Author: Jessie Pierce
Imagine getting a chance to swing at a fastball from pitching ace Clayton Kershaw, who we felt was possibly the best player in last year’s World Series. He is, after all, a three-time Cy Young winner, a one-time NL MVP and a three-time strikeout leader. Only, you’re not facing the real-life Kershaw and you’re not in an actual game. It’s not even batting practice.
That scenario happens in a 10-foot-by-10-foot box called “iCube” that was set up at the Tampa Bay Rays’ ballpark by EON Sports VR two years ago, making the Rays the first MLB team to use virtual reality (VR) in their training. A handful of other teams have purportedly followed the Rays’ lead, though EON Sports VR CEO Brendan Reilly has declined to name which ones have done so. Among other things, the iCube “gives players an up-close look of virtual replicas of real-life pitchers they could face,” like the aforementioned Kershaw and other aces such as Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom. Evidently, the iCube provides a near-exact view of some 50,000 pitches from a variety of pitchers. This means the player will see exactly how a Kershaw fastball moves — speed and spin included — without having to face the real deal.
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So, why does it even matter, especially in light of Reilly’s admission that “nothing can replace the at-bat experience”? He has a point, nonetheless iCube can offer players the opportunity to get in some much needed reps. Through this technology, a batter can take a look at specific pitches as many times as possible, so they can break down the minutia of each of those pitches — arm angle, release point, pitcher’s tell, ball spin, movement and so on. The batter thus gets a better idea of what to expect when they do face the pitcher in real life.
A system similar to the iCube, the Trinity VR-made DiamondFX, is making inroads in the MLB as well. The VR company has installed its system in two MLB organizations, which TrinityVR has declined to name. But apart from scouting pitches, batters can also use DiamondFX to keep track of, among other things, their swing form, bat speed and launch angle so as to get invaluable insights on their hitting techniques. By getting such pertinent information, hitters who use this system can potentially improve their swings over time, using the system to make necessary adjustments.
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For the moment, however, it is still quite difficult to paint a complete picture how ingrained VR is in terms of being used as a training tool in baseball. VR is yet to be adopted for mainstream use, currently limited to live game streams every week. After all, Coral News noted that the relationship between sports and VR is still in its infancy, with the technology mainly used to enhance fan experience via immersive live streams that get fans as close to the action as possible, to the point that they even get insider access. That is exactly what happened last November when NASCAR fans got a close-up look at a driver’s meeting at the NASCAR Cup Series Championship finale in VR.
But the technology is fast emerging as a viable training tool and is increasingly being used across a variety of sports, beginning with college football before branching out to professional sports reports the New York Times. Now, VR is in the MLB and it may be a fixture in the league moving forward.
Article written by Jessie Pierce
Exclusively for wsum.org