Long before 2017, when the Winter Meetings trade show would be littered with new products pushing the boundaries of technology and baseball, virtual reality interested Jarrett Sims.
He thinks back to his childhood, when he would use an old viewfinder to watch batman and superman stories, imagining himself in the world of superheroes. It didn't take long for this thought to creep into sports: why wasn't there something like the viewfinder that he could use to play against his favorite basketball player, Patrick Ewing?
"I was just a creative kid and played every sport imaginable," Sims said. "When I started playing baseball I thought one of the things that would be awesome is if you could prepare in a way that you could see Arthur Rhodes. He was my favorite pitcher."
Those were just trivial thoughts during his childhood, but as Sims grew older he watched as the technology surrounding virtual reality continued to progress. He remained intrigued. And one day during 2016, while standing on the pitcher's mound of Safeco Field with his dad, Dave (a play-by-play commentator for the Mariners) and brother, Sims had an epiphany.
"I was like I have to make a life change," Sims said. "We jumped into it after doing a bunch of R&D for a couple months. That's kind of how it came to be…
"From a technology standpoint we're working with guys who have built amazing experiential products, they've created hardware and software paired together, (artificial intelligence), all sorts of things that hadn't previously existed in the form that they brought it into existence in. It's a similar case here because with RibeeVR we are building something from the ground up and we have some very big goals for it."
The 'we' that Sims is referring to is his company, Monsterful VR, which is currently on the cutting edge of that aforementioned line between baseball and technology, attempting the blend the two together and offer players and teams a different way to step into the batter's box. To help improve a swing, scout opposing pitchers and implement data points that the technology offers into advanced coaching and training.
The product behind this goal is RibeeVR, which is Monsterful's performance training technology that enables professional hitters to train against virtual versions of upcoming pitchers with replicated deliveries and mechanics, hopefully helping to improve pitch recognition and release point identification, understand where holes are in a swing and gain a better understanding of pitch sequencing, among other potential benefits.
In order to bring the technology to coaches and players on a practical level, Sims has brought on Jeremy Booth, former Mariners scout and current CEO of the Future Stars Series and Program 15 (a Houston-based development program), as a senior consultant.
Booth admitted he was skeptical of the technology at first, but that was before Sims flew out to Houston and let him try the product firsthand.
"I tested it and I faced Corey Kluber. (I hit a) loud fall ball," he said, laughing. "Hadn't had an at-bat in about 12 years. It was a loud foul ball.
"It was realistic, it was in a stadium, you could center, you could hear the crowd noise, you could see the release point, the delivery--everything was game-like. And it certainly felt like the reaction time of 95 (mph). It certainly felt like it."
Now, months into working with Monsterful and testing the product with some of the top high school players in the country with Program 15 and the Future Stars Series, Booth is all in.
"My vision on this," Booth said, "is that it's going to revolutionize the way hitters prepare. There are other applications of this coming later for other parts of the game. But this has a chance to be a tremendous source of information for evaluation, for player growth, for preparation in-game."
Sims is currently in talks with multiple teams about getting the RibeeVR, and the Tigers have already installed Monsterful's Play the Pros product in Comerica Park, which is an entertainment version geared toward fans. But Sims and Booth are committed to making sure RibeeVR is an investment that pro teams will find valuable, so much so that they named the artificial intelligence within the software "Lloyd" after Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who offered valuable early feedback on in development.
Sims went down to spring training in Florida and met with McClendon, getting up at 5 a.m. before he hit the fields to talk about possibilities and see how a VR training system could help professional hitters.
"We're in this conference room and I was showing him a very early version of the product," Sims said. "After he was duly impressed and saw a few places it could go, I said, 'Listen I have a few questions: The first one is what pitcher would you have to see in there to know that the system works? From the standpoint of seeing pitchers.'
"He said give me Cory Kluber. He's the toughest guy we face all year."
So Kluber was the first pitcher the Monsterful team created, attempting to replicate the Indians ace perfectly, from his timing to his delivery to his release point to his pitch sequencing. Both Booth and players who have tested the early product, like Pennsylvania high school infielder Sean Guilbe--the No. 164 prospect for the 2018 MLB Draft--are excited with the results.
"It was pretty good considering they were still making a little bit of changes," Guilbe said. "We were the first people to use it besides the ones where they have the actual facility up in New England… It was pretty good. I didn't really experience too much lag…
"There would be a pitcher up there and he just winds up and throws and the ball would come at you through the goggles. And then you would have to time it up and hit it. The amateur mode itself was pretty challenging and once they put it on superstar mode it was ridiculous. I mean I've seen some pretty good pitching and the pitching that that thing was throwing at me was crazy."
Booth said that even with the early version of the product, there were improvements that Guilbe and other players in the program like Canadian catcher Noah Naylor--ranked No. 41 for the 2018 class--found in their swing paths after using RibeeVR. But on top of the benefits from a personal standpoint, there is a wealth of data that the software provides for teams that can help influence player-specific training or unlock swings in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.
Already, clubs have asked Sims about data that he hadn't even thought of beforehand that RibeeVR is capable of providing. "As somewhat of a data nerd that part of it is really exciting to me," he said.
Still, at its core, RibeeVR and Monsterful are on the cusp of creating something that will hopefully give hitters the advanced training step that pitchers took many years ago.
"Alex Bregman in the World Series said something that I thought was pretty interesting," Booth said. "He said, 'There's no way to prepare for Clayton Kershaw.' Well..."
Soon, that won't be the case.