In Real Life

The Baseball Video Gamer: A Hack Living In Mom's Basement

When I was about 15, about the time you should begin to read serious books and challenge the accepted wisdom of your forebears, I got a copy of Total Baseball, an enormous, flaccid, yellow paperback about the size of the Manhattan phone book. I studied it at the foot of my bed next to the hardbound Macmillan Baseball Encylopedia which looked more like a social register from 1941. One was an annually changing volume; what truth it contained today may be, and likely would be, revised in the coming year. The other, at the time, was the establishment of names and numbers any decent person should know.

In 1990, Macmillan‘s stats read like the back of a baseball card; in order: games, at-bats, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and so on. Batting average was down by your right hand. Total Baseball had the traditional measures, but also gave room to things like on-base percentage. It discussed concepts like Tom Boswell’s “Total Average,” whose fundamental bases gained/bases out comparison (with messy, stray numbers like being hit by a pitch or interfered with by the catcher) is more easily fashioned simply by adding someone’s slugging and on-base percentages — the venerated OPS of today.

Yet when I fired up Hardball! on my Commodore 64, and I had a choice between hitting Rawlings or Joworzski in the sixth slot, I didn’t dither on those concepts or look through the three-ring binder of stats I’d kept to parse them out. (And I had entire games scored, play-by-play. I could have done it.) I went with the generally accepted accounting practice of hitting: batting average.

It was safe. It was known. It was, to be shrewd about it, the most likely tip-off to how programmer Bob Whitehead had weighted each hitter’s skill in that game (though once I figured out how to switch batting order, I came to suspect that greatly influenced how each player performed, too.)

Today, my tenure as a baseball video gamer far outstrips my brief time as a baseball player or a sports writer. Dad and I love to jaw about trivia (“most victories, career, no postseason or All-Star game appearances,” or “most wins, no starts, no losses, no saves, single season,”) but for me there’s only one practical application to baseball stats: setting my lineup in MLB The Show or measuring my player’s performance in Road to The Show.

And my approach in both of these instances is straight down the middle, an undecided voter in the kind of culture-war balloting Major League Baseball just went through on Thursday, when Miguel Cabrera of Detroit prevailed over Mike Trout of Los Angeles for the American League MVP. Cabrera and Trout were, like candidates in the presidential election America just suffered, not personal adversaries, but props in a campaign waged principally by ideological forces that hate each other, know each other, and deserve each other.

If you ask me who I favour as a thinking person, it’s Trout. Runs batted in depends too much on the performance of others in the lineup; batting average is not as good a measure as on-base percentage, or OPS for that matter. Home runs are, yes, an indisputably true outcome. But Cabrera’s candidacy was built entirely on offence, where Trout’s excellence as a fielder and baserunner, and therefore as a more complete player, can now be quantified by newer measures.

New technology doesn’t go away. Sabermetrics are part of the mainstream culture, and those who ignore or insult them are dinosaurs. Fight it all you want, there’s no repealing the printing press or a heliocentric sky.

What Sabermetrics are not, in box scores, on-screen graphics or video games, are part of the shorthand that forms game-to-game or play-to-play expectations or advises a casual or intermittent observer who is worth watching. Pitching victories, RBI, fielding percentage are a vulgar language, but it’s still one most people are speaking, because the game’s institutions — broadcasts, box scores and fantasy baseball — don’t try to make things like WAR or BABIP relevant in the daily conversation. Maybe they should. Maybe because things like WAR or BABIP depend upon statistical sample sizes much larger than a single game or three-game series, they’re not useful in April or May. But it still shows, however accurate they are, how distant they remain from a day-to-day discussion essential to a season 162 games long.

MLB The Show has an advanced Sabermetrics stats service that, if I am not mistaken, is acquired for a small fee through the PlayStation Store (and because I don’t remember buying it this year, if you’ve bought it in the past it may carry over.) In any season mode, it’ll measure all the performers in the league by these stats. They are way, way, way down to the right on your season stats, along with 20-year-old Total Baseball standards like Range Factor, Basestealing Runs, Isolated Power and, yes, Total Average. But to sort according to them, or analyse a trade by them would take extraordinary persistence.

More likely, a gamer would just use something much more subjective and completely opaque — the rating assigned to a player in the game. Give Sony San Diego credit, however, in MLB The Show they don’t just give a great player an overall 95 or a journeyman a 78. Everyone gets a rating expressed as a meter, and when you compare players, the meters are never one underneath the other, so you can say to yourself “alright, the game says this guy is better.” Deliberate or not, it’s a design choice that factors in subjective, eyeball appraisals with objective reasoning.

Deep down, I’d like to think that’s why I haven’t taken up arms for either side in baseball’s great stats argument. It’s not because I don’t care. I do. But the baseball world I live in can have it both ways.

I can set my lineup according to something mind-bogglingly complex but ultimately, objectively correct, like an overall player rating. I can also look at my player in “Road to the Show” and see that, with 100 RBI by September, he’s the middle-of-the-order, everyday superstar I want him to be at the end of such a long investment, even if he can’t field a lick. (I’m terrible at that aspect of RTTS.)

Because, unlike a sports writer, or a statistician, my observations come as I am actually playing the game, making decisions within it, and bearing the consequences, processes that deliver their own understanding of what players are really the most valuable.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.