The recent Hall of Fame induction ceremony gave me a lot of varied ideas for articles. This one might be the silliest though, so of course I had to follow through on it.
Few things have been as influential a part of my life as baseball, but video games are up there. Maybe you already knew that though; after all, I sometimes even write about them. And, like many kids my age who grew up with a love of both things, one title reigned supreme: Backyard Baseball.*
*You too can enjoy having this song stuck in your head, just as I did while writing this (in alternating shifts with this, of course).
For those who might not be aware, Backyard Baseball was a series that started with a computer game released in 1997. The premise was generally pretty simple: it was a relative simple baseball game* aimed at younger audiences, with a colorful cast of neighborhood kids, straightforward and easy-to-understand gameplay, and a slew of cartoonish elements serving as the main selling points, and it made a strong enough impression that in spawned an entire, multi-sport franchise that became a cultural touchstone for a generation of sports fans.
*Fun fact: in researching this, I read that the original game was made in a point-and-click engine, which seems like a strange way to build a sports game, but makes more sense given that maker Humongous Entertainment was known for that style of game.
The second game, released in 2000 (but titled Backyard Baseball 2001), is probably even better known, however, as it tightened up things from the first game and added a bunch of features, including one of the things the series is most known for, the addition of 31 major league stars as kids to the game’s roster. A 2002 follow-up (but again subtitled 2003) would repeat the formula with a slightly shuffled set of 31 players (then subsequent games would shuffle the formula even more as the series generally declined in quality, but we won’t go there).
What got me thinking about it in relation to the Hall of Fame was that, as the writers at Cespedes Family BBQ noted, two of the inductees were on the Backyard Baseball 2001 roster. Indeed, Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell are actually the eighth and ninth Backyard Representatives in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But it was their reference to Tim Raines that got me thinking, where they called him “one that would have been had the game been made 15 years earlier”; it’s been even longer than that since the release of 2001. What would a Backyard Baseball 2017* installment look like, as far as major league stars go? Since the series is functionally dead at this point, this will forever be stuck in the realm of fantasy, but it’ll still be a lot of fun to think about.
*Keeping track of 2001 and 2003 is already hard enough, so I won’t be calling this one Backyard Baseball 2018. Sorry.
Let’s start with a breakdown of the original rosters, to get a sense of how ours should look, compositionally. Both 2001 and 2003* had 31 major league players, with one per team and one team double-represented. Neither strived for an exactly balanced set, positionally. 2001 had 5 first basemen, 6 shortstops**, 1 third baseman, 3 catchers, 2 pitchers, and 14 outfielders; while 2003 had 7 first basemen, 4 shortstops, 2 third basemen, 2 catchers, 2 pitchers, and 13 outfielders. 17 Players were featured in both games.
*There were later games that featured pros as kids, some of them even decent. But after this installment, the stopped picking one player per team, and it’s a lot less fun to just pick sixteen players and be done with it.
**Assuming we count Cal Ripken at his first position, despite being a third baseman at that point.
In 2001, the average star was about halfway through their age-30 season, and had a hair over 10 seasons in the majors, while these numbers had dropped to the end of their age-29 season and almost 9 years of experience for the 2003 set. And from a performance set, the average player in those games had averaged about 5.0 Wins Above Replacement per 162 games (per Fangraphs)* and 36.9/32.0 total WAR in their career up until the season before the game released.
*Technically, for pitchers, I used (WAR per inning pitched) times 9 innings times 32 starts. It’s not a 1-to-1 comparison, but it at least gets us on a similar scale, so it’s probably good enough for our purposes here.
So overall, we’re dealing with a pretty good and relatively experienced set of players, but even still, not every Backyard Star was created equally. You could pretty easily divide them into tiers.
The Aging Stars: Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Randy Johnson
These were guys who pretty much no one would argue with; all were in their late-30s, and over half of them retired in between installments. All except Canseco were Hall-tier players, and even Canseco had a case that looked surprisingly strong in the pre-analytic days, with his 462 homers. It also helped that he was representing that rather weak expansion-era Devil Rays, and that he hadn’t yet moved into his mid-2000s “Villain of the Game/Self-Proclaimed Godfather of Steroids” role (let alone his modern day role as “Raving Twitter Lunatic”).
Mid-Career Stars: Curt Schilling, Ken Griffey, Jr., Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Lofton, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones, (2003 additions) Jim Thome, Carlos Delgado, Brad Radke
Maybe not as strong as the first group, but these were guys who looked to be on solid paces. Some even had MVPs. A lot went on to finish off Hall-quality careers from here. You could probably even make Hall cases for all of them if we were still inducting players at the rate they did in the old Veterans Committee
Promising Young Stars: Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter, Jason Kendall, Vladimir Guerrero, Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Beltran, (2003) Todd Helton, Troy Glaus, Tim Hudson, Jimmy Rollins, Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki
It’s funny thinking of some of these names as unproven, but all were essentially in the first third of their careers or even earlier. All of them wound up looking really good. Shout-outs to Pujols, Beltran, and Rollins, who all made it into this series while only being about a decade away from being actual pre-teens.
Other: Jeromy Burnitz, Raul Mondesi, Shawn Green, Marty Cordova, Alex Gonzalez, (2003) Greg Vaughn, Jeff Conine, Cliff Floyd, Phil Nevin, Bobby Higginson, Richie Sexson
Some may laugh at some of the names on this list; they do stick out relative to the other tiers, after all. But none of them were awful, necessarily. Every one except Cordova and Higginson made an All-Star team, some multiple. Many won Rookie of the Year awards. Mostly, they were just guys on weaker rosters going up against a set of absolute legends of the game. In many cases, the developers tried to hedge their bets on a young rising star, they just didn’t all pay off like Carlos Beltran or Albert Pujols. Granted, none of them got off to starts as good as those guys either, but beggars can’t be choosers.
