Canada’s next major baseball export — the next Joey Votto, Mike Soroka, or Russell Martin — could emerge from a Kitchener-based baseball performance facility.
For the last five years, professional baseball players and collegiate athletes have flocked to Play Ball Academy, founded by Trevor Nyp and operated by Tyler Soucie. As an ambitious 19-year-old, Nyp saw the need for a first-class baseball training facility in Waterloo Region.
Play Ball was his dream come to life.
“When I was in university playing baseball at Laurier, I remember sitting in the class: ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff. This isn’t fun at all. This isn’t what I want to do with my life. I want to open a baseball facility,’” Nyp said.
The initial vision was to renovate a small warehouse space and install a few batting cages, but those plans fell through. Nyp then teamed up with a business partner to build a brand new 23,000 square foot facility from the ground-up.
They settled on the current Play Ball location, which is just off the 401 in Kitchener on Executive Place. It’s every baseball player’s paradise, complete with batting tunnels, a full artificial turf infield, pitching machines, and a workout area. The facility opened in January 2015, with Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey appearing for the grand opening festivities.
While Play Ball Academy was primarily focused on rentals and walk-in customers in the past, five years later, they’ve evolved to focus on player development and evaluation. In short, they’re in the business of building better baseball players.
“We now have shifted towards almost going strictly performance-based, and anybody that walks in the door can feel as though they’re going to get better,” Nyp said. “They’re coming in and using the facility with a purpose; to get to the next level, whatever that next level might be. And the utilizing professional instruction that is here: Tyler, myself and the other instructors.”
Nyp and Soucie don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. The Los Angeles Angels hired Nyp as a defensive coach in 2019, a position he still holds to this day. At Play Ball, he primarily teaches hitting and infield defense, but his defensive drills gained a cult following on Instagram. His work caught the eye of someone in the Angels organization, which led to an interview with the team.
“It was a total fluke,” Nyp said. “I didn’t reach out to anybody. I just kind of did my thing and got better with it and really got to the point where I was passionate about it, and I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I thought I got pretty good at it.”
Typically this time of year, he’d travel with the Angels’ single-A affiliate team, the Burlington Bees. With the minor league season shut down, he’s back in Kitchener for the summer, assisting at the facility on the offensive and defensive side.
Soucie is the guru in the pitching department. The Cambridge native played Division 1 baseball at Canisius College in Buffalo in 2013 and 2014 and runs the Velo Pitching program, in addition to his general manager position at Play Ball Academy.
He concluded his baseball playing career in 2016 and has since turned towards coaching and honed in on the player development side of the game. Soucie marvels at how quickly the tools and technology have changed since to his college playing days.
“The biggest thing for me is the way we approach player development now as opposed to how we used to. We try and take as much of a holistic approach to coaching, whereas previously, it was very singular-skill focused. Someone would come in and say they wanted to work on hitting and we’d come up with a couple of drills off the bat.
“Whereas now, I will conduct a very thorough assessment before I work with a player to get a better snapshot of how that player functions; not only as an athlete, but as a person,” Soucie said.
Play Ball uses a Rapsodo Pitching Unit to measure any metric imaginable when evaluating a pitch. The machine not only measures velocity and can whether the pitch is a strike or a ball, it also measures the spin rate of the baseball, the axis of the spin and the vertical and horizontal break.
It’s a dizzying amount of data available on every single pitch, but with that information, Soucie makes tweaks and helps pitchers make an ineffective pitch into an unhittable one. Teams across collegiate baseball and Major League Baseball use Rapsodo units, and Kitchener is lucky to have one of these advanced tools at Play Ball.
“The main way in which you would use a unit like a Rapsodo is to develop the most deceptive arsenal of pitch types that you possibly can,” Soucie said. “Everything works off of the fastball, so we want everything to look like a fastball for as long as it possibly can towards the hitter.
“The Rapsodo can definitely tell us how well each pitch performs and tunnels with their fastball. For me, without having a definitive measuring tool like that, you’re really just guessing when you’re trying to develop pitches.”
With the minor league baseball season suspended, it’s allowed local pro players or collegiate players living in Southern Ontario to continue their training regimen. Play Ball worked closely with players like Blue Jays pitcher Jordan Romano, San Diego Padres prospect Jake Sims, Los Angeles Angels prospect Gareth Morgan, and Milwaukee Brewers prospect Tyler Gillies.
With the ability to train indoors 12 months out of the year, facilities like Play Ball see constant use, even during the summer months. Just like at the big-league level, there rarely is a baseball offseason anymore because training takes place year round.
“What we’re very proud of is we know how to utilize this facility 12 months of the year and we know what it’s going to take to help our clientele get to that level utilizing our programs that we’ve put into place,” Nyp said. “It’s not always about playing full games constantly; it’s about training with a purpose and following a program 12 months of the year, plain and simple.”
Since its inception in 2015, Play Ball Academy has worked with over 75 pro or collegiate athletes, and they continue to develop the next wave of Canada’s baseball talent, many of which are destined for the big leagues. Before those players walk into the clubhouse as a draftee of a Major League organization, they often step into Play Ball first.
“When someone first walks through the door, it’s kind of the awe factor,” Soucie said. “It is very unique, not only to our area, but throughout North America. I haven’t seen much that parallels our facility, short of maybe professional training facilities. I think we hang with the best of them.”