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Mudville: June 16, 2021 10:48 pm PDT
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WIN-WIN Reality

The key word in virtual reality is reality. Baseball needs more reality. From decision making to coaching. Hitters need more reality in preparation.

That VR help is here.

Hitters now have a next level virtual reality tool that has been flying under the radar, the best-kept secret in baseball. Hitters can take all the tracking at-bats they want, when they want with real data feedback against real pitchers, real TrackMan data, and they can do it anywhere. They can see how a pitcher’s fastball runs or how the slider breaks.

A good number of major league hitters are already taking advantage of this next level setup, including Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. But this isn’t for just major leaguers, and the bottom line is this is really a breakthrough for youth, high school, college and pro players at any level.

It’s called WIN Reality, for players by players, and it’s a win-win to give hitters a leg up that is desperately needed. This is the subject of this week’s deep dive in The Story. Here at BallNine.com we not only look at the past and present of baseball, but the future, and this is the tracking mechanism of the future.

Former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd is the founder and chairman of the Austin, Texas based company and after all his years in the game, including time in the Orioles and Indians organizations, O’Dowd wanted to develop something that gave hitters the opportunity to focus on real pitches in almost any setting.

Remember, I covered the Padres when Tony Gwynn would truck along all kinds of video equipment on the road and into his hotel room as he wanted a way to study pitchers away from the baseball field. I could only imagine how excited Gwynn would be to use such a tool as WIN Reality.

Gwynn just used video.

Even now when players look at their at-bats that is just video.

WIN Reality offers a real time, real date experience, and here is how you know it is an effective weapon for hitters. Major League pitchers don’t like it one bit because they feel it gives the hitters a real advantage.

“This is a tech product but it’s simple, and in fact it’s made by all baseball people,’’ O’Dowd told BallNine. “It’s a tech product but it was built for players by players. I think that separates the product from almost every other tech product out there because they are almost all made by engineers who have never played the game before, so that’s why our product is so applicable in today’s game.

“The thing that drove me crazy, and it started when I was running the Indians development system was just being able to practice at game speed. And specifically hitters matched up against pitchers.’’

That is always the issue around teams on any level. Can hitters get enough game speed reps to recognize pitches? With WIN Reality they now can get all the reps they want at any given time, something hitters only dreamed about a few short years ago. It’s like stepping in the box at a game and the brain reacts the same way it would in the virtual reality world as it does in the real world.

And like Tony Gwynn studying video 30 years ago, this can be done at home or in their hotel room on the road.

“That’s what our product does, there is no coach in the experience, you have to make the adjustment to become better at it to succeed at the challenge that is facing you.”

O’Dowd, 61, said he tried everything with the Indians “like every other good baseball man did,’’ he explained.

“I did short spring work and created elevated platforms to try and create the same angle,’’ he said. “I used high speed machines. I hired ex-players to come in and throw batting practice. I’d take extra minor league pitchers on the road that were value players, not really prospects but I would make them continue their career by throwing live batting practice to our hitters. I tried everything and I continually got frustrated because nothing really worked. Machines don’t replicate any kind of rhythm. When your own pitchers throw against your own hitters they are not comfortable. Ex- players? They weren’t reliable and then there was the fatigue factor. You couldn’t push your players too hard in pre-game because then they actually couldn’t play the game.’’

O’Dowd and another Cleveland executive actually visited the NASA Space Center to try to look into what was then called Cave Technology. “Back then it wasn’t cost effective,’’ O’Dowd said.

There was nothing out there.

When O’Dowd went to the Rockies he continued searching for a new way. “The issue was even more apparent in Colorado because of our home-road issues, not seeing movement at home and seeing movement on the road,’’ he explained of the dilemma Rockies hitters face. “You are going from a mile above sea level to sea level which create an enormous range of challenges from a hitter’s standpoint … Nothing was out there.’’

O’Dowd’s son Chris got involved in the search. He was a catcher at Dartmouth and was drafted by the Padres in 2012 and played six years in the minors.

“Chris is way smarter than his dad,’’ Dan said with a laugh. “He has a really good perspective on how to build a product that could really work from a development standpoint.’’

The view from inside.

WIN Reality became a reality in Austin when they found two developers. Now the business is taking off. “Our office count is now up to 35,’’ O’Dowd said. “Twenty-two of them are people associated with the product.’’

Here is how it all works.

“Basically the technology is that we take live game situations, replicated in our software program so pitches track like a hitter would see in a live game situation where they are in a ballpark.’’

In that respect it is the real thing.

That ballpark is WIN Reality Field and again this is virtual reality.

“We wanted to make this product for all ages,’’ O’Dowd said. “Whoever wins the strike zone, wins the at-bat. In today’s game because of all the technology all the teams are hiring hitting doctors and all they do is talk about swing adjustments. Your ability to be trained to recognizing the ball out of the hand, allows you to be on time. Hitting is all about being on time.’’

That is a skill that must be developed. More reps, more comfort at the plate. And this is not a video game. It is VR.

“It is brain surgery to get developed but the brain surgery is not in the concept,’’ O’Dowd said. “It’s a pretty simple concept. We’ve taken mixed reality and applied it to an every day process within the game of baseball.’’

Then came help from another source.

“When Oculus rolled out last October the $299 headset, our business took off,’’ O’Dowd said. “Because up until that point in time our product was pretty expensive, not from a software standpoint, from a hardware standpoint because there just wasn’t many vehicles to deliver our software to. We are a total software company. You buy the Oculus product and then you sign up on our website and right now the subscription is $24 a month.’’

