By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, Contributor
When Major League Baseball (MLB) started its 2020 season on July 23, four months later than initially planned, teams had only three weeks to practice before opening day. Some players, however, didn’t let the coronavirus get in the way of their training.
St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and infielder Matt Carpenter, as well as San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, relied on virtual reality (VR) to help them with batting practice after spring training camps were canceled on March 13. Although baseball players have used VR to train since 2016, the technology took on an even more important role this year in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown, in part because of significant improvements to the technology.
Early VR training for baseball didn’t use headsets and instead required teams to build a 12 x 12 steel box where players practiced their batting skills in front of a large projection screen that generated virtual pitches, says Chris O’Dowd, CEO of WIN (What’s Important Now) Reality, the VR program Yastrzemski and other MLB players, including New York Yankee’s outfielder Aaron Judge, used to train for the 2020 season. Instead of headsets, players wore motion-tracking 3D glasses, O’Dowd says.
Headsets have been a game-changer for VR. Without the headsets, the steel-box training looked more like a 3D simulation and the user was still aware of his surroundings, O’Dowd explains. There was no pitcher to face, just a baseball being thrown from the field. Headsets provide a more realistic and immersive experience for the user, as well as a more affordable and portable way to practice, he says.
Now players can train in their own homes by strapping on a VR headset and facing a hologram of the toughest MLB pitchers, including Washington National’s Max Scherzer launching his 96-mile-per-hour fastball or Los Angeles’ Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw throwing his curveball. There’s no need for a large projection screen or steel box. Teams upload a video of the pitchers captured during actual MLB games and WIN Reality converts the video into a 3D asset for its baseball training program, “WIN Series,” O’Dowd says.
Preventing a Swing and a Miss
During the training, the batter decides whether and when to swing, and the VR offers him immediate feedback on his reaction to the pitch to help him adjust his swing or recognize when a ball is in the strike zone, O’Dowd says. Players can use the VR to practice evaluating velocity and pitch movements. “The training is not so much about whether the player hits a home run to right-center,” he says. “It’s more about did he swing at a pitch that would allow him to be successful.”
VR training is especially useful for batters because it enables them to focus on a part of the game that’s hard to train for, says Mike Baxter, assistant coach for Vanderbilt University’s baseball team, the Commodores, which also uses VR to train. “I’ve faced some of these pitchers in real life,” says Baxter, who played for the San Diego Padres in 2010, the New York Mets from 2011 to 2013, Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, and Chicago Cubs in 2015. “It’s not like standing outside with the breeze blowing but, that aside, the timing of how long the ball takes to go from the pitcher’s hand to the hitting zone felt right.”
“I’ve faced some of these pitchers in real life…the timing of how long the ball takes to go from the pitcher’s hand to the hitting zone felt right.”
-Mike Baxter, assistant coach, Vanderbilt University baseball
One big difference between VR and real-life batting: Players won’t hear the crack of the bat against the ball. Although the player holds and swings a bat, there is no contact with a ball. A sensor on the bat determines whether the swing was a strike, ball, or potential hit. “The sensor drives home whether that pitch was in the strike zone; was it an advantage in the count; and did you made a good decision?” O’Dowd says.
The best pitchers try to make every pitch look the same, explains Baxter. But VR teaches players how to better recognize the difference in every throw due to the shape of the pitch or the style of the attack. For instance, players learn to recognize the way Clayton Kershaw leans back when he throws a curveball or how Max Scherzer tucks his thumb under the ball when he throws a fastball. VR helps them make better hitting decisions when they’re at home plate during a real game, ready to swing.
VR Pitchers Never Get Tired
Instead of relying on a pitching machine or a coach who might tire of throwing, players using VR face a pitcher who can deliver throw after throw, each one different and deceptive.
“Every player likes to face some type of actual pitcher, seeing the ball come out of a hand,” O’Dowd says. “Pitching machines can’t provide that type of experience and a coach can’t throw all day.”
VR also allows players to get more time at bat, O’Dowd adds. A 15-minute VR session is the equivalent to 15 to 20 at bats, he says. There is no waiting time for the pitcher in between throws so players can use their training time more efficiently.
During the three months MLB players weren’t able to participate in spring training, VR helped to keep a number of players sharp. A third-party study on the usage of VR by MLB players found improvement in plate discipline, O’Dowd says. Although that study won’t be published for a few months, O’Dowd offers his own assessment of MLB players this season: “MLB clients exhibited in-game improvements of at least 12 percent in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging following optimized WIN Reality Game prep usage.”
“MLB clients exhibited in-game improvements of at least 12 percent in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging following optimized WIN Reality Game prep usage.”
-Chris O’Dowd, CEO, WIN Reality
All the fundamentals of learning are present in VR, O’Dowd continues. “Real-life pitchers, real pitches, and immediate feedback,” he says. All these components help baseball players build strong mental habits at the plate.