Indoor Training Centers Are Helping Northern States Close the Gap

Back when Chuck Van Robays was a youth baseball player in the 1980s and 1990s, finding an indoor batting cage to hit in during the winter was the equivalent to finding a diamond mine in the heart of the Midwest. When Van Robays and his friends finally did manage to find access to one indoor hitting cage, it was located in a manufacturing building they got access to through his friend's dad.

At the time, it was almost like discovering oil in the backyard. 

“When we look back to our old (youth baseball) days, we had one cage up in his factory upstairs,” Van Robays said. “We thought it was the coolest thing in the world that we could go to a cage and hit.”

My, how times have changed.

Van Robays is now the director of the Varsity Shop, an indoor facility in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, that is home to numerous batting cages, video and weight rooms, and makeshift turf infields to take grounders or work on base running.

Facilities like the Varsity Shop and Diamond Edge Academy, a 59,000-square-foot facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, have been built in droves all across the Midwest and other cold-weather states, which has at the very least helped youth players from these states begin to close the development gap against their southern and western counterparts who get to train year-round outdoors.

A look at this past year’s Major League Baseball draftees certainly backs up the improvement for players from cold-weather states.

There were 34 players from Illinois high schools or colleges drafted in June; Ohio had 26 players drafted, while Pennsylvania checked in with 25.

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“That’s a direct result of the improvement of winter training and indoor facilities,” said Sam Zagorac, lead instructor at Diamond Edge Academy. “I think the travel ball world is expanding, so I think travel ball teams are trying to find their own facilities or build their own.”

With an increased emphasis on playing for travel teams in the summer, and performing in front of the college and professional scouts that arrive at their showcases, these travel organizations have been finding more funds to facilitate winter training, Van Robays and Zagorac said.

And once an indoor facility is built, it becomes a perfect training ground for players from cold-weather states because players can work on so many things at once, they added.

For example, if a player is more concerned about skill development, many indoor facilities have designated areas for drills. And if a player is more concerned about strength and conditioning, enhancing hand-eye coordination at neuroscience labs, or studying mechanics in a video area, players can more often find opportunities for those types of training as well.

“When you stop here, it’s a one stop for our student-athletes,” Zagorac said.

There still is no substitute for playing and training outside, and there still is a long way to go for players from cold-weather states to say they have caught up to those who train in warmer weather. But with the amount of indoor facilities available to players now, there is no question the gap has closed.

From GameChanger and Keith Dunlap.

Baseball, Softball, Baseball Player Development, Softball Player Development

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