Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jeter and Jones and What-ifs

The latest edition of Out of the Park Baseball version 12 (OOTP12) was released late this year, primarily because the OOTP guys were busy developing and introducing something called iOOTP for iPhones and iPads. At any rate, better late than never and, as usual, I have spent most of my (limited lately) free time fiddling with the game.

I have played every release of OOTP since version 5 and, as corny as it sounds, they just keep making the game better and better each year. OOTP12 comes with highly detailed and (with very few exceptions) accurate opening day rosters not only for every Major League Baseball team but for each organization’s entire minor league system as well. You can manage any minor league team in baseball in addition to your major league favorite.

There’s the usual stuff too, just more of it with many, many improvements. You can play any baseball season with real players and real schedules from 1871 up to this year. You can model player development, get scouting reports, negotiate contract extensions, sign free agents, make trades, set your line-ups, pitching rotations, bullpens, deal with injuries, as well as manage just about everything there is to manage inside an individual game of baseball. Hit and run, pitch-out, intentional walks, make pitching substitutions, decide whether or not to send a runner to the plate, and so on…and on and on.

As I have posted before, OOTP is the best value in a baseball simulation I have ever had the pleasure of being entertained by. This year former baseball pitching great Curt Schilling even chimed in on the OOTP message boards asking very detailed questions on how to do various things in the game and stating that OOTP was “the only baseball sim I’ve ever gotten addicted to.” Well, I’ve been addicted at other times to other baseball games but nothing like OOTP.

The flip side of all this is that, by now, the game has a rather steep learning curve for the newcomer. There are so many options to set as you customize the game to your tastes and there are so many details to keep up with in running a major league organization and managing a team through a long baseball season that it can all be quite intimidating. Essentially, it is best to think of OOTP as an “internet” unto itself. Just as you can browse all sorts of things online, OOTP is a self-contained virtual world of information and action; all resulting in a total immersion into what baseball is (or was – given past eras) all about.

Unfortunately, since it came out so late, I have not had as much time for OOTP as I have in past seasons. Real life keeps interfering with my play time (and blogging time for that matter). But, I did manage to do my usual dozen sims of the current season based on the actual rosters and that little exercise yielded some interesting results. The Braves won the NL East three times (whereas in last year’s OOTP they never won their division and finished second four times). Two of those three times they went to the World Series, losing both times, once to the White Sox and the other in seven games to the DamnYankees. The Braves were the wild-card team once, so they made the play-offs four out of 12 sims.

Their average season record was 86-76. Philadelphia won the NL East more often than Atlanta (seven times to three) and had an average record of 89-73. In the other two sims the New York Mets and the Florida Marlins won the division, showing that almost anything is possible given how injuries, trades, and player performances turn out. The Washington Nationals did not win the division nor did they make the play-offs in any sim.

Taking a larger view, World Series Champions in my dozen sims included St. Louis, Milwaukee, Texas, San Francisco, and the Chicago White Sox. The New York Yankees won four championships out of 12 while the Boston Red Sox won three times. According to OOTP the winner of the AL East is most likely to go all the way in 2011. For comparison purposes the DamnYankees had an average record of 88-74. The Red Sox ended up with the best overall average record in OOTP12 at 93-71. It is noteworthy that the Phillies went to the Series three times and lost all three trips.

Sim number 10 was the highlight this year as far as producing a great baseball story for the Braves. Atlanta beat out Philadelphia by one game in the regular season, after winning a one-game playoff in Philadelphia when both teams ended up tied for the NL East with 91-71 records. The Braves went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds three games to one in the NLDS, while the wild-card Phillies were edged by the Giants three to two. Atlanta took the NLCS from San Francisco in seven games before losing to the White Sox four games to two in the World Series.

But, the play-offs were almost anti-climatic compared to the great pennant race the Braves had with the Phillies. Coming in to the final four-game season ending series against Philadelphia in Atlanta the Braves needed to win three out of four to tie. It didn’t help matters when the Phillies won the first game 5-1. But, Atlanta came back and beat Philadelphia the next three games by scores of 13-2, 4-3, 6-4 to force a tie for the division. I don’t know if the actual 2011 season will turn out that close between these two teams, but this particular sim was a lot of fun to watch inning-by-inning as the Braves and Phillies battled one another throughout September.

