SKLZ Baseball and Softball Rebounder Net for Fielding Training
Ball Return Positions:
For decades, baseball players have used "pitchbacks" (aka rebounders) to practice their fielding skills. Pitchbacks are notorious for their poor quality, difficult assembly, and inability to be collapsed for storage. With only adequate line drive performance, even the best of pitchbacks can't return pop flys or a true ground ball.
The goal of this project was to develop an authentic baseball rebounder (with ease of use, elevated quality, and the ability to be collapsed down for transport and storage.
User Research, Competitive Benchmarking, Ideation Sketches and Prototypes, 3D CAD, Manufacturing Documentation and Sample Reports, CMF and Product Branding.
Walt Nolan, Category Manager - Baseball
Rick Huth, Sr. Mechanical Engineer
Zach Levine, Product Development & Sourcing
The Fielding Trainer is designed to give your players the hit-like returns — grounders, line drives, and fly balls — they need to build the reactions, muscle memory, and glove skills that turn average defenders into all-star playmakers.
Designed for easy setup, take-down and storage, the Fielding Trainer is perfect for practices, one-on-one coaching or using in the backyard.
Pitchbacks are a staple of baseball training gear. Design an improvement on the pitchback without alienating the target demographic.
Pitchbacks have never delivered game-like ball returns. Prioritize authentic ball returns that prepare the athlete for competition.
Hitting the sweet spot of target MSRP and launch season is very important. Align with marketing and sales departments on price and launch.
The pitchback hasn't changed much in the last 50 years. They all make the same claim of dynamic returns and net adjustability. But in reality, the adjustment only produces slightly varied line drives and comes with hazard labels about chopping off a finger.
The large Y-shaped frame is likely to sit in the backyard until the weather degrades the net or rusts the frame.
As a product team,
we unboxed and assembled 4 pitchbacks.
It wasn't a very fun day at work. Here's why:
Most pitchbacks cut corners on the frame to lower their manufacturing and shipping cost. Without a substantial inner to outer tub diameter, the tension from the tight net will distort the frame.
With so many similarities between parts, it's easy to get lost heading down the wrong path. We had to disassemble and restart numerous times.
It just doesn't bounce right. Most of the nets didn't have enough spring. Line drives came back at an arc. If you could finesse a grounder, it had the wrong cadence. Absolutely no pop flys.
We were fortunate to have hundreds of customer reviews available for our competition. We quickly identified the following themes:
"The ball just doesn't bounce as well as it should off the top. It comes off the bottom better, but still not great. The other item that I wish I had considered is the width. After having a 50", the 42" just feels too narrow and too tall. I think that affects how the ball bounces also."
"Dangerous product. My 11yo son was trying to adjust the angle... he had his finger in the hinge and severed the distal phalanx of his 4th finger. While I had told him to ask me for help when adjusting, he is 11. I think there is a pretty significant product liability here."
"The anchors will not hold it down sufficiently. The net pulls so tight that the frame will warp. The frame can be straight until a ball hits it. Unfortunately this is not worth keeping."
"In less than a year of keeping it in my backyard, the hooks on the bungee cords started to rust. Shortly after that they started to break one by one. I don't have space for it in the garage."
Max, 10, loves all things baseball and is always looking for someone to play catch. He's doing well for his age group but could sharpen his fundamental skills.
Product Practice Stats:
Michael, 18, is a high school senior with his eyes set on college ball. He knows that he's a top player, but is looking for any advantage he can get.
Product Practice Stats:
Andrew is a volunteer coach for his son's team (ages 11-12). He loves sharing baseball with his son but is often frustrated at how easily the boys are distracted.
Sally is a parent to baseball player Levi, 13, and softball player Rachel, 9. Sally balances spending time with her kids and a full time job. Weekend games are often split between her and her husband.
Deliver game-like returns (trajectory and cadence) for ground balls, line drives, and fly balls.
Enable younger users to switch between settings without an adult.
Develop a frame that is both lightweight and able to withstand net tension.
Easily transport the rebounder from the garage, to the backyard, to practice.
Align with brand principles and guidelines.
Consider future expansion into other sports to create a product family.
Must pass all safety regulation testing.
Must pass all testing for a limited 1 year warranty.
Target $124.99 MSRP to compete in mass/retail channels.
Patentable IP if possible to prevent knock-offs.
Monitor size and weight for factory shipping out of China.
Packaging must fit on a standard retail shelf (48" wide).
I created a series of concept sketches to be reviewed by the product team for the following criteria:
1. Potential for authentic ball returns.
2. Engineering feasibility and risk.
3. Factory capabilities and costing estimates.
4. Product Launch deadline and team capacity.
The top three concept sketches advanced to rapid protoyping. The primary goal of the prototypes was to establish the potential for authentic ball returns.
I created the prototypes by cutting and screwing together tubing and spare parts in the shop. 2x4s were used as useful to expedite the process.
Difficult to get a pop fly return.
Flipping the frame is awkward.
Engineering concerns on frame stability.
Difficult to get a line drive return.
