Saturday, May 21, 2016

Out of the Park Baseball 17: Let's Build a Modern Day Answer to the 1990s Braves!

The folks behind the fantastic baseball simulator Out of the Park Baseball were once again kind enough to let me test out their new version this year, Out of the Park Baseball 17. I’ve long held that it’s the smartest, most powerful baseball game there is, and this year’s version only further solidified me on that The core game is as solid as ever, with new updates to the basic system, but with cooler features around the edges, like a full MLB license and automatically generated post-game reports that add to the full experience.

But the best part is always in the limitless capabilities in what Out of the Park lets you do. For that reason, some of you may be a little disappointed that I’m revamping one of my older ideas, but I had good reasons. The biggest is that, for as fun as historical What Ifs are, if I go back to before I was old enough to follow baseball (or even born), they become much harder for me to write about. I have no opinions about, say, Sam Horn or Leo Gomez. But if I’m writing about them, even for an article about a video game-created alternate universe, I feel compelled to look them up as I’m playing and write out said defense. If I’m talking about current players, I already have pre-formed thoughts on players, and have maybe even written about them. It makes the playing and writing phases a lot less slow.

So, in case you didn’t click the link, this year I’m going to be modernizing the concept of the 1990s Atlanta Braves’ pitching big 3. Picking a team was a simple matter; I looked at the Braves’ position player WAR (per Fangraphs) the year before they acquired Greg Maddux, then looked at teams’ 2015 numbers. The closest one made for an easy choice: the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hey, at least I would be starting with one historic ace; less work for me to figure out the other players to pick.

Yes, it seems the Dodgers would get some compensations for losing half of their historic 2015 pitching duo. I would be like Justin Timberlake in The Social Network; “Two future Hall of Fame pitchers isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Three future Hall of Fame pitchers.”

I went through my most recent Future Hall of Fame Pitchers article to find some people on track or close to it and similar in age to Clayton Kershaw to serve as my core. There weren’t many good choice in the years immediate above Kershaw, so I went younger instead, and acquired Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg. I did this towards the start of the season too, before I knew just how fantastic those two would be and when trading Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir for them (respectively) seemed a lot less lopsided. Upon doing so, I locked Strasburg (formerly the only one not under team control through at least 2019) down with a 7 year, $155 million deal (with player opt-outs after the fifth and sixth seasons). And with that, I was now off to the races.



The first month was a disappointment of sorts. Corey Seager won NL Rookie of the Month, Yasiel Puig won NL Player of the Month, and my Big 3 each put up 1.3 WAR months (with Strasburg offering an especially promising first few games). Despite that, we go 13-12, putting us 4.5 games back of the Giants (because what good is playing as the Dodgers if the Giants aren’t your foes, I guess). It seems that we’re a little weak around the periphery (which is to say, we’re five good players, two or three okay ones, and not much else). Thankfully, I get one easy improvement at the end of the month, as Mike Bolsinger comes off the DL to replace the struggling Ross Stripling.

With that problem solved, we proceed to…absolutely stink up the joint. Halfway through the month, we’re coming off a 7-9 stretch to drop two games below .500 and towards the bottom of the division. I’m not panicking at this point, but that’s mostly because I’m in Commissioner Mode and can’t be fired (how else was I going to pull off those trades?). Otherwise, I’m starting to wonder about my plan. Seriously, how did I screw up starting off with a fantastic trio of pitchers like this?

Thankfully, I won’t have to be asking these questions much longer. Alex Wood finally steps up his game, plus we get Hyun-jin Ryu back at the end of the month. Those should help us shore up the edges of the team.

Sure enough, by the end of the month, our season is no long of void of disappointment. We’ve improved all the way to 28-25. That’s still not where you’d like to be with Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Stephen Strasburg in your rotation, but it beats 2 games below .500. We’re 8.5 back in the West, but only 3 games behind the second wild card spot. We’re also sixth in the league in runs scored and four in runs allowed, so maybe a full turnaround is coming? At the end of the month, the big three sits at:

Kershaw: 7-3, 82.0 IP, 89 K, 15 BB, 1.87 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 226 ERA+, 2.83 FIP, 2.6 WAR
Strasburg: 3-7, 72.0 IP, 84 K, 13 BB, 3.25 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 129 ERA+, 2.69 FIP, 2.4 WAR
Sale: 3-3, 76.2 IP, 91 K, 10 BB, 2.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 143 ERA+, 3.04 FIP, 2.2 WAR

