This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)
Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito trying out VR during spring training in 2016. (ARTURO PARDAVILA III / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A NEW KIND OF BATTING PRACTICE
Mariano Rivera wasn’t always destined to be the greatest closer of all time. He entered the majors as an old rookie at age 25 and took a season to adjust. Soon after settling into the big leagues, though, it happened. Rivera gripped the ball the same way as always, but now the ball dipped and darted. “The wicked movement just … happened.”1
It was the pitch handed down by God.2
Today’s baseball players don’t need to wait for miracles handed down from above. They have technology. Devices like Rapsodo use “machine-learning algorithms to track pitchers’ velocity, spin rate, spin efficiency, pitch break and spin axis” among other information.3 Players wear devices like the K-Vest to capture details about their swing efficiency. There’s the Swingtracker, which attaches to the end of the bat and “transmits data about angles, planes, and velocity to produce a 3D model of a player’s swing.”4
All the data collected during games and practices are put into virtual reality, where players immerse themselves to improve their technique and even to face their upcoming opponents to prepare for a game. Players all over the globe can step up to the virtual plate. The future of baseball is in the metaverse.
THE MERITS AND PROMISES OF VR TRAINING
Baseball VR developers use data-driven, artificial intelligence-powered virtual reality to offer training exercises for players from amateur to the pros. These developers include WIN Reality, EON Reality, TrinityVR, and Monsterful.5 Among the merits of using VR technology for player skills development are the following:
1. It’s easy to jump in on your own.
We already have pitching machines for people who practice solo, but they’re severely limited by pitch type, location, and predictability. As WIN CEO, Chris O’Dowd, points out: “Every player likes to face some type of actual pitcher, seeing the ball come out of a hand. Pitching machines can’t provide that type of experience and a coach can’t throw all day.”6
Virtual reality usually requires no partners (some platforms may require a person controlling the simulation from a nearby laptop). Software can simulate any kind of pitch imaginable. And, unlike a machine, you don’t have to pick up balls every three minutes to refill the machine.
2. Rote practice can be “gamified” to be more enjoyable.
Baseball is fun, but repetitive daily practice (the kind necessary to gaining significant improvement) can be boring. One of the easiest things to do with software is to gamify ordinary or repetitive tasks. As EON Sports VR CEO, Brendan Reilly, told Fortune: “Is there a way we can provide a value-add where we can take nonfun things in the game, like strike-zone awareness, and make that fun? [W]e gamify the learning process, and help hitters identify whether it’s a strike or ball in a fun way.”7
Experience points, progress bars, bright colors, and sound cues make daily practice exciting for everyone. Gamification is especially useful for getting kids to stick with their practice routines.
3. Players can build confidence in a solitary, low-pressure setting.
The most direct study of VR training in baseball wasn’t actually focused on performance, at least not directly. Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is a sports psychologist whose focus is imagery.8 She studies whether positive imagery improves thinking and performance, as well as if picturing hitting the game-winning home run really helps a player to do it in real life.
In 2017, Ross-Stewart enlisted her home university’s Division I baseball team to study “a preliminary applied Imagery Assisted Virtual Reality protocol that focused on increasing psychological skill development (e.g., confidence, motivation) and psychological strategy use (e.g., imagery, relaxation).”9 In simpler terms: would players who practiced with VR develop real-life confidence? If they saw themselves hitting homers in VR might they be better-prepared to do it in an actual game?
Confidence and relaxation are difficult metrics to quantify but, anecdotally at least, some players reported positive experiences. SIUE’s most improved player of the season stated, “For myself, it was really mainly just about: relax and confident…were the two key terms for me.”10 One of his freshman teammates, eager to impress, often practiced in his dorm room away from the other guys. He found that the VR “helped me to relax and be calm in the box. The program also gave me some confidence because I watched myself succeed so many times.”
4. Artificial intelligence can accommodate a player’s unique weaknesses.
Hitters who struggle against a particular pitch or a particular zone can program their VR software to target focus more in that area. But software can do more than just that.
We’ve mentioned already how these programs source large quantities of MLB data in order to simulate the characteristics of real pitchers. But this data-gathering capability goes two ways: they also record real-time data on the performance of users.11 A hitter might not even be aware that they swing over curve-balls more often than average, but the program will deduce it after a while. The program can then be throttled to throw more curves, until the hitter learns to adjust.
5. Software can be tailored to introduce handicaps.
Players can practice pitch recognition training in virtual reality. VR exercises shorten the distance from mound to plate, forcing hitters to read and react more quickly.
