Spearheaded by a father-and-son duo, the firm created has created an immersive program that simulates what it’s like to hit in big league games.
By David Leffler
In the spring of 2009, Chris O’Dowd realized his childhood dreams when the Oakland Athletics drafted him in the 40th round of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. A switch-hitting catcher out of Regis Jesuit High School in Denver, Colorado, he’d become a coveted prospect after years of training alongside his father, Dan, one of the chief architects of the legendary Cleveland Indians teams of the 1990s. But despite the temptation, O’Dowd passed on the opportunity to attend Dartmouth College in the fall. “I wasn’t an elite player at the time,” he says. “And it’s risky to dive straight into professional baseball if you’re not ready.”
While taking this pragmatic approach would have been difficult for most 18-year-olds, O’Dowd had grown up with an unprecedented glimpse into the inner working of Major League Baseball (MLB). As the son of Cleveland’s assistant general manager—and later, the Colorado Rockies’ general manager—he was even observing player assessment meetings by the time he was eight years old. That insider knowledge was vital to his later success playing in the minor leagues (including for Atlanta Braves affiliate, the Mississippi Braves), and on the Chicago White Sox, when he was eventually called up in 2017.
But as the injuries piled up in his pro career, O’Dowd found it increasingly difficult to stay prepared for in-game action, especially as a hitter. There wasn’t a comparative substitute for seeing live pitching, which is vital to success at the plate. Over time, he realized this lack of preparation created an insurmountable problem, a predicament his father had just the answer for.
In 2016, O’Dowd (who was still playing at the time) and his dad founded WIN Reality, a company that melds the pair’s baseball expertise with revolutionary virtual reality (VR) technology. Using information drawn from in-game film sessions detailing pitchers’ throwing motions, and the flight paths of their balls—data that every major league team now tracks—they created an immersive program that simulates what it’s like to hit in big league games. Before long, they’d built a system that accurately captured the individual characteristics of every MLB pitcher—from Justin Verlander’s slider to Corey Kluber’s sinker—to hone in on their core company mission: helping hitters recognize pitches and build strong mental habits at the plate.
Building strong mental habits is what sets good hitters apart from the great ones, says Ryan Bennett, the company’s vice president of player development. “When you’re on a hot streak, it typically means one thing: You’re seeing the ball well,” he says. “You’re just seeing the pitch and reacting. Our technology’s all about giving players the tools to make that happen.”
While some teams were skeptical at first, WIN eventually recruited the Tampa Bay Rays to pilot the product in 2017. The following year, O’Dowd hung up his cleats and moved the operation to Austin to tap into the city’s pool of tech talent—a decision that immediately bolstered their programming. From there, the company used its technology to break pitch perception down into three distinct phases: early recognition (“seeing the ball early is crucial to reaction time,” says O’Dowd), spatial awareness (how is the pitch moving?), and ball/strike prediction. Repeatedly seeing these things in VR helps hitters make instantaneous decisions about if—and when—to swing. “The data’s there: you swing at better pitches, you win more games. But that’s easier said than done when you’ve got to determine if a 95 mph fastball or a curveball that drops a foot is coming,” he says.
As its technology has improved, so has WIN’s reach. Over the past three years, their client list has grown from one MLB club to two-thirds of the league. They’ve also expanded into the college ranks, including prominent programs like UT, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest. Their popularity with baseball royalty has been rewarding, but O’Dowd says the company’s ultimate goal is reaching young ballplayers. “It’s crazy to me that kids would rather play Fortnite for two hours than get better at their sport,” he says. “From the beginning, set out to impact the next generation. We’re combining learning and entertainment, and the long-term implications for baseball are enormous.”