NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) — Steve Stemle stood in Yankee Stadium at the pitcher’s plate, 60 feet away from Derek Jeter, the team’s prized hitter.
Stemle, a New Albany native, had a lot to be nervous about as a fresh recruit to the Kansas City Royals, but he somehow managed to tune out the 50,000 onlookers staring at him.
Stemle ended up striking Jeter out. It was one of Stemle’s favorite moments during the two years he played in the major leagues.
He did it by concentrating on his target: the waiting mitt.
“It wasn’t, ‘you need to throw the ball so hard’ or ‘you need to have so much movement’ or anything like that,” he said. “If the ball ended up where the catcher had his glove, things were good.”
It’s what Stemle has taught all of his students, the ones he trained during his off-seasons as a minor league player and the ones he coached as an Indiana University Southeast employee. You’re throwing is the most important thing to remember when pitching, he’d tell them. Fast balls and curve balls can make things trickier for a hitter, but they’re not going to mean much if you miss what you’re aiming for.
The 40-year-old used that lesson to craft a new career path after neck and elbow injuries pushed him from the major leagues. Ten years later, his newfound career is on the precipice of taking off.
In 2008, Stemle created the Lokator Pitching Target — different than others used in baseball or softball. On it, numbers represent various places to pitch around a hitter. Pitchers practice by throwing baseballs or softballs at it, aiming for different parts. Those aren’t always in the strike zone.
“There’s strikes that you never want to throw,” Stemle said — like where the hitter can bat a home run.
Stemle’s more about training pitchers to make quality throws, because “there are bad strikes and good balls,” he said.
CREATION OF AN APP
Later, Stemle created an iPhone app. With the application, a partner can log where the pitcher is hitting the target to keep track of their progress. The program also gives sequences, showing where a pitcher should throw.
Stemle’s been pleased with the results. His app has received 2,000 downloads, and he’s sold 250 targets. He used the targets himself as an IUS pitching coach. That year, the college went from 122nd in the nation in overall earned run average, or ERA, to 12th.
Elliott Fuller was one of Stemle’s students at the time. He had been pitching almost his entire life, but using the Lokator was more in-depth than anything he’d done before.
As Fuller learned to concentrate on where he was pitching, baseball got easier for him. Now, as the pitching coach at Our Lady of Providence Jr.-Sr. High School, Fuller uses the target to train his students, and he’s seen the difference it makes.
“It’s taught them to think about where they’re throwing it,” he said. “And to think about which pitch they’re throwing and what the purpose of that pitch is rather than just throwing the ball to throw it.”
Stemle also believes that the Lokator will help pitchers throw smarter than they are now, hopefully reducing injuries in the process. Stemle’s herniated disc and torn ligament were traumatic for him.
“I still have dreams about them,” he said. In the nightmares, Stemle’s sitting on the bench in the dugout. He gets the call to go out into the game, but he knows he’s in too much pain to pitch.
Stemle thinks that the Lokator will help younger players avoid that. But, even with that, something about his product was missing until recently.
In the app’s current form, the pitcher or another person has to manually enter in where the ball hit. That leaves room for manipulating the statistics, meaning colleges or other professional organizations can’t use the app’s data.
Stemle hopes a partnership between him and the University of Louisville’s Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science changes that.
A new algorithm, developed by Hichem Frigui, a professor in the department, films the pitch with the iPhone’s slow-motion video and records its velocity, movement and location hits. The improved app will also store the data and compare it to other pitchers using the program.
With this change, Stemle envisions individuals using the app more, of course, but also colleges who can use the Lokator Pitching Academy (the name for the both the target and the app) to record the performance of students who attend their camps and to check the statistics of possible recruits.
Evaluation companies, which parents already pay “a lot” of money to test their kids, could use the Lokator to measure accuracy instead of speed and major leagues could use the product to make sure their pitchers are training during the off-season.
PLANTING A SEED
The versatility of the app intrigued the Community Foundation of Louisville and Greater Louisville, Inc., the two organizations that run the Vogt Awards. Startups receive $25,000 in seed funding plus mentorship if they win a Vogt Award. Stemle received his in August.
“Lokator has an incredibly interesting technology and a captivated market,” said Ellie Puckett, a GLI employee involved in the awards.
The “captivated market” are parents constantly looking for ways for their children to get better and faster at their sport. They’ll pay just about anything to do that, Puckett said — one of the reasons why the 12 person Vogt Awards selection committee thinks Stemle will succeed.
Their prediction might come true in January. That’s when the new Lokator app launches. Not that Stemle’s done with making improvements. After the January update, he hopes to program the app to make changes and track the pitcher as he or she progresses. The app would be able to form training programs for pitchers based on their performance. It could also track a pitcher over a period of several years, showing how they’ve improved and attracting college recruiters in the process.
Stemle’s brain is buzzing with ideas. The athlete who once devoted everything to playing sports is now perfectly content as an entrepreneur, even when it doesn’t mean having the attention of thousands of people or the satisfaction of striking out Derek Jeter.
“I think it would be difficult for me to not be in a startup, Stemle said. “There’s a lot of pros and cons, but I enjoy it, and I am passionate about every part of it.”