In the midst of spring training, as most people — players, fans, and reporters alike — all focused on the upcoming season, one of the most important pieces of news for the future of baseball likely passed right by with little more than a whisper.
In fact, to the outside observer, it would probably elicit this response: Seriously, this is the most important thing? It’s just Aaron Judge messing around with a video game.
It’s not just a goofy game, though. That’s Judge testing out a device made by WIN Reality, a company that specializes in virtual reality technology.
Virtual reality has, for the most part, found itself most prominently in our society through video game platforms such as the Oculus, Sony Playstation VR, and HTC Vive, among others. To dismiss it out-of-hand as a video game technology, however, neglects a new and potentially game-changing method of training.
That is exactly what Dr. Mark Jupina, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Villanova University, has been working on. With the assistance of Dr. Thomas Toppino and Dr. Gerald Long from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Jupina has been developing another batting practice virtual reality environment known as PITCHvr, utilizing pitch data from the PITCHf/x database.
The system utilizes a combination of visual and audio input to help create a batting practice environment that one can use no matter the weather, to allow players to work on exactly what they need to work on, such as pitch recognition or catching up to the fastball. Future iterations of the system intend to incorporate eye tracking technology and neurological sensors to help train how well players follow the ball with their eye.
The system is still in its infancy, primarily restricted to pitch recognition software and straight batting practice, but the influence that these types of systems can have down the road is enormous. For starters, even just the pitch recognition software would be able to greatly help players, as the software would allow an immense amount of practice not possible in regular batting practice sessions, with potentially thousands of reps focusing on things such as spin rate and pitch angle.
The goal for the project, however, is to eventually create a full setup, one where players can take batting practice from the pitcher they are scheduled to face in the ballpark they’re scheduled to face him. In an interview with wired.com, Villanova baseball coach Kevin Mulvey — a former pitcher who worked heavily alongside Jupina to develop the system — described the system’s potential. “If you could upload the pitcher that you’re going to be facing to this virtual interface, in the stadium that you’ll playing, at the time you’ll be playing, and you can get in there and re-live an at-bat that you had against him,” he explained, “you’re going to be better prepared to face this guy than if you were just taking batting practice off a generic lefty or generic righty.”
Once the system, which at least one big league club is looking into purchasing, is fully on its feet, coaches at all levels will be able to revolutionize their training techniques. While I highly doubt that such a system would fully replace live batting practice and on-field drills, it would allow for more individualized practice and enable players to focus on their biggest weaknesses.
Top prospect struggling with pitch recognition? Have him look at thousands of virtual pitches. Big masher not able to connect with sliders down and away? Have him face thousands of them. Rehabbing player struggling to catch up with the fastball after being away from the game for awhile? Crank up the fastball to 110 and make 97 mph fastballs seem to him like a changeup. Struggling to hit a certain pitcher? Run down the tunnel and take 10 practice at-bats against him down before your spot in the lineup comes around again, all thanks to virtual reality.
Not half-bad for a video game setup, right?