The Ascension of Randy Choate: An FMV Adventure

headerOver the last few months, I’ve used MLB: The Show to play the entire Cardinals lineup out of position, turned Tom Brady into a baseball player, and forced Matt Holliday to play an entire season at first base.

Next up was a smaller feat, which would affect only one player for one game: I was going to give left-handed reliever Randy Choate a start. But how to present this? A Randy Choate start would be barely long enough to warrant a video. So a few gifs, like before? Right?

Or how about a 90’s-style FMV video game you can play in your browser? Yeah, that sounds about right. Currently, it works in Google Chrome and Internet Explorer, but not Firefox for some reason. I realize I’m trying to push HTML5 past what it’s probably intended to do so instability might be expected.

Go play The Ascension of Randy Choate: An FMV Adventure now!

Or, if you’re a firefox user, have trouble with the above link, and/or prefer to download games rather than play them in your browser, there is a windows/application version: Download Here

Notes:

  • I used quick counts because otherwise some videos would have been (a) too long and (b) too large to stream
  • Pitch counts aren’t entirely reliable in quick count mode; the pitch counts on the “results” screen are based off the end of the inning rather than the beginning of the next
  • This was made in less than a day and is mostly ad-libbed, which I feel like is in the proper spirit of 90’s adventure games
  • Yes I know I have serial killer handwriting
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Ed Easley’s Wonderful Day: A Browser-Based Visual Novel

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Today the Cardinals called up career minor-leaguer Ed Easley for what is sure to be a single-game appearance with Jon Jay returning this weekend. Rather than write a blog post about it, I made a short visual novel. You can play it in your browser or on your phone at this link: Ed Easley’s Wonderful Day

While you’re at it, if you like visual novels, go check out Serafina’s Crown on Steam Greenlight. I wrote about 1/3 of the dialog (the creator of SC is doing the music and portrait art for The Closer). It’s not my usual style, but if you like my video game/sports writing, give it an up-vote to speed up the greenlight process. Thanks!

MLB The Show: The Proselytism of Matt Holliday

If you’re a Cardinals fan, you know that there are a ton of Cardinals fans who want to turn Matt Holliday into a first baseman. Their goals are noble and fully understood. Holliday didn’t come to the Cardinals as the best of left fielders and he hasn’t gotten any better. Despite putting up consistently great offensive numbers for half of a decade, some people seem to remember him best for a defensive miscue back in 2009. Matt Adams has started 2015 with an uninspiring performance, and the Cardinals have a glut of intriguing outfielders. Moving Holliday to first, giving both at-bats and defensive opportunities to Grichuk, Bourjos, Piscotty, etc. sure sounds nice. There’s only one problem.

Matt Holliday has never played first base as a professional. In fact, he has over 200+ games at third base in the minor leagues but not a single professional inning at first. But is that a problem? First base requires the least mobility of any position on the field. It’s poorly-sourced common knowledge that anyone can play first base. It doesn’t require range. It doesn’t require much of an arm. A first baseman needs to be able to catch the ball and react quickly. But those are skills generally required of all positions. So, surely, Matt Holliday can play first base?

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that there is only one way to answer any question about players out of position. It needs to be simulated in MLB: The Show.

MLB® 15 The Show™_20150524133703

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MLB the Show 15: The Passion of Lance Lynn

On Monday, the Cardinals announced that Adam Wainwright would be out for the season with an achilles injury, which made Lance Lynn the de facto ace of the team. Some people might debate this and say that Michael Wacha headlines the rotation, since he’s been pretty much untouchable throughout his short career. But he’s not proven. Not just yet. Others–crazy people–might elect to call John Lackey the number one starter. While Lackey is perfectly useful, he’s not the pitcher he used to be. He gave up three runs to the Phillies, after all.  And then there’s Carlos Martinez, who has electric stuff but is better known for his NSFW twitter fav skills than his pitching. The ace is Lance Lynn, to the extent the Cardinals have an ace. And that’s terrifying to anyone who has watched the team for longer than a year. Lynn put everything together last year, but he’s hardly been a model of consistency. I like Lance. I’ve always liked him. But the frontline starter? Yikes.