Alex Wood is holding his own here as well:

Wood: 6-3, 74.1 IP,61 K, 19 BB, 3.51 ERA., 1.21 WHIP, 120 ERA+, 3.09 FIP, 2.0 WAR

June goes even better for us. We go 18-10, including a 3-game sweep of the Giants, which takes us up to 3 back in the NL West and .5 back in the Wild Card hunt. Corey Seager wins another Rookie of the Month award as well. We’re starting to look like the playoff contender we should have been the whole time. In the meanwhile, Brandon McCarthy comes off the DL, but I don’t have the roster space or rotation slot for him any more. I make the decision to trade him for offensive help, since Justin Turner, Howie Kendrick, Chase Utley, and Andre Ethier are all struggling, and Carl Crawford coming off the DL doesn’t sound like it’ll solve anything.

I finally settle on sending him to the Astros, who have been shopping Colby Rasmus to make room in their crowded outfield. I still don’t have roster space, though, so I start looking into a prospect trade. In the end, I find the White Sox are desperate enough for an outfielder and a second baseman that they’re willing to trade for Crawford and Kendrick. I package them with a few minor leaguers I think look fringy, and get two of their top prospects (SS Tim Anderson and OF Courtney Hawkins) in return.

With that, we move on to July. Corey Seager won his second Rookie of the Month award in June, and it served as a good prelude to the hot streak that followed. We take over first place on July 8th, thanks to a 12-game winning streak. It’s left me time to negotiate with international free agents in peace, which I’m grateful for. We win the next two games going into the All-Star Break, but it turns out the Giants have kept winning as well. We have a half-game lead at the season midpoint.

(In case you were wondering, we had seven All-Stars selected from our team: the big three, Seager, Puig, Yasmani Grandal, and Kenley Jansen. It’s also worth noting that Strasburg’s replacement in Washington, Scott Kazmir, made the team as well.  Kershaw and Seager are starters, while Jansen will be the closer in the event of a win. Sadly, that doesn’t happen; the NL loses, but my players do reasonably well, with 6 Ks and 1 hit allowed in 3 scoreless innings and 3 walks in 5 plate appearances.)

Our fourteen-game winning streak ends immediately after the break, but we rebound to take the series by winning the next two 13-0 and 13-1. Maybe our lineup will catch up to the pitching staff? We go 18-6 for the month (64-41 overall), and even get our first pitcher of the month: Hyun-jin Ryu. Just like we all knew would happen. Despite the success, the Giants have been hot as hell and taken a one-game lead in the standings. I also extended Kenley Jansen along the way ($79 million/5 years, opt-out after year two). The pitching staff at this point:

Kershaw:  11-6, 155 IP, 172 K, 2.21 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 184 ERA+, 2.55 FIP, 5.2 WAR
Sale: 8-3, 146.1 IP, 168 K, 2.21 ERA, 0.93 WHIP 183 ERA+, 2.76 FIP, 4.5 WAR
Strasburg: 8-11, 138 IP, 156 K, 3.26 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 124 ERA+, 4.2 WAR
Wood: 8-5, 127.1 IP, 111 K, 3.46 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 117 ERA+, 2.4 WAR
Ryu: 8-3, 70.1 IP, 58 K, 2.18 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 186 ERA+, 1.4 WAR

As you can see, Stephen Strasburg has a losing record, so this whole thing was a complete failure. But other than that, not too shabby. We move back into a tie for first on the first day of August, too. Things take a brief turn south right after that, though, as we drop 7 of the next 12 games. In that time, our lead over the Giants…expands to 2 games, because baseball makes no sense. We double that after a pair of sweeps against the Phillies and Reds, which is much needed as we head to San Francisco.

This is a big moment, a series at our biggest rival in August with a four-game lead to protect. The teams contribute to this drama with…a three-game sweep in our favor. None of the games are blow-outs or close, just sort of in the middle, and there are no big performances, even for the rotation. It’s just a normal set of games where everyone was firing on all cylinders.

We finish the month with a 6.5 game lead, a great place to be in September. Kershaw is looking like a Cy Young front-runner, leading the league in WAR (6.7) and strikeouts (239), among other things. Stephen Strasburg is giving him a run for his money in both, though, placing third (5.0) and second (196) in the same areas. Sale isn’t terribly far behind, either, placing ninth (4.2) and third (193). Yeah, I have the NL’s 1-2-3 pitchers in strikeouts. It’s pretty cool.

