors include John Coddington and Jeff Jackowiak).
In teaching with HitTrax, Branch has learned a few things about working with young hitters.
“You can use cues positively now so they can start to make those improvements,” says Branch. “And you want them to become engaged. If I’m showing a kid this video and he’s staring at the ground, he’s really not picking it up.
Every kid is different in how they take coaching. You want to try to make it a positive thing.”
Branch emphasizes that this tool is being used to make them better and to identify where improvement is needed.
“‘I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m trying to make you understand what you’re doing wrong,’’’ says Branch is repeating his message to his players.
Staying positive is important. The idea is to uplift and not discourage.
“You can’t be all negative, especially with younger hitters,” says Branch.
Similar to golf simulators that allow players to tee it up at Augusta or Pebble Beach, HitTrax entertainment features include the ability to hit in any Major League Baseball park and even the site of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Sessions can be set up for birthday parties, where attendees can go for the fences in a “Home Run Derby.”
Remote games can be played. Teddy Ballgames recently got 12U and 14U players to take on C-Side Sports in Washington, Pa., another facility with HitTrax.
Leaderboards are kept in-house and on the regional level to let players see how their scores — mostly tied to exit velocity — stack up with others. A Quality Hit Club competition is underway that pays $250 to the winner.
Branch started going to the batting cages for therapy after an accident about 15 years ago and began wondering where his solid strikes would have landed. He then did extensive study into video analysis technology, including discussions with Wayne State University about developing such a system.
“I knew it was going to take cameras, but then it got out of my wheelhouse,” says Branch.
Cost and the time it would take to process feedback caused him to back off. Then came word from his brother that the technology had been advanced by HitTrax.
“When I found out about it, I got very excited about it,” says Branch. “They took it a little farther on the training side.
“I was thinking more of the entertainment side. I wanted to be able to do remote tournaments and leaderboards and those things.”
Branch says the technology expedited his decision to transition from the rental business to the baseball training business.
The name of his facility pays homage to Hall of Famer Ted Williams aka “Teddy Ballgame.” The cages are surrounded with photos and books on Williams and others from baseball’s storied past.
“When we were kids, we listened to baseball on the radio,” says Branch. “Today, a lot of kids don’t follow the game. There are a lot more distractions for kids. I wanted to educate the younger generation on players like Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig.”
Of course it’s his business, but Branch sees the real worth in having a place to train — not just during the winter months — but spring, summer and fall, too.
“This may be a little controversial, but I believe the people in the south work at it harder than we do in the north,” says Branch. “We continually give the excuses that it’s nice year-round down there.
“Why are there more indoor facilities in the south than there are here? We go to our team practices and our games, but we don’t go back to our individual work. That’s just my opinion.”
Branch notes that one family visiting from the south came to him during Christmas break, saying their son could not go two weeks without batting practice because all the kids where he came from were still practicing.
“It has to be a cultural change,” says Branch. “We have to get out of our paradigm of what we think is enough. I look at this and I’m excited about, but not everybody has that reaction to it.”