CHICAGO (AP) - Baseball’s most compelling video game is not offered in any store. Exactly how many people are playing is unclear. When it comes to the sticker price, no one wants to talk about it.
With runs at a premium in the major leagues, a handful of teams are trying to help their young hitters with a high-tech program known as neuroscouting. The details are being treated as a state secret by three clubs believed to be using the product - the Cubs, Red Sox and Rays. But it involves helping players with pitch recognition in an era when 95 mph fastballs, big curveballs and wicked sliders are more prevalent than ever.
“It’s on a laptop. What the producers made was they took I think the pitchers from major league baseball in 2014 and programmed every pitch they had thrown,” said Stephen Bruno, a Double-A infielder in the Cubs’ organization. “There’s a series of games - reaction time, recognizing pitches, laying off the curveball, hitting the fastball. And all those pitches that are thrown are replicas of pitches thrown in 2014 by major league pitchers.”
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer declined comment when asked about neuroscouting during spring training. The Red Sox said GM Ben Cherington did not want to comment on the topic. Matt Silverman, the president of baseball operations for Tampa Bay, did not respond to a message from The Associated Press.
“Intuitively, it would make sense that this would be a helpful tool,” Cherington told The Wall Street Journal last year, “but I just don’t know if anyone yet can prove that it’s predictive. The hope is maybe it can be.”
While the details and results remain a closely guarded secret, it’s clear there are other teams paying attention to the experiment.
“I have an understanding of what the product is and what it’s looking to measure, but at this point, it’s pretty limited on how you could actually take advantage of it and it’s because a couple teams have purchased it off the market,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said, “and therefore where you could truly take advantage of it, I’m not sure is the best way to take advantage of it.
“So it will be interesting to see if the ability for other teams to start using it grows or if it is going to be something that just ends up being contained by a couple major league clubs.”
Asked if he would be interested if he had access to a program that made sense for St. Louis, Mozeliak said he is hoping it moves in that direction.
“I mean anytime there’s what’s almost a monopoly on something, you always want the free business market to open up and allow other people to have access to it,” he said. “So hopefully that happens over time, but it’s certainly interesting.”
One of the forerunners in the field is NeuroScouting LLC, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company founded by Drs. Wesley Clapp and Brian Miller. Clapp and Miller met in the Bay Area and started working together after they found they had similar research interests.
The pair of self-described sports fans declined to discuss the company’s products or its clients in any detail. But addressing the study of the mind and its place in sports, Clapp said teams are realizing there is “value in the margins.”
“There are aspects of player development and assessment that are being targeted,” he said, “and this is one of the main reasons why Brian and I got into this space was because we realized that there’s so much variability across players in these elite sports like baseball and it’s very difficult to explain why there is all this variability when you have players with incredible skill.”
Dan Vogelbach, a first baseman who plays with Bruno at Double-A Tennessee, said he encountered neuroscouting at a workout with the Red Sox before he was selected by the Cubs in the second round of the 2011 draft.
The biggest connection between the iconic franchises is Theo Epstein, who was Boston’s general manager for nine seasons before he became president of baseball operations for the Cubs in October 2011.
“It’s a good thing,” Vogelbach said. “Theo did it in Boston. When I was in a pre-draft workout with Boston, I did it. And we do it here. It’s something that I think helps us.”
Bruno said the games last around five to 10 minutes. He described one scenario where you press the space bar as soon as you recognize which pitch is coming.
“I think it makes a tremendous difference,” he said. “Part of this game - especially at the higher levels - is you’re getting more than a fastball and a curveball. That ball’s moving in all sorts of directions. That program helps us recognize it. The more we focus on there, it’s like getting extra at-bats. You may only get four at-bats in a game, but you can get 20 at-bats during the day if you take the time and do the neuroscouting.”
AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Kodak, Tennessee, Howard Ulman in Boston, Fred Goodall in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.
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