Net needs more tension from the frame; net is sagging and warping ball returns.
All ball returns have potenial.
No initial engineering concern.
Easy to collapse and move.
This prototype was the clear winner from the group. In collaboration with all cross-functional teams, we determined that there was potential to hit all of our product and business objectives.
1. Collaborate with engineering:
• Create 3D CAD for validation testing
• Determine tube inner and outer diameter
• Strategize break point in the frame for packaging and assembly.
2. Collaborate with sourcing/development:
• Compare net options and add a "strike zone".
• Evaluate factory capabilities and timelines.
• Confirm costing, MOQs and profit margin.
3. Collaborate with category manager:
• Organize user testing goals and schedule.
• Coordinate communication with Marketing.
• Confirm all functional and aesthetic elements.
With the prototype as a guide, I created this 3D CAD model in Solidworks. This model was foundational in the following discussions:
1. Frame Specifications and force analysis
I laid out the ideal dimensions for the user to facilitate collaboration with engineering on tubing thickness, welding areas, part breaks for packaging, etc.
2. Net Exploration
The best way to communicate intent with international factories: imagery. This rendering got us all on the same page.
3. Branding and CMF (Color, Material, Finish)
The primary SKLZ colors are black and yellow. This rendering shows an emphasis on the main frame in yellow, both for functional reasons and marketing assets (i.e. for impactful social media imagery).
We had three goals in sourcing the net:
correct tension for great rebounds, a durable strike zone and reasonable costing. Fortunately, our partners at the factory were able to provide a number of options.
1. Connects the support frame tubing together.
2. Sits on the stopper for each ball return position.
3. Prevents the support frame from shifting laterally on the base frame.
There were very tight engineering restrictions around this part - largely involving wall thickness and corner reinforcement.
In this scenario, engineering built the 3D CAD first and I designed around their perimeters.
We quickly moved into factory prototypes to validate and refine all functional features and manufacturing process.
Factory samples go through rounds of testing, measuring, and reviewing. All feedback is collected and communicated back to the factory for the next sample round.
As factory prototypes arrived at SKLZ headquarters, we began user testing. Testing involved various teams and coaches with planned fielding drills and open play.
The best outcome across all groups was creativity and fun. The players quickly made up games and drills (in solo and team settings).
Parents loved the autonomy it gave their kids to practice on their own, including setup and position changes.
Our final sample round, the Golden Sample, was reviewed and approved for production.
The Fielding Trainer is the first baseball rebounder to provide game-like grounders, line drives, and pop flys.
Whether you're with a team or practicing solo, improve your fundamentals including throwing consistently at the target, proper footwork and rhythm attacking the ball.
Your players will go from fielding grounders to catching line drives and fly balls in an instant with the Fielding Trainer’s easy settings.
The Fielding Trainer gives you the power to have more dynamic practices and coaching sessions or let players practice multiple defensive plays on their own.
Designed for easy setup, takedown and storage, the Fielding Training is perfect for team practice, one-on-one coaching, or backyard play.
If intellectual property isn't protected, you're likely to start seeing knock-offs within the year. Building in patent-able elements to the design increases the longevity of revenue potential.
The Red Dot Award is an international design competition with an emphasis on innovation. A jury only awards this sought-after seal of quality to products that feature an outstanding design.
This has been the best investment. Worth every penny. My boys can go practice without needing any help moving it in the different positions. Its lightweight but heavy duty. Made well. And easy to put together. I did it all by myself in 10 minutes
I bought less expensive trainers in the past and they rusted out quickly. This trainer is very sturdy and my two boys use it to trainer grounders, liners and fly balls.
This is super high quality! I love it, my son is even outside with it at 27. Best fielder on the market. This is well worth the price.
Oh my goodness! What a great piece of training gear! Light years better than the pitch-back I toyed around with when I was a kid.
My boy improved his throwing and catching after a couple times of using it. If I have work around the house and can’t play catch with him, then he gets his reps in and get better. Glad we bought it and would buy again.
It's great to be able to work on fundamentals like being aggressive on ground balls. Overall the best piece of fielding training that I've used and would highly recommend!
Our son is a catcher whom we can't convince to block balls with his body! He's using this pitch-back to increase his reaction time and prevent pass balls. It was easy to put together and it's easy to change between the three positions.
Awesome product. Easy to put together and great quality. The three levels work great however ground balls and line drives are what you can count on while fly balls are a little more difficult to get right for a 10 year old.
Great product perfect for ground balls and line drives. A little weak with the pop flys though.
While initial reviews were very positive,
recent reviews suggest problems with the net tension and rebound.
I would contact the factory to determine the root of the problem and steps to resolve the issue or replace/reconfigure the net.
The intention behind this design was to roll it out to SKLZ basketball and soccer next.
Building a family of rebounders would create brand cohesion across categories, reuse of tooled parts, and multiply all the work done on the fielding trainer.
Fielding is a largely unaddressed area of baseball and softball.
I would explore other ways to use the knowledge and research from this product on new concepts.