All of this coincided with the Cardinals experimenting with some very interesting defensive alignments. For at least a couple days this weekend, Pete Kozma was the backup catcher. He didn’t play there but the possibility still loomed, with ol’ Petey just a single errant foul ball away from donning the tools of ignorance and demonstrating his #framing abilities. Meanwhile, Mark Reynolds headed out to left field for literally his first appearance in LF and his sixth career appearance in the outfield EVER.

I had to do something. I had to try something–combine these two events into something special. So I fired up MLB: The Show 15 and put the new Cardinals ace, Lance Lynn, into the ultimate trial: a complete game, with an entire lineup designed in the spirit of Pete Kozma the Catcher and Mark Reynolds the Outfielder. So it begins.

MLB® 15 The Show™_20150427202749

The rules were simple. The lineup above would backup Lance Lynn, Cardinals ace. No one was at their proper position. Lefthanders were positioned in the infield. Chaos. Absolute chaos. To make matters worse, I set the game in Petco Park, the largest ballpark in baseball, so each out of position player would have to cover the most ground possible. The weather would be rainy, surely a boon to drought-blighted southern California, but yet another obstacle for the Cardinals ace. Obviously, this could go real bad real fast, but Lance Lynn would have no way to escape. He was going to pitch the entire game. I turned off injuries so even a strained oblique couldn’t save him.

MLB® 15 The Show™_20150427212307

This is the passion of Lance Lynn.

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Once Upon A Time In The Projections

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball player projection system lately, which is just a fancy way of saying I’ve been sick and unable to play 3d video games without feeling nauseous or write creatively so my brain had to go off and do something dumb. A few days ago, Fangraphs published Dan Szymborski’s 2015 ZiPS projections for the St. Louis Cardinals. If you follow enough of Cardinals/sabermetric twitter you know that Szymborski took issue with a particular Cardinal blogger who questioned the necessity of these projections and made some fundamental mistakes regarding the ZiPS process. Piling on Cardinals fans is a national pastime for some reasons we don’t bring on ourselves (the media’s terrible Best Fans in Baseball Narrative) and some reasons we do bring on ourselves (I can’t even look at Cincinnati on the map without muttering “kiss the rings”) so the blog post was passed around, ridiculed, and pulled.

Social media drama is the last thing I ever want to care about, but the argument got me thinking. First off, I respect all the hard-as-hell mathematical work that goes into developing projections. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even know where to start learning how to do it. Second, there is clearly an audience for projections–as demonstrated by the anticipation leading up to the ZiPS reveal. So it’s cool someone is putting in the hard work.

But what do good projections really tell us?  I haven’t been able to answer that question and it has stuck with me through a haze of cold medicine.  This isn’t just about ZiPS, or STEAMER, or PECOTA, or any projection system in particular but about the concept of projection systems in general.  What information are they providing?

“They give us a better idea of how players will perform!” you are shouting at your screen while you add my name to a list that includes Murray Chass.  And you’re right, that’s exactly what they do. Maybe.

Bear with me on a thought experiment (groan, I know) while I consider two hypothetical projection systems: the PERFECT system and the BEST system.

The PERFECT system: The PERFECT system correctly and accurately projects player performance. As indicated by its name, it gets nothing wrong. In December of 2013, the PERFECT system projected Matt Carpenter to get 709 plate appearances and a .272/.375/.375 triple slash. How does it do this?  I dunno. Let’s say that, to borrow heavily from the film Interstellar, it tracks batted balls in the future by the minute changes in gravitational fields as they travel backwards through space-time.

Now, the PERFECT system trivializes baseball in lot of ways and calls into question important concepts like free will and predestination.  But it also does one thing really well: it’s the only projection system in the goddamn universe that predicts Allen Craig will have a .266 BAbip in 2014. It’s also the only one that sees Pat Neshek coming.  The really weird stuff–the stuff that has a lot of value to predict–is only truly caught by the PERFECT system.

“That’s not fair!” you reply and move my name above that of noted blogger Murray Chass. “You can’t compare projection systems to literally seeing into the future!” Well I can because this is the internet and on the internet you can advocate for things as crazy as seceding New Hampshire from the Union or SEGA producing Shenmue 3. Also, I need something to compare with the next system.

The BEST system: The BEST system is a bit more realistic. This projection model is top-of-the-line.  Using all that math I don’t understand, it provides the most precise predictions possible without any knowledge of the future. I think we can all admit that (Interstellar notwithstanding) there is no way to measure all the random shit that happens in a baseball season.  And as someone who watched the Cardinals bat .330 for an entire season with RISP, I know for a fact that the sample size of an entire season isn’t enough to weed out all that random shit.

