New pitching simulator remarkably real

New pitching simulator remarkably real

Jason Bay stepped into the batting cage at Pirate City and pulled back his bat, ready to bunt.

Behind him, one of the organization's coaches pushed a button.

Ahead of Bay, the realistic image of a left-handed pitcher appeared on a large video screen.

The pitcher set himself on the rubber and started his delivery motion. He goes through the windup. He delivers the pitch.

"Whoa," Bay blurted out as he took two steps back and watches the ball go over the plate just inches away from him. He paused for a second to regain his composure. "Wow."

It's the latest technological tool being used by Major League clubs -- the ProBatter PX2, a pitching simulator that gets, well, so close to simulating a live pitcher throwing that it is beginning to replace just that.

The Pirates recently became the fifth Major League team to acquire the pitch simulator, when they spent $90,000 to purchase two of the ProBatter machines. One will stay down in Bradenton, Fla., for use at the organization's Pirate City facility, while another one will soon be placed inside PNC Park for the Major League club to use during the season.

The details of the machine are impressive. With an 8-by-10-foot screen set up where a pitcher would be, an image of a pitcher appears. Coaches and players can set the machine to portray either a right-hander or a left-hander and can then chose the type, location and velocity of the pitches.

The pitcher on the screen will go through his normal windup and at the point in the delivery in which the pitch is supposed to be released, a ball machine from behind will deliver the ball through a small hole in the screen.

The simulator can shoot out sliders, fastballs, curveballs and changeups, among others. The velocity can range from 40 miles per hour to 100 mph. And the pitch can be set to be delivered over any part of the plate.

In other words, as Pirates general manager Neal Huntington succinctly put it: "It gets you as close to live pitching as is possible."

According to Adam Battersby, president of ProBatter Sports, the White Sox were the first big league club to buy one of the ProBatter machines for use within their system, doing so back in 1999. While the Chicago club no longer uses the simulator, the Indians, Mets, Yankees and Red Sox all followed suit before the Pirates were also sold on the idea.

Battersby, whose father, Greg, first developed the idea for such a pitch simulator in his backyard back in the early 90s, is convinced that the product will soon be picked up by many more professional teams. The simulator has recently sharply decreased in cost (a decade ago the cost per machine was $100,000) and has been reworked to be even more realistic, making it both affordable and effective.

However, reactions from players who have used the machine are mixed.

Some players, like Atlanta outfield prospect Jordan Schafer, who used approximately one-third of his $320,000 Major League signing bonus to purchase his own personal machine, swear by its usefulness.

And over in the Indians' organization, which has the ProBatter simulators at Progressive Field, Triple-A Buffalo and Double-A Akron, both first baseman Ryan Garko and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez have spent countless hours taking cuts in the batting cage with it.

"I like to use it for curveballs," Garko explained. "It's pretty realistic. You can get your regular timing, as opposed to somebody just standing there, feeding the machine."

Other players, however, have pointed out the flaws.

Some have complained about the timing of the pitches, convinced that the motion of the pitcher on the screen and the release of the pitch aren't exactly timed correctly.

"For a guy like me, I have timing mechanisms," explained Pirates center fielder Chris Duffy. "I have a low open stance and I close it when a pitcher gets to a certain stance, and then I go. There, they have the pitcher there, but it's just not the same. It's really tough to pick up. The ball is not really synchronized. You just get frustrated."

Duffy said that he has had so much trouble with the timing, that twice he has actually been hit in the hand by pitches.

Some find the bright digitized screen to be in too much contrast to the dark hole that the ball is released out of. That, said certain players, makes the pitch too difficult to accurately pick up.

"I think if it was maybe if there wasn't so much light in there, it wouldn't be as hard to see," Pirates pitcher Phil Dumatrait said. "Just the light around it makes that ball hard to see out of the hole."

Others just simply will never be sold on a machine of any sorts -- no matter how close to realistic it may be.

"I don't like hitting off machines, period," Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. "I don't think that's how you time a pitcher."

And then there are those who just aren't quite sure what to think.

"It's good for seeing the ball and getting things to slow down," said Yankees first baseman Shelley Duncan, with mixed feelings about the usefulness. "It's a confidence destroyer. You can track pitches, but when you do hit off it, I don't take too much out of it."

In addition to the three simulators used by the Indians organization and the two that Pittsburgh has purchased, the Mets and Red Sox each have had simulators installed at their Spring Training facilities. The Yankees -- as they often do -- have gone above and beyond every other club to purchase five simulators to use within its system. The most recent one is currently being brought to China for use in the organization's Chinese baseball station.

Despite some complaints from players, according to coaches, managers and management personnel within each of these organizations, the machines have become invaluable instructional tools.

Take for example a player who is having a hard time hitting sliders. He can stand in front of the ProBatter and watch 100 sliders thrown to him. The same accuracy and repetition of those pitches couldn't be matched even by the best coach throwing batting practice.

Hitting coaches will also vouch that it helps players with timing issues and in practicing game situations by simulating what pitches hitters can expect from particular pitchers on certain counts.

It's used for catchers to practice receiving particular pitches and blocking others, and it's a great help for bunting practice, explained Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton.

"It's a higher velocity and you're getting the actual timing of it when you square around," he said. "I think we're very fortunate that we have one."

While the team's currently using it have all lauded the benefits of the simulator, the extent to which the machines are used -- or even required to be used -- still differ.

Right now in Cleveland, practicing with the simulator remains an option for players. Bench players will use it often in order to stay warm, while management simply recommends the value of the precise repetition in trying to convince more players to take advantage of the machine's features.

In Pittsburgh, however, work with the simulator will be required for many of the organization's players moving forward.

"From a position player standpoint, there may be an option as to how much or how little they want to go and use it," Huntington said. "But for our pitchers, it is critical that they get practice with it so that we can increase the number of balls that our pitchers put in play."

Either way, though, the simulator appears to be headed on its way to becoming a staple in a number of other team's Minor League and Major League facilities. Battersby said that the company is currently discussing the simulator with other Major League clubs and fully expects at least one or two more to make a purchase before the year's end.

"[Pirates farm director Kyle Stark] and I have seen the benefit of the machine with the Indians," Huntington said. "It functions in so many ways. It's become a priority, and it's going to stay as one."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Anthony Castrovince and Bryan Hoch contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.