Virtual Reality in Major League Baseball
Curt Casali hit a solo home run for the Tampa Bay Rays during the fifth inning of a Baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels. To the plethora of statistics, video clips and scouting reports accessible with the tap of an iPad, add an even more cutting-edge interactive tool that players began using in game preparation this season: virtual reality. Among the very few who has made six-figure investments in a baseball hitting simulator which is known as an iCube is the Tampa Bay Ray’s. With don 3-D motion-tracking glasses, viewers step into a small room that is more like a stadium and have a pitcher thrown to them on screen like in true detailed form.
The Tamp Bay Rays’ outfielder, Steven Souza Jr. just before their game against the Dodgers in Tropicana Field, said that, “It’s a huge advantage because sometimes you don’t see guys very often” .
“Take Alex Wood. We’re going to see him one time this year, maybe once in the next six years. So being able to see him on the screen, what it actually looks like, is going to make for a little more familiarity before we get in the box.”
As expected, Souza hit a solo home run off Wood later in the night in their fourth inning 8-5 victory. After hitting 16 in 110 games last season, this happened to be Souza’s sixth homer in 22 games. With an .809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, up from .717 last season, Souza entered the weekend. Is there any correlation between his virtual reality training and improved power? One of the several Ray’s who have taken advantage and enjoyed the new technology, Souza, said “It’s a small sample size, ask me the same question at the end of the year. At this point, I think it’s been very helpful.”
The 29-year-old chief executive of Kansas City-based Eon Sports VR, Brendan Reilly who developed and installed Tampa Bay’s simulator, share his belief that virtual reality can help as he acknowledged that “nothing can replace the at-bat experience,”
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Reilly said, “Guys are getting to face the pitcher they’re going to face that night, they can pick up his timing, get a feel for how his ball moves, how he pitched to him the last time … . You feel like you’re on the field in a real, live game.”
The release point, velocity, spin rate and amount of break of any pitch can, however, be tracked as the hitters already have extensive video libraries of pitchers. Hence, they can gather information bit by bit as regards the trends from data which shows how often even pitch is thrown in every count. Could virtual reality be overkill for players who already feel inundated with information? Or could it replace some existing preparation tools?
The General Manager of Angels, Billy Eppler said, “To be determined, if there starts to be notable success from using it and guys want to make it part of their regular routine, then it will catch on. If they look at it as something that is not necessary for their day-to-day preparation, then it will be optional. It’s up to the players.”
Although, there are others, but the Rays seems to be the only team which has publicly confirmed its partnership with Eon Sports VR.
Reilly also said, “We work with a handful of major league teams – that’s all they will allow me to say. The other teams are pretty tight-lipped. They act like they’re the U.S. Army. It’s like Fort Knox”.
Reilly went further and said, “They don’t want other teams to know they have it. If they have something their competition doesn’t, even though their competition may get it next year, that still gives them a leg up.”
The use of virtual reality has not been made mandatory for the Rays players. The reviews of those teams who have made the use of VR technology has been mixed.
The backup catcher, Hank Conger said, “It’s like a 3-D screen; it’s weird, a little different, I’ve been trying to get used to it. You put on your glasses. You stand in the box and track pitches. There’s no swinging. I think it’s helpful from a timing purpose, but the movement of the ball, obviously, is going to be different than what you actually see.” Souza would like to see virtual pitchers replicate more of the downward angle he sees from real pitchers. “There are still some bugs to be worked out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the perfect thing so far. It’s definitely on the right track.”
A number of college football teams including Stanford, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, have all started using VR as far back as the previous season. Although, some like Angels are not using it, however, Eppler did try it and the merits are still under study.
“I thought it was realistic, better than anything created to date,” Eppler said. “I have a level of interest in it, but I wouldn’t say specifically if it’s something we will adopt or not.”
Even though the Dodgers aren’t using VR, the third baseman – Justin Turner has seen the benefits as he experienced it during a spring-training demonstration. ”Guys are different types of learners,” he said. “Some are more visual than anything, so if you can actually see the pitcher while standing in the box, I think that’s a huge competitive advantage.”
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations and formerly the Rays’ GM, declined comment, saying, “There’s no upside to sharing our thoughts.”
Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto said he is “intrigued with the potential and will continue to monitor the overall usability of the products. I think its fascinating stuff.”
Some reams have ordered multiple VR simulators which are intended to be used by both the major and the minor league players, especially those who are willing to improve their own pitch recognition and strike-zone awareness. Said Reilly, who has retained the former big league slugger Jason Giambi as an adviser. ”A guy might have trouble hitting changeups down and away, so they can put him on a training curriculum to experience that and figure out how to master the problem areas. And some minor leaguers experience a big drop-off once they get into the major leagues. They can face, virtually, a major league pitcher, even though they’re in the minors still developing their game.” Reilly said.
However, the next step is to invent a bat which may be used to hit off a virtual pitcher. This technology is about two years away, said the Employees at Eon Sports VR’s Irvine lab. Whereas, Reilly sees a lot of value attached to this current technology. “You can affect your actual performance in a game,” he said, “which is pretty unbelievable.”