Before Oculus arrived on the scene, you basically needed $5,000 to get the hardware.

“The only people who could afford that were major league teams and Power Five conferences,’’ O’Dowd said. “But now, since we’ve gotten the (Oculus) Quest 2 at $299 we are in almost every major league team, and might be pushing 120 colleges now and people are buying it, 50 to 80 a day.’’

O’Dowd said the product works with 10 year olds on up.

Dan O'Dowd.

“We are creating a player development department where we will personalize it to each kid,’’ O’Dowd said. “If they are pull heavy, we have things we can do that we can suggest within the experience that they need to work at. If they chase up, we have things in the experience that they can work at so we can actually create real time feedback. I’m really proud of it because I think we are making a deference for kids and we are creating a whole softball line, too. It’s the same product just for softball.’’

Hitters have the experience of standing in the box and seeing the pitch come at them.

This product is all about pitch recognition and the Dodgers have been using the product for a couple of years. Their hitters are doing okay, coming off their first World Series title since 1988.

“Cody Bellinger, the year he won his MVP, has relayed to us that he used it for his rhythm,’’ O’Dowd said of Bellinger’s 2019 NL MVP season. “He would get in it just to rhythm up the pitcher he was facing that night. The Dodgers have been a phenomenal user of the product but in a way they they have created a competitive advantage with it in their application of it.’’

It’s like being at-bat before being at-bat.

We all know how the Dodgers grind out at-bats and their hitters appear to be so comfortable in the box, that all gets back to pitch recognition, the basis of WIN Reality.

“I am really passionate about development,’’ O’Dowd said. “And I don’t think kids develop when coaches are constantly telling them what to do. I think kids develop subconsciously when they perform a skill and then have to make an adjustment to their performance themselves. That’s what our product does, there is no coach in the experience, you have to make the adjustment to become better at it to succeed at the challenge that is facing you.’’

This is not a launch angle product, folks.

O’Dowd said the best hitting coaches he has seen through the years would suggest a change and then walk away and let the player develop their skills

The Cardinals Paul Goldschmidt is a big believer in WIN Reality and catcher Yadier Molina uses it as well to prepare for catching the Cardinals staff and work on his framing. Again this is pitch recognition and a hitting component is being added where you can use your own bat with a sensor. You can also use a coach pitch application where you learn to swing at strikes, not at balls out of the strike zone.

Todd Frazier is a big user of the product as well and has a 1.030 OPS this spring with the Pirates.

“I love that thing,’’ Frazier told BallNine.

Trey Mancini and David Dahl are WIN Reality believers as well. They believe in the advanced VR training tool.

One posting on WIN Reality’s Instagram notes:

Eat

Sleep

VR

Repeat

You can find WIN Reality on Facebook, Instagram and their website winreality.com.

Recently, the top three ranked college baseball teams were Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. All three use WIN Reality and have it loaded in their Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets. It is all about getting game speed reps at the plate. Now they are getting them as VR reps through this training application. Amazing stuff.

Old school combined with new school, all in one, because the information loaded is taken directly from the real world through all the pitch tracking technology.

This is next level practice and for players who have lost time with the shutdowns of the last year, it offers a way to catch up to reality in a virtual reality manner. The faster a hitter can pick up the baseball out of a pitcher’s hand, the better chance he has at the plate. Train to better identify where your barrel needs to cross the zone to make meaningful contact.

Win the strike zone.

This gives the hitter all those reps to win the strike zone.

“The thing about most tech out there,’’ O’Dowd said, “it is a non-emotional experience. It is just a piece of hardware. This can create an emotional connection with a parent and a child with certain applications and the child can do it on his own as well where he doesn’t need anyone else at all. He can practice from the confines of his own home, warm weather, cold weather. You are in the experience, in the WIN Field, a full built-out major league field so you feel like you are actually hitting on a major league field. The controllers control the directions within the experience.’’

It is an experience, not a video game. It can be used anywhere. All you need is WiFi.

“We didn’t really create it for the big league market,’’ O’Dowd noted. “We created this more for the masses, the consumer product. We started in that (big league) market to gain credibility and to get feedback.’’

As a result, the product continues to improve.

Interestingly enough, during presentations to teams by WIN Reality, some big name pitchers were not happy seeing the product because it gives hitters a leg up in preparation.

That really tells you all you need to know about the product.

“Hitting is hard,’’ O’Dowd said. “And no one trains anyone on just seeing the ball so the kids that just naturally have good hand eye coordination, they continue to play the game, but I feel that can be a developed skill if they work on it at an early age. And this is a highly competitive experience. It’s not like you are playing a video game, you are in there, in the experience, competing, trying to become good at it. We have seen tremendous progress for kids in our experience between only 10 and 20 minutes a day when you can get in 60 or 70 pitches.’’

That is a full-blown practice. That is getting the needed reps against pitchers.

The pitchers are generic, but they are all different: high three-quarters, three-quarters, whatever you need to face, full windup, stretch. With the big league teams that club’s video is used in the software so it is the data from pitchers they will face. For the amateurs the pitchers are generic for each age group, so an 11-year-old would be facing velocity of pitchers in his own age group.

“It’s the closest thing out there to get game-like experience,’’ O’Dowd said. “And the feedback we get every Monday (from users) is pretty cool. It’s coaching. That is why we have grown so much.

“We’ve got a long way to go but we feel we can really help the game in a good way.’’

Indeed, a win-win for WIN Reality.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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