GameSense Sports offers a pitch-recognition exercise based on what they call “occlusion training.”12 In occlusion training, a batter watches a pitch come at them on-screen, but the screen blacks out just after the ball is released. Based on the release angle, arm velocity and ball spin, the batter is tasked with identifying the kind of pitch coming their way. They’re forced to distinguish the subtle cues that separate fastballs and sliders early in the process, without the luxury of waiting for the break. GameSense’s occlusion training occurs in 2-D, on a television or laptop screen, and similar tech isn’t yet part of any major VR platform.
6. You can play even when you can’t play.
Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals was already in a bit of a slump. From 2013 to 2018 he’d made the top three in NL MVP voting three times, top 12 five times, and made the All-Star team every season. In 2019 his power remained, but his walks dropped and his batting average plummeted 30 points, signs of worsening plate discipline.13
Then 2020 brought the COVID-19 lockdowns. Being stuck at home was a bummer, and social distancing ruled out normal practices. Not wanting to just sit around and let his skills deteriorate further, Goldschmidt ventured to try out WIN Reality (which, whether he consciously realized it or not, was expressly designed to train his most receded attribute: plate discipline14).
Goldschmidt wasn’t the only one to have the thought. His teammate, utility infielder Matt Carpenter, joined him, as did San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski. According to WIN Reality, New York’s two biggest sluggers, Pete Alonso and Aaron Judge, used the system, too.15
BUT DOES IT WORK?
Leading up to the 2019 season, Todd Frazier was 0-for-8 in his career against Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer. So Frazier loaded Scherzer up in VR. “I’m just trying to see how his slider moves or how his fastball moves…I actually think that’s helped me out a lot along the way this year, for sure.”16 That May, Frazier laced a double off the Cy Young Award winner. By season’s end, his batting average was 38 points higher than his previous season’s total, and his highest mark since 2015.17
Brock Weimer, starting center fielder for the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE) Cougars, was a solid-enough player before he ever put on a headset. But after spending just a few minutes per day wearing one over the course of five months, he credited VR training with helping him to his best season ever: 15 homers, 50 RBIs, .329 BA.18,19
The Cougars’ coach analyzed all the players across the team. He noted, “After using the VR program I noticed several improvements in our players. Players were better able to visualize mechanical adjustments to their swing. Before the use of the program, players would be told how to make a mechanical adjustment but would often have trouble visualizing what the adjustment entailed. After use of the program, players were better able to understand what adjustment needed to be made because they had practiced with the VR goggles.”20
According to the developers of these platforms, there are actual, measurable data demonstrating the efficacy of VR in improving hitting. Chris O’Dowd of WIN Reality touts a third-party study which “found improvement in plate discipline” among MLB hitters using his platform, and that “MLB clients exhibited ingame 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.”21
Rahat Ahmed, Strategy Chief at TrinityVR, told Sport Techie about one major league club’s “Latin American academy, where its predominantly teenage prospects reside, set up a drill in which the batters are prompted to identify each type of pitch they saw. In two months of use, those players improved their pitch recognition skills, on average, from 53 percent to 66 percent.”22
In 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first MLB team to invest in a VR cage: the 10×10-foot “iCube” from EON Sports VR. In just the few years since then, nearly every major league team has installed their own VR cages.23
A WIN Reality training program challenges the player/batter to recognize and identify the pitch as early as possible. (WIN REALITY)
YOU CAN LEARN TO HIT MARIANO
Fully digitized training has its drawbacks. There are aspects to the real thing that simply cannot be put in ones and zeros, like the satisfying crack of bat-against-ball. But according to the limited data we have, virtual reality is most promising when it comes to training one of the most important qualities of any hitter: visual perception. Batters can train their visual centers to potentially perceive a Kershaw curve just as it exits his hand, or a Rivera cutter before it’s too late to react.
If virtual reality simulations can continue to improve on their visual fidelity, data crunching and artificial intelligence capabilities, hitters will no longer face so much trouble from future Mariano Riveras, and they won’t have to work quite as hard as Edgar Martinez once did. By facing the same pitchers dozens or hundreds of times over before ever getting into a game situation, they’ll have developed their most important mental attribute: preparation. And their most vital physical skill: their reaction time.
BASEBALL IN THE METAVERSE
Virtual reality training in baseball is just the beginning. Not too far off is the day when players will be able to compete against a virtual version of themselves, or, after their retirement, hire a famed eSports gamer to play as their avatar in order to make more money in the virtual space. VR is the stepping stone to an immersive world where players, trainers, and fans come together. In virtual reality, teams will be able to play against each other on a whole new level. In a live VR baseball game, machine learning algorithms and players’ data will update in real time to create a game the likes of which we’ve never seen. Virtual reality can create new dynamics and exciting challenges for players to overcome, including bringing great players of the past back onto the field. People will be able to watch baseball matchups between teams today and teams from 50 years ago. Virtual reality starts out as a training tool, but it will end up revolutionizing the game by bringing it into the metaverse.
