Maybe Hit Trax would have garnered popularity in a standard baseball off-season, at some point.
In the middle of a pandemic, however, the baseball simulation software system was an absolute no-brainer.
Introducing competitive play on a trial basis about six to weeks ago, the folks at the Baseball Academy ramped up to full on league play in late June, with results that were more than just slightly impressive.
Some 150 youth players and between 50 and 75 slo-pitch hitters signed up to go toe to toe in an environment that, full disclosure here, will only work one aspect of a player's game.
"It's a simulation system, but the simulation comes from the defense," noted league organizer Ethan Jodouin, back in town for the summer as he prepares for what will likely be his final season with the Cleary University Cougars (NAIA) in Howell, Michigan (more on that later).
"The league is all offense, it's all hitting."
Essentially, teams of four to five players aside are tackling a batting cage equipped with a pitching machine. Hit Trax incorporates a video screen that is quite reminiscent of what folks who have enjoyed indoor golf simulators would have experienced.
"We have a pitching machine set at different speeds per age category," said Jodouin. "When the batter hits the ball, Hit Trax picks up the exit velocity, ball flight, launch angle, everything it needs to know, feeds the information into an algorithm which gives you an instantaneous result."
"It's right off contact," Jodouin added. "You see the ball flying on the screen at the same time the ball is flying in the cage."
While the inherent technology satisfies one part of the competitive equation in these challenging times, the space provided by the Baseball Academy facility tackles the Covid-19 questions.
"Social distancing is a huge part of this operation," noted Jodouin. "Players sit eight to ten feet apart, with each player given their own individual seat. Once the previous batter exits the cage and passes the threshold, the next hitter moves in. At no point do they come within six feet of one another."
And while teams must remain on the sidelines when the opponents are at bat, this setting does its best to otherwise recreate a game experience. "We run it like a regular baseball game, with three strikes and three outs," said Jodouin.
"We play two five inning games, a double-header, so that we can fit in enough games in an evening."
Sure, there are drawbacks. The pitching machine does little to prepare a hitter for the lack of control that he/she is likely to face when play resumes on a real diamond, with the machine throwing strikes about 96% to 98% of the time.
"It's not perfect, but we try and provide the most consistent feel for the hitters," said Jodouin. "At the high end, we have a "hack attack setting", where it gets up to 95 (MPH), you get different spins, you can go right-handed or left-handed (pitching), with curve balls and off speed pitches - the whole nine yards."
"We use that from a more technical standpoint for advanced hitters. For the kids, they're hitting fastballs at their proper speed, in the strike zone. They're very hittable pitches, which makes it more fun."
In fact, the trial period generated some very useful feedback, as games were played over a two week stretch. "We started with the machine about 5 miles per hour higher than where we are right now," said Jodouin.
"We had to find a sweet spot to where we are still challenging the players, but they weren't getting spun into the ground, swinging and missing the whole time."
Having gone yard three times just a few days earlier, belting three home runs beyond the fences of the Williamsport Little League World Series field, Max Arnold acknowledges that there are certainly some advantages in favour of the hitter.
"The pitches are always right down the middle," noted the 13 year-old, now in his third year of rep baseball. Still, just an in real life, the defense can sometime surprise. "Sometimes, you feel like you've hit it over the wall, and the next thing you know, you're out," he said.
"It can be frustrating. When you hit the ball, you want to just take off, but the machine simulates that for you."
Given the ultimate goal of helping local players work on their hitting, Hit Trax appears to be receiving mostly thumbs up feedback. "I feel like from when we've started this, my swing has improved," said Arnold.
"My power and exit velo have gone way up from doing this every day. And the graphics are pretty cool. You'll see the guy run to catch the ball, you'll see your character running the bases and stuff."
In the absence of real baseball, Hit Trax is scratching the competitive itch.
Ethan Jodouin at Cleary: Having originally committed to Dakota Tech University, but switching to Cleary when the former made some coaching personnel changes, Ethan Jodouin was starting to hit his stride this past February.
He had played in roughly two thirds of the Cougars' games in their spring trip to Florida, and was looking to build some momentum as the team returned north. "The day before the season was cancelled, I had a couple of hits, a big hit late in the game in Indiana," he said.
And while he was able to maintain his elgibility due to the season cut short, the graduate of St Benedict Catholic Secondary School expects that he will want to put his degree from the private business school to use by the fall of 2021.
"The dream is always with you, but I know it's coming to an end, and that's something that on the mental side of the game, you have to come to terms with."