The widespread use of analytics and expanded scouting departments has diminished the ways in which teams gain an edge on their competition. Long gone are the Moneyball days, where finding a market inefficiency could be as simple as targeting players who don't get out very much. Now, when every team knows that OBP is important, when every team owns proprietary statistical models, squeezing out an advantage is a challenge.
Last week at ESPN, Tom Haberstroh chronicled how the NBA's Washington Wizards are venturing into uncharted territory in search of a new edge: virtual reality. VR may still seem like a futuristic fantasy to many, even as it pops up in more living rooms in the form of video game systems like PlayStation VR. But in sports, the Wizards, along with NFL teams like the Cowboys and Patriots, have turned to the virtual world to give their players a leg up.
How can virtual reality help athletes? First and foremost, through visualization. In his piece, Haberstroh recounts a tale Wizards coach Scott Brooks likes to relay to his players, a story about a prisoner of war in solitary confinement. As the story goes, the prisoner would envision himself playing a full round of golf every day, just to pass the time. After he was eventually rescued, the man decided to play a real round of golf, having not swung a club in many years . He shot 2-over.
According to Snopes, the legend isn't true, or at the very least is unverifiable. However, the lesson remains: there is power behind visualization, and athletes find value in seeing themselves in action, performing their sport at a high level, and succeeding. Any competitive athlete can tell you how helpful it can be to picture oneself excelling in an at-bat, in a race, in any sporting event, prior to actually competing in that event.
As with any sort of innovation, it can be difficult to get people to buy in. Not all the players in organizations that have adopted the technology have embraced virtual reality, and if it were adopted in baseball, some would certainly reject it. Even so, with seemingly fewer ways to innovate than ever before, it's worth wondering what a team like the Yankees could do with virtual reality.
One of the primary uses the Wizards have for virtual reality is analyzing mechanics. Imagine Chase Headley being able to strap on a virtual reality headset and replay his last plate appearance from a first-person perspective. He, or any player that was in a slump, could dial up their most recent at-bats in virtual reality and get a realistic look at their mechanics and try to locate what, if anything, was going wrong.
Virtual reality could also be used to the opposite effect: reinforcing things that are going well. Wizards center Ian Mahinmi, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, has said that virtual reality helped him visualize success at the free throw line. Haberstroh reported that Mahinmi, who shot below 50% from the line from 2014 to 2016, recently strapped on a headset and watched footage of himself successfully sinking free throws. In his next free throw session, he made 65 of 70 attempts, a 93% rate.
Baseball players could watch themselves ripping doubles in the gap to put themselves in positive mindset before a game. Or, before a matchup with a particularly nasty starter, the Yankee hitters could watch prior at-bats in which they had success against that starter, to reinforce the fact that they can beat him. Jacoby Ellsbury, for example, could watch himself stroke a pair of singles in a May 2014 game against David Price, prior to a game in which the imposing Boston lefty was starting against the Yankees.
Yet another use for virtual reality would be keeping part-time players fully engaged. Staying sharp as a non-starter can be difficult, when playing time ebbs and flows. With virtual reality, backups such as Aaron Hicks or the newly-signed Chris Carter could recreate what it's like to stand in against major league pitching on off-days.
With the technology still in its relative nascent stages, the possibilities seem endless. Luis Severino, who confessed to having his release point get out of whack last season, could see for himself the difference in how he releases a fastball and a slider. All the Yankee pitchers would be better able to visualize any hitches in their deliveries, or any possible tells that were tipping their pitches.
Some of this may sound like stuff that can be studied on film, and surely that can be done, but being able to see the actual game first-hand just provides a more immersive experience. Haberstroh cites the testimony of coaches who say that it's nigh impossible to hold players' attentions through film sessions, but virtual reality can put athletes' minds right in the thick of things, rather than letting their attention drift elsewhere.
This is all speculation, born in the doldrums of the offseason. Whether or not virtual reality could be viable for baseball teams depends on if the technology has sufficiently progressed, and I am certainly no expert on whether virtual reality has advanced to the point that it could recreate major league at-bats for players.
But if the Wizards can use it for shot mechanics, if the Cowboys can use it to help backup quarterbacks practice reading defenses, then it makes sense that Starlin Castro could use it to help get out of a slump. Plus, with the Yankees' ever-growing reticence to flex their financial muscle on the free agent market, and with the new CBA making lavish financial outlays more difficult with a more onerous luxury tax, Hal Steinbrenner will need to find something (hopefully other than himself) to spend his money on. With fewer ways to invest their money, and opportunities to exploit market inefficiencies quickly disappearing, why shouldn't a team like the Yankees take a swing on VR?