When virtual reality first arrived in baseball as a training tool, it was big and expensive. A couple of years back, the Dodgers needed to install an entire room near the clubhouse so their players could practice virtually against that night’s starting pitcher. But now the technology is getting smaller, easier to transport, and less expensive. As this more portable and affordable virtual reality spreads through all of the different levels of baseball, the question begins to shift from “how good is this” to “how can players best use it?”
One of the leaders in baseball virtual reality training, WIN Reality, announced Wednesday an infusion of $45 million of investment from Spectrum Equity as they transition from helping major leaguers to train kids up and down the baseball experience. Their new products will focus on young amateur baseball players, and the commercial experience of their app, as they add coaching modules and social media aspects to a baseball product that major leaguers have already begun taking advantage of for their own training.
“The release of the Oculus Quest 2 crushed the cost curve on VR,” said WIN COO Chris O’Dowd. “We went from installing what was a $150,000 piece of equipment in a number of major league clubhouses, to a backpack system that had stands and sensors and still required an operator, to a headset that is more affordable than a baseball bat at $299. That put us in a position to go from only working with major league teams and a few top-tier collegiate customers — Vanderbilt won the college World Series the first year we worked with them — to now having a product that can really fit the entire life cycle of a baseball player.”
But a major leaguer will want different things than an 8-year-old just getting used to standing in the box.
The theoretical impact of VR at the major league level is huge, and companies like WIN, Monsterful VR and others have been looking for ways to seamlessly incorporate that tech at the professional level. “Imagine being able to step in against tonight’s pitcher and really face them?” said Monsterful VR’s CSO, Jarett Sims. “We’ve really worked on the technology, and also the artificial intelligence driving the experience so that you really could see what a Corey Kluber at-bat would be like before you step up to the plate.”
He said that back in 2018, but it’s become even more vital in the past few years, as we now know that the third time through the order penalty — when hitters suddenly have the advantage on the pitcher — is based not on a drop-off in stuff, but on familiarity with the pitcher, and any technology that can improve a batter’s familiarity with the pitcher can help the hitter jump ahead to the second time through the order. With the knowledge that there are more breaking balls than ever before and that the more a single hitter sees a single breaking ball, the better the hitter gets, it makes sense to then see those breaking balls virtually before you ever really step in the box.
“If you’re a guy that definitely focuses on timing after the pitcher breaks his hand, then this will help, no question,” said the Rangers’ Marcus Semien of VR’s value to a major leaguer. “It can help you get on time.”
There’s a little difference forming here, though: familiarity with pitch shape, and familiarity with the pitcher’s timing. Not every major leaguer gave rave reviews of the way the pitches looked in the air, saying the velocity didn’t quite track with their real-world experiences.
“The downfall is the velocity doesn’t feel real,” said Rangers catcher Mitch Garver, who worked with VR tech this past winter. “The guys that are throwing mid-to-upper 90s, it’s completely unhittable, but if you’re in the box and feeling good, you can time up 95 to 100. It goes by you so fast it’s unrealistic. So what I did was I went up against high school pitchers throwing 85 to 88, and it seems more realistic to me.”
O’Dowd thought what was missing was some of the context around the situations in which baseball players normally see a 99 mph fastball.
“When you stand in the batter’s box in VR and you’re not in your stance and fully emotionally ready to see a 96 mph fastball, and it’s more of a passive watching, it’ll sneak up on you,” O’Dowd said . “When the crowd is loud and you have that adrenaline, then 95 slows down. If you’re really trying to put yourself in a position to be successful even in the app, it needs to be met with the same emotional intent as you would have the game.”
For the younger set that’s now gaining access to the WIN technology, any added exposure to shapes is probably helpful, because they aren’t working with the same baseline of experience.
“At the amateur level, their experimental library and database is a blank slate,” O’Dowd said. “So we’re just trying to give them any impressions. They may never have seen a low three-quarters left-handed slider before and we don’t want that happening for the first time in a game. It’s that same developmental concept but in broader buckets — I want to see a sharp breaking ball that breaks late versus a rolling breaking ball. Letting kids start to define what it looks like out of the hand, what different tempos and deliveries look like — building that experience library on a very much accelerated and condensed timeline is really hard.”
A technology like this can have a great impact even if the batter chooses to focus only on timing, though. Research from cricket suggests that hitters get much more information before the release of the ball than they do after. Also, Garver pointed out that major league hitters aren’t trying to hit all of the pitches all of the time.
“When I work on a machine, I’m trying to master a single move, to learn a new move,” Garver said. “Like, if I want to hit a left-handed back-door cutter, what do I have to do to get my body positioned to hit this ball, where do I want to hit, which way do I want my hands to go. Hitting is about taking one pitch shape and trying to do damage off it. I’m hunting a zone and a pitch and that’s what I’m trying to damage on. I’m not looking for the fastball and the slider down and the heater up and the breaking ball in. I’m not looking for all those things. We’re all trying to simplify the approach, not have one swing that can hit everything.”
