The Phillies acquired slugger Bryce Harper for $330 million last spring to light the team’s fire at the plate. But the team finished the regular season in late September with an 81-81 record, its hitters ranking a dismal 22nd in the majors. The team’s owners recently fired manager Gabe Kapler, partly over the Phils’ cold bats.
Now, Ardmore’s Tom Noonan thinks he has an answer: the high-velocity pitching machine Fireball, which mimics specific pro pitchers.
The air-powered hurler uses robotics, automation and publicly available pitching data on brooksbaseball.net to replicate Aaron Nola’s curve, Justin Verlander’s fastball and arms of other pro pitchers. Noonan, his investors and partners, and suburban firms have sunk more than $1 million into the pitching simulator he calls Fireball.
“People stepped up and gave free parts and then it kind of became an obsession for everyone,” Noonan said of the four-year project. “They also wanted to see the Phils win. That really had something to do with it.”
If batters take many swings at the same pitcher, they’ll hit the ball, Noonan believes. Fireball pitching machines could be placed inside ball parks so that batters practice against specific pitchers before or even during the game — a competitive advantage as batters time the pitchers in the early innings rather than later ones. “You can get a bead on it or a groove,” Noonan said. “It creates muscle memory.”
Fireball has already been programmed to throw like Masahiro Tanaka, Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard, in addition to Nola and Verlander. “We chose them because their pitches are unusually good. But we can load any pitcher in the major leagues,” Noonan said, adding that “the data is out there.” Fireball can potentially throw fastballs more than 100 miles per hour, in addition to curves, sliders, change-ups and knucklers.
Noonan transported Fireball to the Phillies training camp in Clearwater, Fla., last spring, hoping to sell the team on it. Team execs looked it over. A training camp Phillies catcher caught some pitches from it. A team hitting coach took swings.
Phillies officials confirmed last week that they saw Fireball but thought that it was “not sufficiently developed.” The price — $300,000 to $400,000 — was not the issue in their decision, the team said.
Noonan said that over the last several months, the Fireball developers improved the ball release timing and the air flow for sharper baseball movement. A video of a pitcher synchronized to the pitch makes it more more realistic for the batter, he said.
The Nationals, Mariners, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs and White Sox also have expressed an interest in looking at Fireball, according to Noonan. The Mariners offered to ship the Fireball to Seattle but then “we hit them with the shipping costs” and they retracted the offer. The bill would have been $16,880. Noonan is inviting the team officials to the Warminster industrial park where Fireball chucks balls for visitors and batters.
He showed off Fireball -- an auditory and baseball experience -- last week. An air compressor hummed in the background and an air blast propelled the ball with a sound similar to what you might hear in an auto body shop. The baseball thwacked against the backstop.
Fourteen-year-old Adam Whipkey of Pennsville Township in Salem County donned a protective batting helmet and stepped into the cage for swings against the Nola curve.
“Fire in the hole,” shouted Dan Palmer, one of Fireball’s developers, alerting Whipkey to a pitch.
“Yeah, I was a little scared, but after I saw it going past me, it seemed like a real pitcher throwing at me,” said the first baseman, who plays on a traveling team and in a Babe Ruth league. He flailed at first, swinging at the Nola curve. But after a while, Whipkey consistently made contact.
For decades there have been two types of pitching machines: catapult and wheel. A catapult does exactly what it sounds like: a stiff mechanical arm throws the ball at a batter. There is no control over ball spin. A wheel-based machine uses a rubber wheel — or multiple wheels — to throw the ball.
With Fireball, a coach feeds a baseball into its precision-machined barrel. Computer-controlled grippers grab the ball and spin it, based on a computer algorithm coded for specific pitchers. A powerful air blast sends the baseball down the barrel.
Compare this to a bullet, which travels down a barrel’s grooved bore, giving it accuracy. But a spinning baseball can’t touch the sides of the barrel because it throws off its spin and trajectory.
A Fireball-shot baseball instead glides down the barrel at extremely high velocity on a cushion of air. Tiny air-fed perforations inside of the barrel create this cushion. A high-resolution video synchronizes the pitcher’s motion with the ball release.
Existing pitching machines are mobile; Fireball is stationary.
Joe Cero, 58, owns a 40-employee machine shop in Telford, Cer-Mac, which manufactured the “core housing” and the barrel. A Phillies fan, Cero showed off his 25,000-square-foot machine shop last week, talking about how his father and uncle founded the company in 1969.
On the shop floor, Cero halted the impromptu tour before a $300,000 Japanese milling center manufacturing a part for an overseas semiconductor company. This machine also bored the barrels for Fireball, in addition to little holes for the air cushion.
“You will not find my parts on Amazon,” Cero said. “In the machinery world, we kind of have it all. I am not trying to brag.”
To help launch Fireball, Cero accepted some payments for his machining but also reached a deal to supply Fireball with parts for five years if it takes off. As for taking swings himself with Fireball’s frightening velocity, Cero decided he’d let baseball players do it. “I stood by it, but I did not try to hit it,” he said. “You know that ball is blowing by you at 92, 93, 94 miles an hour.”
Cero added that “the real trick will be ... to get people to want to use it.”
Palmer of Mercury Automation in North Wales installed the electronic controls for Fireball. His other industrial projects include automating packaging paper cups in a paper-cup factory, stacking plastic food lids, and riveting parts on a high-speed manufacturing line.
Fireball can mimic right-hand or left-hand pitchers and adjust for the pitcher’s height, Palmer said. “It’s absolutely amazing,” he said. As for how he did it, “a lot of math. A ton of match. We think this will revolutionize baseball.”
Noonan was familiar with the inadequacies of pitching machines. Three of his sons, Mark, Tommy and Charlie, played baseball. As a senior at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, Mark Noonan slugged five consecutive home runs at the plate. On his sixth at-bat, he slammed a double that bounced to the fence. Mark graduated in 2004.
Anthony Valucci is the current varsity baseball coach at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. He didn’t coach Mark Noonan but is familiar with pitching machines.
“We don’t use it very often,” Valucci said of St. Joe’s existing pitching machine. “It’s not ideal when you want to work on location.”
Valucci prefers hand tossing to batters in practice because the tosser can place the ball more accurately and batters gain confidence hitting.
“If it was a better machine where it could place a ball low and away or inside and a batter could practice those pitches, it would be a wonderful advance,” Valucci said.