The bottom line is that the 2011 Atlanta Braves are clearly a better team than the 2010 Atlanta Braves, at least according to the OOTP game engine.

Beyond the usual sim stuff I managed a couple of seasons of past years that interest me. I managed the 1974 Braves, 1983 Braves, and the 1996 Braves so far in OOTP12. The 1974 season is always a challenge but it is a personal favorite anyway because it was the one and only year that Buzz Capra shined as a pitcher. One of a long list of Braves what-ifs is what-if Capra had not gotten injured and continued to pitch at the level he displayed in 1974. The 1983 season is fun because you have Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss in the line-up. Of course, Phil Niekro pitched on both the 1974 and 1983 Braves teams.

1996 was the Braves at their height with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz trying to win a consecutive world championship. In history they lost the World Series to the DamnYankees. But, in OOTP I can replay that series if I want and it often turns out differently; always in a realistically feeling way, of course.

One of the improvements in OOTP12 is better ability to sim 19th century baseball, which is an aspect of the game that has only started interesting me in recent years. It still takes a lot of work to set things up. One of the limitations of OOTP is that it will not import players to their historic teams prior to 1901. It is a database limitation. So you have to manually setup the teams. Anyway, it is fun to watch Al Spalding pitch every single game and win 30 or 40 games a season. You get a better understanding of other great players like Cap Anson and John McGraw and Kid Nichols by playing around with their teams in their seasons as well.

OOTP allows you to import historic team logos and team colors to add a lot of flavor to any season. Individual games “feel” like the 19th century as the OOTP game engine adjusts itself to reflect the way the game was played in various eras of baseball. In the 19th century there were very few homeruns, lots of base stealing, and a ton of fielding errors. Back then it was not uncommon for the same ball to be used for practically the whole game. The Game Ball was literally the game’s only ball. Balls were rarely hit over fences or into stands. Games were often defensive nightmares. Also, the spitball was legal then. So, as a game continued the ball kept getting darker and it tended to bounce funny from getting a bit lop-sided after being bashed with the bat. Add to the mix that, for most of the century, players played barehanded instead of using gloves and you have all the soup necessary for all sorts of goofy errors to occur. In my OOTP sims of the era there are far more unearned runs scored than earned runs.

It is also fun to compare the individual player ratings of the 19th century with modern day ratings. The pitchers, for example, have superhuman stamina in the spitball era, pitching complete games day after day. But, modern day pitchers blow their predecessors away with “stuff” ratings, reflecting the fact that balls are thrown so much harder and faster today than in yesteryear. As far as hitters go, the ratings are surprisingly similar in terms of contact. Power is a different matter. Today’s batters, like the pitchers, have far more power and hit many more homeruns (even without steroids). Most of the batters had higher speed ratings in the 19th century, however, reflecting the base stealing nature at that time in baseball.

As I have said before, OOTP is a great way to see the history of baseball from an interactive perspective.

In truth the 19th century was not very competitive in professional baseball. Only a few seasons are worth examining very closely. 1889 and 1897 were both nail-biters for the pennant. The New York Giants beat the Boston Beaneaters by one game to win the National League pennant in 1889. But, the Beaneaters (forerunners to the modern Atlanta Braves) invented a new style of baseball in the 1890’s called “hit and run”. They perfected it in 1897 beating out the Baltimore Orioles by two games to win the pennant, though they later lost the Temple Cup that year.

Another cool new feature in OOTP12 is the Simulation Module. Essentially, this allows you to simulate any type of series between any two teams in the database. I simmed Atlanta against Philadelphia for a full 162-game season based on 2011 opening day rosters. Each sim ended with the team at or near .500, showing how evenly matched the two are. The Braves would win one sim 83-79 and the Phillies would win the next with something like an 85-77 record. Rarely did either team dominate the other. This is just one more reason to expect a close pennant race again this year between the two contenders.