CATHY HACKL is a globally recognized tech futurist. She’s a business executive, keynote speaker, and strategist that specializes in AR, VR, spatial computing and the Metaverse. One of the most influential women in tech, Hackl is considered a leading management thinker and a top voice on LinkedIn. She founded the Futures Intelligence Group and has worked for Amazon Web Services, Magic Leap, and HTC VIVE.
NATE NELSON is a freelance writer for some of the world’s largest technology companies — Wix.com, Check Point Software and more, as well as organizations in finance and government — from Dash Core Group to The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. His podcast, “Malicious Life,” recently received honors from the European Cybersecurity Blogger Awards and the Webby Awards. You can find his work on Forbes, Medium, and publications around the web.
1. Tom Verducci, “Mariano Saves,” Sports Illustrated, October 5, 2009. https://vault.si.com/vault/2009/10/05/mariano-saves.
2. John Harper, “Mariano Rivera says it was divine intervention, but for hitters, his cutter has been pure Hell” New York Daily News, September 21, 2011. https://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/mo-gift-god-pure-hell-hitters-article-1.956109.
3. James Sayles, “How Baseball Teams Are Using Technology to Change the Game,” Forbes, June 24, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesayles/2019/06/24/how-baseball-teams-are-using-technology-to-change-the-game.
4. Jay Woodruff, “5 Technologies That Are Changing Baseball,” Fast Company, August 22, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90378232/5-technologies-that-are-changing-baseball.
5. Company websites: https://winreality.com/, https://eonreality.com/eon-sports-vr-provides-state-art-baseball-training-system-yokohama-dena-baystars/, https://www.trinityvr.com, https://gomonsterful.com.
6. Lisa Rabasca Roepe, “Virtual Reality Hits a Home Run With MLB Sluggers,” Dell Technologies website, September 21, 2020. https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/virtual-reality-hits-a-home-run-with-mlb-slugger.
8. Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart, SIUE Faculty profile page, https://www.siue.edu/education/applied-health/faculty-staff/ross-stewartbio.shtml.
9. Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart, Jeffrey Price, Daniel Jackson, Christopher Hawkins, “A Preliminary Investigation into the Use of an Imagery Assisted Virtual Reality Intervention in Sport,” Journal of Sports Science 6 (2018), 20-30. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323425692_A_Preliminary_Investigation_into_the_Use_of_an_Imagery_Assisted_Virtual_Reality_Intervention_in_Sport_httpwwwdavid_publisherorgindexphpHomeJournaldetailjournalid1jxJSScontallissues.
10. “Virtual Reality Strategy for Sports Training Proven to Enhance Baseball, Softball and Soccer Skills,” HEC Science and Technology Youtube Channel, October 11, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch/vdY9qQyDJoJM.
11. Jason Bristol, “Future of baseball training now here with Monsterful virtual reality,” KHOU, February 19, 2018. https://www.khou.com/article/sports/sports-extra/future-of-baseball-training-now-here-with-monsterful-virtual-reality/285-520553794.
13. Paul Goldschmidt, player profile page, Baseball-Reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/goldspa01.shtml.
14. Roepe, “Virtual Reality Hits a Home Run With MLB Sluggers.”
15. WIN Reality website, https://winreality.com/baseball; John Griffin, “How the Yankees can benefit from virtual reality training,” April 5, 2019, Pinstripe Alley, SBNation.com. https://www.pinstripealley.com/2019/4/5/18286137/yankees-aaron-judge-virtual-reality-training-impact-villanova-jupina-mulvey; Lemire, “Tech Makes Baseball a Simple Game.”
16. Joe Lemire, “Tech Makes Baseball a Simple Game: You See the Ball, You Hit the Ball, You Got It?” SportTechie, July 23, 2019. https://www.sporttechie.com/mlb-baseball-hitters-swings-visual-cues-mental-approach.
17. Todd Frazier, player profile page, Baseball-Reference.com. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/f/frazito01.shtml.
18. HEC Science and Technology, “Virtual Reality Strategy for Sports Training.”
19. Brock Weimer Player Card, The Baseball Cube. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/players/profile.asp?ID=201507.
20. Ross-Stewart, Price, Jackson, Hawkins, “A Preliminary Investigation…” The name of the coach is not given in the published study.
21. Roepe, “Virtual Reality Hits a Home Run With MLB Sluggers.”
22. Joe Lemire, “TrinityVR’s DiamondFX Hitting Simulation Now In Use By Two MLB Clubs,” SportTechie, December 5, 2017. https://www.sporttechie.com/trinityvr-diamondfx-hitting-simulation-virtual-reality-mlb.
23. David Leffler, “This Local Virtual Reality Company is Shaping the Future of Major League Baseball” Austin Monthly, May 2020. https://www.austinmonthly.com/this-local-virtual-reality-company-is-shaping-the-future-of-major-league-baseball.