By STEVE KRAH
“Kids just love playing video games. They’re playing video games at practice and they love it.” — T.J. Guthrie, head baseball coach at Prairie Heights High School
Always looking for ways to develop his players, Guthrie added Virtual Reality to the Panthers’ practice regimen by bringing in a WIN Reality system which helps hitters with things like pitch recognition.
Athletes don a headset and get a fully-immersive experience, seeing realistic pitches in what looks like a professional stadium.
“I’m constantly scouring the Internet and social media to see what is out there to better our kids,” says Guthrie, who introduced WIN Reality when players returned from winter break in January. “I like to mix up our training routines.
“Some days we don’t get the gym with the batting cage and we can still get in live work. We’re getting that cognitive intuition we need on a much better scale.”
With the WIN Reality, players go through graduated sequence of eight drills. The first is basic, recognizing fastball, curveball and change-up. They are also tracking the pitch. This is done by asking the hitter to point the controller to where the ball ended up in the strike zone.
Later comes the “disappearing pitch” drill where the pitch might go away at 50 feet or less and hitters are still asked to recognize it.
“It really starts to challenge guys,” says Guthrie. “They see their averages at the end (of drills) and the begin competing against each other.”
Guthrie notes that the technology is not new and is used by numerous pro and college teams. Now it has come to Brushy Prairie, Ind.
Using the VR trainer offers an efficient way to see more pitches in less time than would be possible with the traditional methods alone.
“We’re certainly not taking away from the live BP,” says Guthrie. “We’re adding to it in a risk-free environment.”
While identifying these WIN Reality pitches, no swings are taken. Hitters pull the trigger on the controller. The system tells them when they made that decision and if it was in the optimum window of when they could hit the pitch.
“You’re not training your body,” says Guthrie of the VR work. “We’re using this to train the brain.
“We’re using cage to train the body on the proper fundamentals.”
WIN Reality does include an optional bat attachment and collects data on swings.
Guthrie, a 2011 Fremont (Ind.) High School graduate who had his college career ended by injury, embraces tech.
He uses smart baseballs that track spin rates, velocity and movement. There are Blast Motion sensors on his players’ bats to give feedback.
“We’re getting video of guys all the time,” says Guthrie, who likes to shoot 4K at 60 frames-per-second. “We go frame-by-frame and make sure we’re not missing anything.”
A phone app called Coach’s Eye allows for comparative side-by-side videos. It’s helpful for pitchers trying to make all their pitches look the same coming out of their hand.
Guthrie says that pitch recognition training when he was a player involved a VCR.
“We’d see a one-second clip of a ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand,” says Guthrie. “But it did not mix it up like the real pitcher does.”
Guthrie has used YouTube videos for this purpose. There is also a phone app called GameSense Pitch-IQ.
With Guthrie and varsity assistants Mike Gustin (pitching coach), Tyler Christman and Ryan Fulton, junior varsity coaches Gene Smith (head coach), Dave Priestley (pitching coach), Shane Richards and JV statistician Reese Smith, Prairie Heights is preparing to compete in the Northeast Corner Conference (which also includes Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, West Noble and Westview) and IHSAA Class 2A in 2022.
“The NECC seems to be going in a high-velocity direction,” says Guthrie. “We’ve got a lot of great pitchers in this conference. It was bound to happen because of the push for travel ball. The kids want to get better day in and day out.
“We need to know how we improve at the plate. You’ve got to score runs to win games. The velocity is one thing. It’s the curve balls, sliders and change-ups that are beating us.
“Recognizing the pitch is half the battle.”
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