What the BEST system does, however, is successfully weed out all the random shit in the past stats, and uses that to provide an exquisite shit-free stat line for every player in the upcoming season. The BEST system is so good, its creators boast, that if the 2015 season were to be played 1000 times and the results averaged together, the numbers would be exactly what the BEST system projected for them.  This seems like a crazy boast, but the cast of the television series Sliders (which is still running in at least one universe) confirms that it is true.  The BEST system is just that good.

Every year, when you run the numbers, the BEST system is going to be named the most accurate projection system. In aggregate, that will be true. But what about each individual player?  Sure, the BEST system will be the system most likely to come the closest to the real numbers. But, by design, it will staunchly be unable to identify an outlier.  That’s not a bug. It’s a feature of a good projection system.

Remember how I said that playing the season 1000 times would result in averages that equal the BEST system projections?  And how great that was?  The problem is that 1 of those seasons is going to give you the PERFECT system projections.  And then the other 999 seasons are going to drag that pin-point accurate projection straight to the average.

What I’m saying is this: the problem with the BEST system is that it’s incredibly conservative. It will predict a decline from Allen Craig, yes, but not because it knows he will turn into a pumpkin  It is because his 2013 was also an outlier. The BEST system will never predict a collapse.  Similarly, it will look at everything about Pat Neshek and spit out some mediocre numbers, because of course it will.  No one could have seen that coming (and no one should be expected to).

This conservative nature is the problem with any good projection system, because conservative predictions aren’t terribly interesting. With the exception of minor leaguers, the BEST system as described above isn’t going to tell you a lot you couldn’t glean from a glance at the player’s age and MLB stat history. Which is a shame, because developing something like the BEST system that is so (on aggregate) accurate would be an incredible mathematical achievement. It just wouldn’t tell us anything about current MLB players.

This is why the really fascinating stuff in the ZiPS projections for the Cardinals isn’t, say, Matt Holliday’s numbers or Adam Wainwright’s numbers. Someone taking a wild guess or simming the year in MLB: The Show could come up with a triple slash of .275/.348/.456 slash line for Holliday. I don’t mean this a an insult to ZiPS, which of course is way more work than that, and will be more accurate for more players.  But a conservative prediction that Matt Holliday will continue a gradual decline is, well, not exactly a revelation.  And any good projection system will likely come to a similar, conservative result.

The interesting stuff in the ZiPS are projections from guys like Ty Kelly (.254/.333/.358) or Samuel Tuivailala (3.29 ERA, 28.3 K%). Kelly is a journeyman utility infielder with no MLB time projected to be about as good as Kolten Wong.  Tuivailala is a converted position player who rocketed through the system in two years on the strength of a  99 mph fastball. Obviously, a system that identifies guys like these who can be immediately productive at the MLB level would be very valuable. Maybe the BEST system as described above would do that, but the problem is that these projections–which are truly interesting, and the reason I like looking at ZiPS–are the most difficult to verify as reliable. Kelly’s numbers are based on the idea he receives 550+ PAs and god help the St. Louis Cardinals if injuries force the team into that situation.

While I like to look at projections and I respect the hell out of the work that goes into them, I’m sympathetic to the argument baseball old-timers put forward that they are meaningless.  The more accurate a projection system gets, the less it tells us that we didn’t already know.

Of course, projection systems published on the internet are mostly created to give us something to talk about in the off-season and I just wrote 1000+ words about them. So maybe I’ve already lost any argument I was trying to put forth.

 

On Oscar Taveras

This is not why we watch baseball.

Baseball is supposed to be an escape from the terrible things in life. Yes, baseball aggravates us.  It hurts us. It puts us on the edge our seats and then it swiftly pushes us back, crushing us with disappointment and regret. But in the end, it is just a game. We let ourselves care so much about baseball because it’s something safe to care about. As much as losing the NLCS hurt, it didn’t really mean anything. Life went on, just as it had before, with all those negative emotions vented off into something as ultimately meaningless as a game where grown men hit leather balls with wooden sticks.

We don’t watch baseball for moments like this.