September looks like it’ll be an easy month, with most of our games coming against losing teams. There are four games against the Giants, though (a mid-month three game set and one game at the end to start one of the season’s last series), so we have to be careful. We have an 82-51 record, so we’re almost certainly going to the playoffs in some capacity. Around this time, we hit some injury problems, with Rasmus, Adrian Gonzalez, and Enrique Hernandez (the current starting second baseman) all going on the DL for short trips. Better now than during the playoffs, though. We win Game #90 on September 12th.

As San Francisco comes to town in the middle of the month, we lose Kik√© Hernandez for the rest of the season. He was only back for a few games, but it seems something else has come up now. That’ll be tough to overcome. Nevertheless, Strasburg, Wood, and Ryu all turn in strong performances (including Stras’s game 1 complete game shutout), meaning that we have a ten game lead in the NL West (San Francisco is also three back in the Wild Card race, so things look tough for them).

The rest of the season is pretty uneventful. Our records winds up a sterling 102-60, and while the back-end of the rotation has slipped a little, the Big 3 put up some pretty great numbers:

Kershaw: 17-9, 233.1 IP, 274 K, 2.47 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 164 ERA+ 2.53 FIP, 8.0 WAR
Strasburg: 14-14, 218 IP, 239 K, 3.26 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 124 ERA+ 2.91 FIP, 6.2 WAR
Sale: 11-6, 199 IP, 2.71 ERA, 233 K, 0.97 WHIP, 149 ERA+, 3.13 FIP, 5.0 WAR

Kershaw leads NL pitchers in ERA, innings, strikeouts, BB/9, FIP, and WAR. Sale and Strasburg’s names also litter the leaderboards, including finishing the year 1-2-3 in strikeouts (Sale was tied by Jose Fernandez in third place, but I’m still counting it). Unsurprisingly, we led the majors in fewest runs allowed, 58 ahead of the Mets and Giants.

(Also, Corey Seager finished second in WAR for hitters behind only Bryce Harper, so that’s cool.)

With that out of the way, we move on to the playoffs. We’ll be playing the Pirates, who toppled the Cardinals in the Wild Card game (meanwhile in the AL, the Yankees walked off against the Red Sox in 12). If we win, we’ll take on either the Mets or the Cubs (the AL sees match-ups of Yankees-Blue Jays and Tigers-Astros).

All four Division Series wind up being yawners. We sweep, winning games by scores of 6-5, 3-2, and 9-1. Kershaw is good, Sale is better, but Strasburg (7 shutout innings, 12 Ks) is the best. The Mets and Yankees also sweep, while the Tigers win in four games even though they’re missing their ace in Justin Verlander.

In the NLCS, we take game one 4-3. Kershaw pitches 8 solid innings, but gets a no-decision as the game goes 14. Game 2 is less of a nail-biter, as we score 13 to back Chris Sale’s 4-run complete game. Strasburg turns in seven strong innings in Game 3, but falters in the eighth, and we lose 3-1. Game 4 goes fourteen 14 innings again, but we lose 5-4 this time. Clayton Kershaw is once again stuck with the no decision.

We take a one game lead after Game 5, though, winning 3-2. We got outhit 8-4, but Chris Sale turned in 8 shutout innings, with an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio along the way. We start our first non-Kershaw/Sale/Strasburg pitcher in Game 6 with Ryu, but he gets roughed up pretty badly, final score 9-3.

I left my manager decide the Game 7 starter, and he decided to counter the Mets’ ace, Matt Harvey, with Clayton Kershaw. Given that he was on short-rest and we had Stephen Strasburg waiting, that decision looks suspect given that Kershaw struggled (but was in the end pulled for a pinch hitter, not for his pitching) and the bullpen came in to pour gasoline over the whole mess. Matt Harvey didn’t look good either, but their bullpen didn’t give up eight runs in five innings, so they moved on to the World Series. I will keep this in mind when my manager’s contract needs renewed.


The epilogue to the season isn’t all bad. The Mets sweep the Tigers (who also went a full seven) in a one-sided slugfest/bludgeoning. We do decently in awards voting too, with Kershaw taking Cy Young honors and finishing second to Bryce Harper for MVP while Corey Seager wins the Rookie of the Year and a Silver Slugger. We’ll be back next season to see if our Big 3 can improve on their 2016 and, eventually, the run of the 1990s Braves.

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