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.
The Tampa Bay Rays are among several teams that have made six-figure investments in a baseball hitting simulator known as an iCube. Players don 3-D motion-tracking glasses, step into a small room that replicates a stadium and have a pitcher on a screen throw to them in true detailed form.
“It’s a huge advantage because sometimes you don’t see guys very often,” Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr. said before last Wednesday’s game against the Dodgers at Tropicana Field.
“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.”
Sure enough, later that night, Souza hit a solo home run off Wood in the fourth inning of Tampa Bay’s 8-5 victory. It was Souza’s sixth homer in 22 games after hitting 16 in 110 games last season. He entered the weekend with an .809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, up from .717 last season.
Is there any correlation between his virtual reality training and improved power?
“It’s a small sample size,” said Souza, one of several Rays who have embraced the new technology. “Ask me the same question at the end of the year. At this point, I think it’s been very helpful.”
Brendan Reilly is the 29-year-old chief executive of Kansas City-based Eon Sports VR, which developed and installed Tampa Bay’s simulator. While he acknowledged “nothing can replace the at-bat experience,” he believes virtual reality can help.
“Guys are getting to face the pitcher they’re going to face that night,” Reilly said. “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.”
Hitters already have extensive video libraries of pitchers and can track the release point, velocity, spin rate and amount of break of any pitch. They can glean tendencies from data showing how often each pitch is thrown in each count.
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