Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Escobar out at the plate

I continue to play the latest version of OOTP in what spare time I have these days. The game allows you to play any baseball season in history from 1871 to the present. It is very entertaining to replay the 1927 Yankees or any of the other great teams from baseball’s deep rooted past, making comparisons between the chemistry of the teams, their lineups and pitching staffs.

You learn a lot about baseball that way.

Or, of course, you can create a completely fictional baseball universe to your liking, but I’m not much into the fictional aspects of the game…yet. I have put myself in as a player and simed way into the future (say up to the 2019 season) and that can certainly be fun.

Not only does OOTP allow you to span the decades of baseball lore or create some version of baseball that never existed, but – more importantly perhaps – it allows you to get inside the individual game; play a season out virtually pitch-by-pitch, if you so desire.

The in-game experience of OOTP is worth noting because it is here that much of the fun of the baseball simulator can be found.

I have now simed the 2010 season (with complete rosters, schedules, and actual minor leagues) a dozen times over the last couple of weeks. Being an Atlanta Braves fan, I focused predominately on how the game engine handled that team during the season. When you combine all the variable factors of injuries, player aging and development, coaching and trade decisions, etc. it is little wonder that no two seasons come out exactly the same way.

In my dozen sims of 2010 the Braves never won the NL East. They also never finished last. They finished 5th once, 4th twice, 3rd five times, and they managed to come in 2nd four times – taking the wild card three out of the four times. In their three trips to the playoffs the 2010 Braves won the first round of the Division Championship Series only once. They never won the NLCS. No World Series trip. Overall, they averaged about 83 wins for 12 sims.

Simulation number 7 (lucky number 7 as fate might have it) gave the Braves their best finish, with 90 wins and a wild card slot, 5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies (who won the NL East in more sims than any other team – no surprise there really). By delving into that 2010 season a bit deeper you can see the true depth and breadth of OOTP.

Let’s start by detailing how the Braves evolved as a team in 2010 version 7. As usual, there were all kinds of injuries and guys placed on and off the 15-day disabled list. The biggest blow to the Braves came when Tommy Hanson was placed on the 60-day disabled list with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (elbow). It is not yet known how badly this injury will affect his career.

The Braves made a number of trades during the season. The biggest was sending starting first baseman Troy Glaus to the Cleveland Indians just before the trade deadline for set-up pitcher Joe Smith. This trade was made possible by the rather rapid development of Braves minor league first baseman Freddie Freeman. More on Freeman in a moment.

In 2010 version 7, the Braves fifth starter Kenshin Kawakami, had a disastrous performance, with an ERA way over 6.00. Hopes of the Japanese player stepping into Tommy Hanson’s shoes were dashed and Kawakami was sent down to AAA to make room on the roster for a couple of other young pitchers which the Braves acquired through trades.

In July the Braves sent 22-year-old minor league starting pitcher Mike Minor to the Cincinnati Reds, getting 26-year-old starting pitcher Matt Maloney in return. Maloney would end up anchoring down Hanson’s position on the staff.

Also in July, 18-year-old minor league catcher Christian Bethancourt (who I saw in Rome in real-life a couple of weeks ago) was traded to the Florida Marlins, getting 25-year-old second baseman Chris Coghlan in return. This would turn out to be a trade of significance although it seemed pretty routine at the time.

Well, thanks to the OOTP player development gods, Coghlan’s bat got hot in August and by September he had replaced Nate McLouth in the Braves starting line-up. Coghlan’s performance along with Freddie Freeman’s were two keys to the Braves going on a tear late in the season, dominating the division in September to secure the Wild Card birth (the Phillies had a 15-game lead over them on September 1 and were uncatchable).

Freeman started the 2010 campaign with the Braves’ AA farm club in Mississippi but quickly moved up to the AAA Gwinnett Braves where he batted .302 with 5 HR’s and 17 RBI’s in 20 games before being called up to the Show. Freeman already possesses excellent defensive skills. He took Troy Glaus’ place after the previously mentioned trade.

After adjusting in July with a .222 batting average, the rookie proceeded to bat .419 in August before cooling off to a mere .382 in September, the hottest bat on the team, winning NL Player of the Month honors and placing him into contention for Rookie of the Year. He and rookie Jason Heyward, along with the surprise performance of Coghlan proved to be the prefect chemistry for Braves standard players like Chipper Jones, Brain McCann, Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, and Matt Diaz.

Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, and Jair Jurrgens all held up their part of the bargain and turned in solid, though not spectacular, performances. Billy Wagner regained his form of old and contributed a ton of K’s in over 30 saves while keeping his ERA well under 3.00.

So, the Braves proved good enough to win a trip out to San Francisco to play the Giants in the Division Championship Series.

Before we get into that, let’s back up a moment and talk about the in-game experience of OOTP. The game is text-based, which means you read the result of each pitcher-batter confrontation. The style of the text is excellent. I find myself sometimes just reading it out like a tele-prompter because, along with the in-game crowd sounds, it really gives you a nice feel of watching a major league baseball broadcast.

But, beyond the text, you can observe the speed, location, and result of each pitch delivered in a visual format very similar to what you can get from many online baseball reporting services such as ESPN. Here are some examples…

Here's how the pitch-by-pitch mode of the game looks. Chipper Jones is facing Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins. Each pitch in the sequence is numbered. Green is a ball, red is a strike, orange is a foul ball. Blue is a ball hit in play, but that didn't happen here as Chipper drew a walk, despite a rather generous strike one call by the umpire. Yeah, players can get tossed out of games for arguing with the umpires in OOTP too.

Later in the same game against the same pitcher, Chipper went down swinging.

In this game against St. Louis, Chipper welcomed a mid-season call-up middle reliever in style by connecting on a 2-1 pitch.

Occasionally, the batter and the pitcher can get into a real battle. Here Braves rookie Freddie Freeman faced the Giants' ace Tim Lincecum in a 9-pitch sequence. Freeman managed to foul off four pitches before striking out on a tight fastball.

So, back to 2010 version 7. The red hot Braves beat the Giants rather handily 3 games to 1 in the Division Championship Series. So, they ended up playing the Phillies (who swept the Cardinals in their playoff round) in the NLCS. The Phillies took the first three games, all one-run affairs, the third game going 11 innings. In separate games, the Braves lost Chipper Jones (fractured rib) and Matt Diaz (shoulder tendonitis) for the rest of the season. It did not look good for the Braves.

But, Atlanta (behind the hitting of Coghlin, Prado, and Escobar with 3 hits apiece) crushed Philadelphia 12-4 in game four. That game hurt the Phillies badly as their ace pitcher, Roy Halladay, blew out his elbow in the first inning. He was scheduled for "Tommy John" surgery and would miss at least 11 months. Ouch. McLouth drove in the winning run with a sac fly in the bottom of 13th inning in game 5, the Braves won 5-4. “Lucky 13” was all over the news. Then the Braves bats ate Phillies pitching alive in game 6, winning 10-3 to set up the seventh game of the series.

Phillies pitching was decimated. The whole staff was tired. They turned to their number four starter J.A. Happ (10-10 with a 4.65 ERA) to face Braves ace Derek Lowe (14-11 3.50) for the rights to represent the National League in the 2010 World Series. It was a tight game. The Phillies held a 2-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning when the Braves managed to load the bases with two out. Rookie Jason Heyward came to the plate. Heyward drove a 2 ball 0 strike 86 MPH fastball into left field for a base hit. Prado scored from third, then OOTP paused to ask me if I wanted to send Escobar, who was on second with two outs, to the plate. I didn’t hesitate. Hell yes! Send him! Send him! Tie the game! Sliiiiiiiide! Phillies left fielder Ben Francisco threw home….

Out. I was as frustrated as I would have been if the damn game had been “real”. That’s the real fun of OOTP. You can do all this stuff with all kinds of baseball history and all this stuff with trades and salary negotiations etc. But, in the end, an actual game of baseball is what it is all about, pitch-by-pitch, batter-by-batter. Escobar was out at the plate. My heart sank.

The Phillies went on to win the game 2-1. Then they beat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series 4 games to 1, even without Roy Halladay.

Maybe the best part of playing OOTP is that you don’t have to say “Wait ‘til next year” when the season’s over. You simply reload the game (pick a season, any season) and “wait ‘til next sim.” I love this game.

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