Virtual pitchers helping batters sharpen skills

Associated Press ROSEVILLE, Mich.

The lefty on the mound goes into his windup, then fires a belt-high, 90 mph fastball over the heart of the plate.

Ping! The batter connects, sending a sharp line drive off the barrel of his aluminum bat.

The batter, the bat and the ball are real but just about everything else involving the ProBatter Professional pitching system is a high-tech illusion that creates a virtual batting cage for the 21st-century ballplayer.

Joe Loria and Ken Kozlowski, co-owners of Macomb Batting Cages, say the ProBatter is the ultimate training tool for hitters - and young batters keep coming back for more. The men say they have the first one in Michigan.

"We've had kids 8 years old to 18 years old using it," Loria told The Macomb Daily of Mount Clemens for a recent story.

"There are some local high school players last year who used it and made all-state. It definitely helps hitters adjust to pitchers."

Unlike traditional pitching machines that repeatedly throw balls to the same location, the device made by Milford, Conn.-based ProBatter Sports LLC is capable of producing fastballs, curves, sliders, change-ups, sinkers and splitters at various speeds and locations.

The system generates a video image of a pitcher winding up and delivering a pitch. Then, in sync with the image, a computer-controlled machine precisely fires a ball toward the plate through a hole the video screen.

"We can adjust the speed from a 95 mph fastball to a 30 to 40 mph fastball," Loria said.

The ProBatter Web site claims that the machine is capable of throwing up to 100 mph, with pitch speeds that can be varied in increments of 2 mph. Pitches can be thrown to predetermined locations both inside and outside the strike zone with an accuracy of 2 inches.

One day last week, former major-league pitcher Brian Sikorski dropped by the Macomb Batting Cages to warm up his arm for spring training.

Sikorski, who lives in Fraser in the offseason, pitches for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. He formerly pitched for the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers after stellar careers at Western Michigan University and Roseville High School.

"I've heard about this ProBatter machine," Sikorski said after his workout. "It definitely works for hitters."