The Strike Zone Academy looks to mold new generation of Vt. baseball and softball players

A 27-year-old Vermont native says his new Essex training facility will be a one-stop-shop for softball and baseball players looking to take their game to the next level.

“We’re going to bring a whole new side of the game and perspective to Vermont which really hasn’t been provided before,” said Dan French, founder of The Strike Zone Academy, a new training facility located at the corner of Route 2 and Susie Wilson Bypass.

French, who  lives in Hinesburg, graduated from Mt. Mansfield in 2010 and played baseball for a junior college in Maine, where he’s the all-time leader in innings pitched and second in wins and strikeouts. Touring the facility last week, French explained his goal is to train a new wave of Vermont baseball and softball players.

“I’m looking to change the game,” he said. “My target market is to hit the 6 to 12 year olds and change a whole generation — instill a little bit of confidence in them and show the opportunity that baseball has when you work at it year round.”

To achieve that goal, the pitcher-turned-entrepreneur will deploy a wide range of technology far beyond what he had access to growing up. That includes a system that can analyze a player’s pitches, with cameras tracking a ball’s speed, movement and location, as well as a simulated hitting program called HitTrax, which allows French and his team to track a player’s progression from the very first swing.

The systems categorize players by name and shows past sessions at the push of a button, helping French and his team tailor individual training regimens.

Demonstrating the technology, French pulled up one recent trainee and showed two different hitting sessions. Watching the first round, French said he saw some red flags in the player’s mechanics, so he took him aside for some instructions. Twenty minutes later, the hitting system showed the player’s hits making it farther into the outfield.

“With the instant gratification world we’re living in, kids need to find a quick way to get successful or its just not an option,” French said. “Basketball, you can shoot hoops [alone] all day. With baseball, you need someone else to be working with you to put eyes on you. If you’re able to tweak small things here or there you’re able to unlock so much more.”

French came up with the business plan behind The Strike Zone as part of a college project. He acknowledged that many believe baseball has seen a decline in participation, but said youth leagues around the area still have a strong following. The challenge is getting those kids to stick with the sport as they get older.

“There’s the natural athletes who understand and are just good at baseball, and they’ll continue to keep playing. But the ones who don’t find success at that age, they don’t move on,” French said. “That’s what’s tough. That’s what’s killing our numbers and performance.”

French believes The Strike Zone’s training programs can encourage players who may have quit the sport to stick with it once they see their progression. He’s also focused on skills beyond hitting and pitching, partnering with a fitness company that will work out of the facility and working with a sports psychologist who will host sessions with groups of players.

“That’s the biggest thing with this game: your mindset has to be consistent,” French said. “There can’t be any doubt. No room for doubt in this game or else you will continue to fail.”

French currently employs two people full-time, while contracting with several part-time baseball coaches who will filter in a couple days a week. He said he’s fielded other inquiries from interested coaches, too, and while he’s not planning on hiring at this time, “it all depends on how quickly this thing explodes.”

French is confident The Strike Zone will establish a stronghold in the local sporting world and beyond. He said the facility’s location — in between Colchester, Essex and his hometown, Jericho — makes it a good place to serve the greater Burlington region. And he’s heard from families around the state who are interested in signing up.

The facility will also be open to the general public, whether for birthday parties or anyone who wants to stop by and get in a few swings, French said.

“Being as young as I am and motivated to make this happen long term, it’s a dream come true,” French said of his new business. “Just being able to show up here and coach baseball — what I know a lot about and love — is just that cherry on top.”