Of course, players go through slumps in the OOTP game engine just as they would in real life. Which players slump and which get hot and for how long is fairly random, however, or at least different for each sim. Overall, however, you can count of Doc Halladay winning 15-20 games in any given sim. You can count on Brian McCann to bat at or near .300.

But, in no sim did something as statistically absurd happen as Dan Uggla batting .175. I think in his worst season in OOTP12 so far the Braves big off-season acquisition second baseman hit .267. Shifting to real baseball for a moment, thanks to outstanding pitching and good defense, the Braves have the third best record in baseball at the 2011 All-Star break. Fredi Gonzalez, in his first year managing Atlanta and following in Bobby Cox’s long, hall-of-fame shadow is doing a great job of handling the team in my opinion.

In real life baseball, the Braves need Uggla to step it up offensively after the All-Star break if they want to remain competitive. Chipper Jones is out for several weeks and that is a big bat to be missing from an overall mediocre (so far) offensive team. This past weekend I spent more time watching and reading about the real Braves than simming anything in OOTP. Thus far the 2011 season has been a fun one for Braves fans. No need to divert my attention to a fantasy baseball world, other than the sheer fun of discovering new features, making historic comparisons, and analyzing the possibilities for the season in OOTP.

The Braves finished up at the break with a semi-important series against the Phillies in Philadelphia. They lost two out of three games to which equates to being four games out in the loss column. There’s plenty of baseball left and the Braves need to win five more games than the Phillies from here on out. As I pointed out in my dozen 2011 sims, the Braves close out the season at home with four games with the Phillies. Is it going to be a OOTP12 sim 10 type story? I’m looking forward to what August and September will bring for Atlanta.

Finally, I don’t normally find favorable things to say about anyone in a New York Yankee uniform but I have to tip my cap to the way Derek Jeter reached the historic 3,000 hit mark this past Saturday. Going 5 for 5 and reaching 3,000 with a home run was certainly a special historic baseball moment. Doing it all through many seasons with one team is an exceptional achievement in this unfortunate era of free agency. Jeter’s story is very similar to Chipper’s for Atlanta. Both players are at or near the end of great careers. Jones himself will not reach the 3,000 hit club but the 2,500 hit club is hall-of-fame stuff, especially considering Jones is a switch hitter which puts him in the same company with the likes of Mickey Mantle.

At the other end of the career spectrum, congratulations to the great rookie Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel for saving more ball games before the All-Star break than any other rookie relief pitcher in history. This stat has only been kept since 1969 so it is a modern day baseball yardstick. He’s a serious rookie of the year candidate, as is the Braves’ Freddie Freeman. (It is interesting to note that OOTP11 saw Freeman’s potential and the game engine promoted him more often than not to the Show in my sims last year. Another aspect of OOTP that I find entertaining is the way you can spot potential great talent in the various farm systems on the opening day rosters.)

OOTP12 says both Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are solid pitching prospects currently the Braves minor league system. In several sims one or both of them ended starting for the Braves in a handful of games. So, we’ll see if this great Braves pitching staff has a great feeder program. You can go a long way with just pitching and defense. Even a mediocre offense can win games. They can be the hottest team in baseball since June 1. Which is what the Atlanta Braves are at this point in the seasonal Now.

Let’s hope we are not peaking early as a team.

Every week something historic happens in baseball. It is wonderful to be able to appreciate living in historic times as a fan of a great American pastime. I was alive but don’t remember Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. I know of Jeter and Jones, however. And of Pete Rose and Bob Gibson. I saw Tom Glavine win a world series game live in 1991. I saw Henry Aaron play, though I don’t recall ever seeing him hit a home run live. But I saw the Braves turn two triple plays live, one in 1969 and the other in 1978.

Those were the only two triple plays the Braves turned during all those years in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Triple plays are rare though not as rare, say, as no-hitters in the play-offs; but I saw one of those too just last season (on TV not live). What an incredible game to tap in to. Whether inside OOTP12 or reading the actual box scores for the 2011 season, this year is turning out to be a lot of fun for me personally as a Braves fan.

Chop.

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