To try to improve their reality, the Mets are using a virtual one.
Virtual-reality technology — new to baseball, newer to the Mets — quickly has become a legitimate part of their hitters’ daily routine in recent weeks as they have teamed with WIN Reality, an Austin-based startup, to provide startlingly realistic game-speed simulations.
Think of it as being able to face a pitcher before having to face that pitcher.
“It’s an advanced visualization tool, because you’re programming your mind ahead of time to what that guy might do to you,” hitting coach Chili Davis said. “If you use it the right way, I think there’s a lot of benefit to it. It’s sort of the next level of looking at video.”
The Mets’ VR dabbling began on the minor-league side during spring training. By late April, they invested in equipment for the major-league team: an approximately 12-foot-by-12-foot-by-10-foot “WIN Lab” set up in the bowels of Citi Field, near the batting tunnel, plus a headset version that can be packed into a backpack for easy transport to road games.
The simulation shows a pitcher’s delivery and arm slot, as well as the trajectory of the ball — all key variables as a hitter reads a pitch and decides to swing. For now, at least, the VR isn’t good enough to show how a ball spins or its seams, which are also important real-life tells, but the technology seems to be improving quickly.
“Last year with the Cubs, I saw it with a shadow image of the pitcher,” said Davis, who lamented that the closest thing he had to virtual reality in his 19-year big-league career was closing his eyes and visualizing the pitcher. “The motion matched the pitcher’s motion, but the pitcher himself, you didn’t see him or his jersey. Now, you’re seeing the pitcher.”
Said Chris O’Dowd, chief executive officer of WIN Reality: “The opportunities to increase the realism are there. We know beyond anything that the more realistic the experience is, the more relatable and transferrable it will be for players.”
Multiple Mets cited Todd Frazier as the team’s most dedicated VR neophyte. As part of his pregame routine, Frazier takes as many as 10 virtual at-bats against that night’s starting pitcher, which he said helps him relax for when he sees the real thing.
Frazier has leaned away from watching video of the pitcher or his own at-bats in favor of VR, which is similar to video but with a first-person point of view, putting the viewer right in the batter’s box.
“It’s helped me a lot to be honest with you — see how the slider moves, see the zip on his fastball. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s close to it,” said Frazier, who credited VR work for much of his recent turnaround (.321/.430/.548 the past four weeks). “Especially a guy like [the Yankees’ Masahiro] Tanaka, he throws four-to five different pitches, so you want to see them all. I’ve seen him a bunch of times, but to see it again live, kind of, like that, it’s really nice.”
And Frazier is far from alone. Juan Lagares is a regular. Jeff McNeil hops in for a few minutes most afternoons to time his leg kick against the starting pitcher he’ll see that night. Michael Conforto uses VR to get familiar with a pitcher he hasn’t faced much, such as last week when Colorado used Antonio Senzatela (whom Conforto homered against). When Pete Alonso is going to see a pitcher with a funky or deceptive delivery for the first time, like the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner this month, he’ll give him a virtual look beforehand.
And J.D. Davis works VR into his midgame routine — along with batting cage, video — when he is preparing to pinch hit against any of several possible relievers. He has a .368/.455/.789 slash line as a sub.
Close to two months into the Mets’ VR experiment, many of the early kinks — such as not having some pitchers in the system — are worked out.
“Once we got all the pitchers, I think everybody uses it at least once during the day,” J.D. Davis said.
O’Dowd, a former minor-leaguer, credits Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen with fostering a more progressive culture than the organization had in the past. That willingness to experiment and commitment to being open-minded helped the Mets become relatively early adopters of virtual-reality tech.
“Brodie has certainly empowered his staff on all levels to try new things, to take chances,” said O’Dowd, who founded WIN Reality with his father, Dan O’Dowd, the former Rockies GM.
Van Wagenen declined to discuss the Mets’ use of virtual reality, seeking to safeguard a potential competitive advantage.
Including the Mets, about one-third of big-league teams use WIN Reality’s equipment and services, with the Yankees not among them, O’Dowd said. That is a considerable jump from the one majors client the company had last year.
With software-and-services packages having annual costs ranging from $25,000 (minors) to low six-figures (majors), clubs get daily assistance from WIN Reality’s developers and engineers. If a team really wants to pay up, it can buy exclusivity rights within its division. An AL East team does have exclusive rights as a WIN Reality client, freezing out the Yankees.
Virtual reality is not some magical hitting elixir, but for the Mets, it has become a worthwhile piece of their preparation.
“More and more guys are starting to use it,” Chili Davis said. “I think it’s going to get to a point where it’ll be a normal part of baseball.”