Video pitching a huge hit
Major league teams buy simulator made by Milford company
The pitcher glowers menacingly, raises his arm and uncorks the high hard one. The batter times his swing and tries not to flinch.
A video pitching simulator designed and made in a nondescript Woodmont Road building is the closest the average baseball fan can come to facing professional pitching.
And the simulators made by Pro Batter Sports Inc. here are so realistic that four major league teams use them to train players.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon bought one of the $75,000 major league-level simulators after visiting the company here two years ago. Recreation models cost $20,000 and up.
"Trot was really nice. He was here a couple of hours, hitting against our demo, and his dad said, 'You ought to get one of these,' " said regional sales manager Adam Battersby.
"It was tremendous for situational hitting, placing myself in game-like conditions," Nixon said in a company brochure.
Nixon had a career year in 2003 after a winter using the Pro Batter at his North Carolina home, raising his batting average 50 points and his slugging percentage 100 points over the previous season.
"We don't take full credit for that, of course," Battersby said. "But we do think our machine helped."
"What Trot did is sequence pitches," said Don Westfall, general manager of Connecticut Sportsplex in North Branford. "He would program the machine to throw him exactly what he had faced from pitchers like Roger Clemens
the split-finger, the fastball, curve, slider."
While the pro model can throw every pitch used except the knuckleball, the Pro Batter 2 machines at recreation centers like the Connecticut Sportsplex throw only fastballs.
And only strikes, Westfall points out. "The machine is very popular. When people see it they are blown away. The backdrop is Shea Stadium and it feels like a game situation," the manager said.
It costs $2.50 for 15 pitches at the Connecticut Sportsplex, where one machine is set at 40 miles per hour and the other at 60. "We're still adjusting that," trying to find the speed users feel most comfortable with, he said.
Mayor James L. Richetelli Jr., a baseball player and Yankee fan, said he and his 9-year-old son tried the simulator at the North Branford facility.
"It looks like Roger Clemens," Richetelli said. "My son was thrilled. He felt like he had batted against him."
The former Yankee pitcher, now with the Houston Astros, is not the stone-faced right-hander on the simulator, Battersby said, "but everybody says that."
Bridgeport Bluefish pitcher Keith Davis is the right-hander and another Bluefish pitcher is the lefty on the simulator, the sales manager said.
Battersby's father, Greg, a patent attorney, invented the simulator because he was dissatisfied with mechanical pitching arms, like the "Iron Mike."
Andy Walker, a former minor league player who owns America's Game in Waterford, agreed that the Pro Batter is a big improvement.
"With this you can follow the ball's release from the pitcher's hand," allowing batters to "step and load," or time their swing accurately, Walker said.
At Walker's sports complex, the simulator rents for $65 an hour, and "you can get a pitch thrown every 10 seconds," Walker said. "College and high school teams use it a lot, as well as our hitting league."
Waterford resident Todd Donovan, a professional player in the San Diego Padres system, reported to spring training after a winter on the simulator, Walker said.
The Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets and the Red Sox have purchased the machines for their minor leaguers to work out on, Battersby said.
The four major league organizations are not the only connection the eight-employee Milford company has to baseball. The Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's major league also use the simulator. The Marines are managed by Stamford native Bobby Valentine.
By FRANK JULIANO