Can high-tech gadgets replace reps against a minor league pitcher?

When Bryce Harper made his 2023 debut at Dodger Stadium on May 2, it caught some in the baseball world by surprise – perhaps none more than the marketing departments of the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league affiliates. None of them hosted a single Bryce Harper rehabilitation game. The superstar outfielder-turned-DH-turned-first-baseman went straight from the injured list to a major league starting lineup, no rehab games necessary.

It was a temperature-taking moment for a sport that has, in recent years, questioned the way it did everything prior to the era of Big Data. Minor league rehabilitation games were simply part of the process for a pitcher or hitter coming back from a major injury. Even for a position player, replacing a ligament in one’s elbow still qualifies as “major.”

It’s a special moment in minor league cities whenever an active major league graces their local ballpark. Ticket sales spike. A nationally known player, perhaps a superstar, is suddenly in their midst. A stronger sense of connection with the major league parent club is formed. The players are often treated to the best pregame meal they’ll enjoy all season by their well-endowed teammate.

Big Data cares little for soft factors like these. The correlation between minor league ticket sales and major league success is not fertile ground for research. The prevailing question behind almost every change to an organizational process over the last decade is this: is ours the most effective and efficient method that exists?

Technology often has an answer for questions like this. Today’s major leaguers are never at a loss for gizmos and gadgets that will help them improve their performance. In light of Harper’s nonexistent rehab, it’s worth asking: has 21st-century technology made the time-honored tradition of minor league rehab games obsolete?

The short answer: unless you’re Bryce Harper, probably not.

Jared Walsh’s time at Triple-A Salt Lake was not long. In seven games, the Angels’ first baseman batted .440, then declared himself ready to return. Prior to his major league debut Saturday, Walsh was asked about the value of the seven games.

“You can’t replace human to human,” he said. “In theory, the robot machine would work but it’s just not the same thing. Being able to flow and get that rhythm with a pitcher, you just can’t replace it. I knew it was almost like Spring Training 2.0: Go through it, get that feel, and get that timing back.”

Those robots have a surprisingly long history. Mass production of mechanical pitching machines began in the 1950s. ProBatter, which hides a pitching machine behind a video projector displaying a real-life pitcher, has been around since 1999.

Trajekt Sports, founded in 2019, is the latest to pair robotic pitching machine technology with a high-definition image of a live pitcher. Its Trajekt Arc boasts the ability to replicate MLB-caliber spin shapes and spin rates. The Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets are among several MLB teams using one in-house.

And then there is the virtual reality headset from WIN Reality, the perfect marriage of gaming and batting. It claims St. Louis Cardinals star Paul Goldschmidt as an early adopter and was in use among six of the eight teams that played in last year’s College World Series. Like any VR headset, it can be used anywhere – well, anywhere with enough room to swing a bat without hitting a nearby object.

WIN Reality CEO Chris O’Dowd told me that, at the amateur level, “we deliver as good a value as you would get from a (batting) cage.”

At the major league level, where success is measured in milliseconds, the value proposition is tougher to gauge.

“A major league hitter, the way they react to the ball is … they read the guy’s hand, the way the ball comes out, the way the arm releases the ball – all these minute things that a major league hitter sees unconsciously is what all goes into hitting a baseball,” Angels outfielder Hunter Renfroe said. “Not the same motion every single time, the ball just comes out different. It’s just not realistic.”

Renfroe believes the Trajekt system – which allows a user to control for a pitcher’s arm slot and spin characteristics, and make contact with a physical baseball – is more useful to his own preparation process today. But he allowed that the advances in VR technology could change that in the years to come.

For his part, O’Dowd made it clear that his intent was never to eat away at the live reps major league hitters have traditionally gotten – whether that’s in live batting practice or minor league rehab games.

“Is the end vision even to take the place of BP? I don’t think so,” O’Dowd said. “I think that there’s inherent value in the way players have prepared for decades. That’s not a recommendation from our team at all.”

So how did Harper make it back without the benefit of any rehab games?

In April, he took at-bats against two of his major league teammates, Ranger Suarez and Nick Nelson, who were on the rehab trail from injuries themselves. Two Phillies minor leaguers, Jeff Hoffman and Victor Vargas, pitched to Harper as well. In effect, the Phillies brought the minor leagues to Harper rather than bringing him to the minor leagues. Maybe a younger player, or one who cannot claim to be among the best hitters of his generation, would not be afforded that luxury by his organization.

Facing Dodgers lefty Julio Urías, Harper went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in his first game back. The next night, he went 3 for 3. Through Tuesday, Harper is batting .328 with a .931 on-base plus slugging percentage.

The lesson, then, might just be that Harper really is that special. And, that somewhere between the ball and the pitcher’s glove and his release point, there’s still a little wonder to be found in the game of baseball that technology has yet to solve.

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