That could be a difference in the usage cases between major leaguers trying to hit homers off the best pitchers in the world, and young kids just trying to add to their database of shapes. The one thing that every major leaguer agreed was missing from their experience with VR was the immediate feedback that the bat itself gives a hitter.
“The mindset of having to see the ball and actually hit, make physical contact with the ball, having to react to where the ball is coming in — it is different than actually watching it,” said Oakland’s Jed Lowrie. “There are no stakes, there are no consequences for mis-hitting the ball.”
“I just feel like you’re gonna do what you do there, and then the game’s completely different,” the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger told The Athletic. “Maybe you just hit it and the game reacts and tells you where you hit it and if you were late or early.”
Getting real-life physical feedback is important. Consider the difference between this and “MLB: The Show,” a more conventional video game, where it’s much more fun to swing than to take. That’s already had some real-world consequences for Semien, back when he made his minor league debut, and compiled the lowest walk rate of his minor league career, thanks to, he believes, the video game.
“(In) 2011, guess it was ‘MLB: The Show,’ just had gotten drafted, played a ton of ‘MLB: The Show,’” Semien said. “You just want to swing, you don’t want to take pitches, then you get to the plate in your real-life game and you just want to swing. That doesn’t work in Low A.”
So bat-based or at least batted-ball-based feedback would be something useful for the kids then, too.
“There’s nothing the kids do in life that replicates the bat to ball,” said UC Berkeley assistant baseball coach Noah Jackson. “They’re on their phones and their games, but the physical act of hitting an object is very difficult we don’t do anything else like that, so when they get out of the simulator or out of the practice, they find that real -life competition is nothing like the soft-tossing coach or the game they were playing.”
Over at WIN, the newest tech rollouts are centered around improving just this facet of the VR experience. Every six weeks in the coming years, consumers can expect to see more sophisticated batted ball projections and metrics so they can better judge if their swing correctly timed that pitch. There should be the opportunity to add diagnostics that can provide specific feedback about each part of the swing in real-time.
The biggest difference between the professionals and the kids might be the level of coaching, though. When did Mitch Garver take up VR because he didn’t have a coach to talk to or a facility to visit? In late February, in the middle of a lockout. Otherwise, he’d have plenty of people to help him improve. Kids don’t always have that.
“Let’s bring better coaching to amateur players,” O’Dowd said of the next step in the process for VR. “We have a team of hitting coaches and we want to deliver really personalized training tracks and programs that are much more robust than what we have now. We want to deliver on a more comprehensive training system. (Make) the accessibility to training more often and easier. Offseason plans are about a longitudinal approach to building a full skill set that can be put on autopilot and it’s a couple of days a week, and you can see 20 pitches in less than eight minutes on the app. That provides consistency and checkpoints for feedback.”
That’s exciting for most kids in the sport, but not necessarily all. A $299 headset and $30 a month charge is still a barrier for many young players, and goes hand in hand with other trends in the sport.
“Baseball has become the ultimate country club sport,” said Jackson, who is also the co-founder of the First Base Foundation, which helps kids afford travel baseball, which can be expensive. “Kids have hitting coaches and fielding coaches and pitching coaches and private coaches and, increasingly, private games as travel ball replaces Little League. There are no backyard Wiffle ball and stickball kids, they don’t have time to develop that competitive ability.”
Considering that these specific tools have gone from six figures to three in just the last few years, though, it seems right to say at least VR is trending toward affordability. And even if it’s not a panacea for all major leaguers, it’s become an accepted part of a healthy diet of technological tools for many hitters, with some upside left to boot.
“What I’ve seen in San Francisco and here, guys are starting to replace what used to be traditional reps with the swing and now taking neural reps with the VR,” said Rangers offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker. “Guys are using that to see shapes, to find timing, to practice their game plan model. One of the key things is how do we rethink repetition so we can get our highest speeds, highest capacity at game time. Instead of taking 100 swings, maybe it’s just 35 reps on the VR and 35 reps with their swing. As you warm up that part of the brain, we need to also then create a stimulus that activates the body, where it gets a little uncomfortable and has to solve fast problems in space.”
So for the kids trying to get better at baseball, competitive play will still be key, the coaches and major leaguers themselves maintain.
“At the end of the day, we still have to honor that if you want to get better at swimming, you better jump your ass in the pool,” laughed Ecker.
But on the cold days, when the pool is closed, it looks like VR is making the play to be the technology that will be there to help the kids keep swinging.
(Top image courtesy of WIN Reality)