Oscar Taveras was 22 years old and one of the most promising young players in baseball. The fact that he had a sweet swing doesn’t make his death any more tragic, but it does make it more familiar. That swing is the reason I’ve known about Oscar Taveras for more than four years, even though he just made his Major League debut in 2014.  I’ve anticipated seeing him develop into a productive ML player since 2010, when he hit .303/.342/.485 as an 18 year old in the rookie leagues.  He became something of a household name among prospect watchers the next season, putting up a 1.028 OPS at single-A.  His development since had been a bit rocky, but he always maintained that amazing swing.

God damn it, I shouldn’t be writing this right now. I shouldn’t be talking about Oscar Taveras’s career in the past tense.  He was just getting started. He had barely even begun to recognize his own potential. Not just in baseball, but in life. As much as I want to eulogize him, to describe everything he was to the St. Louis fans and everything he could have been, it just isn’t right. This isn’t what baseball is about.

FUCK.

The reason we watch baseball is because baseball has rules. There are nine innings. Twenty-seven outs. Three strikes. Four balls. The foul lines define the field of play, blazing out a tiny patch of grass in which outcomes are dictated by well-understood principles. When your team loses, it makes sense. There is always a reason. The pitcher struggled. The lineup was silent. The manager made some head-scratching decisions. But it all comes down to rules we understand and a series of systems, built one atop another, that creates meaning and purpose where there is none.

Then something like this happens. Life doesn’t have rules. There are no innings, outs, strikes, balls, nothing. Life is chaos, unbounded by the lines we draw upon it.

And it’s fucking bullshit.

No one should die at 22. No parents should have to bury their child. If life was baseball, this would be a foul. An error. A balk. A play under review that should be reversed because this should not happen.

I turned 22 in 2006, just a week after the Cardinals won the World Series. It is recent enough that I can still remember it, but long enough ago that I know I was a different person. I wasn’t married yet, though we had set the date.

If I died at the exact age Taveras did–day and date–I would have died on the day of my wedding.

But this isn’t about me and it shouldn’t be about me. I’m still here. Someone else isn’t.

Last night, I picked up my laptop to get to work on the next installment in World War K.  I spent the last week deciding how I would handle the fact the Royals won the AL pennant, and were in competition for the World Series trophy. But I decided to open twitter and look at the news.

Fuck the news. Fuck the world. This isn’t how it should be. Baseball is supposed to have rules. That’s why we watch baseball. We want to understand loss. We want to compartmentalize into a realm where the rules are fair and just. But that’s not real loss. Losing a baseball game is nothing.

I didn’t know Oscar Taveras. And I’m not going to say that I felt like I knew him. I only knew his swing, his stat line, his scouting reports. That’s not who a person is. Whatever I feel is just a confused, uncertain speck compared to what his teammates, friends, and family must be going through.

Fuck it all.  This isn’t why we watch baseball. I’m sorry, Oscar. We shouldn’t have to remember you so soon.

 

 

 

 

 

MLB The Show – World War K: Sign of the Moose

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: The New Blood (May Recap)

For years, the world believed that Mike Mussina’s baseball story ended in 2008.  At age 39, the veteran ace retired after his first 20-win season.  He never won a World Series, never pitched a no-hitter,  and never claimed a Cy Young, but with 270 wins and 3.68 ERA in one of the highest offensive eras in baseball, he was considered a solid Hall of Fame candidate among fans who knew what the hell they were talking about.  After Mussina left baseball, he spent his days doing crosswords and fixing up old tractors.  He never thought he’d get a chance to pitch again, except maybe in an old-timer’s game if he suddenly decided he could stand to be around the other old-timers.

The first robot baseball stars could be distinguished by their design.  Top robotics firms used space-aged alloys, precision-crafted joints, and advanced processors to build machines that would stand out among their counterparts.  But before long, every android player was built from one of a handful of perfected designs.  The only advances made in the machinery were slight and incremental.  Teams had to find new ways to elevate their robots–to make them better than the competition.

First efforts in advanced robot AI were led by MLB’s chief programmer, Jeff Francoeur.  Francoeur was an ex-ballplayer himself, who had retired and went back to school to devote himself to other causes after a life-changing incident in the independent leagues: he’d let his bat slip out of his hands on a strikeout and killed a fan sitting behind the dugout.  A repentant Francoeur had devoted himself to the cause of safer baseball.  To him, this meant helping transition to robot baseball players whose pressurized mechanical hands could never lose the grip on the handle of a bat.

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Jeff Francoeur in happier days.

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