In any case, we have some general idea of what our roster should look like. Let’s get into the specifics.
Orioles-There are really only two options for the honor on the Orioles: Manny Machado and Adam Jones. I don’t think you could go wrong with either, to be honest. Based on the precedent the earlier games set, I’d probably give the tiebreaker to Jones, given his longer career, but you could possibly persuade me that Machado has more star power at this point and should get the nod instead if you wanted to. Jones has certainly made it close with his weaker play as of late, but I think he’s needs another bad season to make it Manny’s for sure.
Red Sox-Similar to the last one, guys like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts have been good, but Dustin Pedroia has a bigger profile as a vet and is still decent. Chris Sale is a bit of a wild card, but Pedroia’s longer tenure and the series’ tendency to go with hitters over pitchers, he probably also misses.
Yankees-It’s likely Aaron Judge. Gary Sanchez might give him a run for his money, but Judge has become such a big name so fast.
Rays-Evan Longoria, without a doubt. He’s the face of the franchise. Chris Archer makes for a decent #2, but he doesn’t top Longoria yet
Blue Jays-Jose Bautista most likely would have been the choice before his decline this year (and last year, although not as much). Josh Donaldson is the new favorite I’d say, with Marcus Stroman as the back-up choice.
Braves-You have to go with Freddie Freeman here. Maybe one day one of the prospects surpasses him, but today is not that day.
Marlins-Apologies to Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, but Giancarlo Stanton is just too big a profile to not use. The Marlins also have one of three remaining players who were featured in the 2003 edition in Ichiro, which is cool.
Mets-David Wright might still be the face of the franchise, but he’s been hurt too much the last few years. This is probably between Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom, and you could make a compelling case for either. I think I’d go with Syndergaard, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for going the other way.
Phillies-Some may look at guys like Alex Gonzalez or Marty Cordova in the original and laugh, but then you look at rosters like the Phillies’ and immediately feel the game designers’ pain. I guess we’ll take Odubel Herrera over Aaron Nola?
Nationals-The Nats have a bunch of guys you could make a case for, with favorites like Max Scherzer, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, and dark horse candidates like Anthony Rendon or Stephen Strasburg. But let’s be real here: the correct choice is Bryce Harper all the way.
White Sox-Probably Jose Abreu. So many guys have been traded recently that there aren’t many options left, but Abreu makes for a respectable choice and seems like he’ll be around for a bit longer at least. I don’t think they’d go for a prospect without any great years in the majors yet, which rules out maybe his biggest competition in Yoan Moncada.
Indians-They remind me of the Astros, who I’ll get to soon. You could make a strong case for one of their young stars like Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez, but since Backyard Baseball has seemed to favor more experienced players, I think Corey Kluber would get the nod.
Tigers-This is a difficult one. Do you go with all-time great hitter Miguel Cabrera, or with the homegrown star and one of the better arms in his generation in Justin Verlander? I don’t think you can go wrong with either, but Miguel Cabrera probably wins out here. The game usually tends to go with hitters, especially historic ones like Cabrera.
Royals-I feel like there are a lot of players here with similar credentials. You could pick Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, or even Danny Duffy and I would understand. But in the end, I think I’d go with Salvador Perez. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s made the most All-Star Games out of that bunch, or that he’s signed for the longest (tied with Duffy)
Twins-Sure, Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier have been good lately, but Joe Mauer is still probably the favorite for now. I’d say his long history, great career so far, and hometown ties give him the slight edge. That could easily change in the next few years, though.
Cubs-A lot of good, young stars on this Cubs team, but ultimately I think it comes down to Kris Bryant, with Anthony Rizzo as the second choice. Being the reigning MVP certainly doesn’t hurt.
Reds-The Reds might be rebuilding, but like the Braves and White Sox, they still have a pretty easy choice in their first baseman. So welcome aboard, Joey Votto.
Brewers-I suppose they’d go with Ryan Braun? Maybe they’d hold off because of his image problems, but it’s not like the Brewers are overflowing with household names at the moment. He wouldn’t be the worst pick, at least, and he has an All-Star appearance and MVP votes in recent memory at least.
Pirates-There’s just one correct answer here. Andrew McCutchen feels like the type of player who was born to be in a game like Backyard Baseball. He plays the game with such an infectious joy, it’s hard to picture anyone else from this team here.
Cardinals-Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter have been good enough for long enough that they wouldn’t be bad choices, but this is definitely still Yadier Molina’s title to lose.
Astros-There are a lot of great players you could go with here, between Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel (who would look really weird as a Backyard Kid, given he wouldn’t get his beard). But in all likelihood, they would go with the most senior star, Jose Altuve. He’d make for a hilarious up-the-middle pair with Pablo Sanchez too, given that they’d probably be the same size in-game.
Also, the Astros currently employee the only still-active player from Backyard Baseball 2001, Carlos Beltran. His best days are definitely behind him, but if this hypothetical game could also hypothetically come out this year, maybe he could occupy a hidden 32nd roster slot? Just for old times’ sake?
Angels-Again, this is another one-choice team: it’s Mike Trout or bust. Albert Pujols is one of three still-active players who was featured in one of the early games, but that feels kind of less impressive coming in the blurb immediately after Beltran, unfortunately.
Athletics-Well, this would have been Sonny Gray before the trade deadline. Now, I’m not totally certain. Maybe Sean Manaea or Khris Davis? I’d guess Davis, thanks to his being a prolific home run hitter.
Mariners-The Mariners are a lot like the Tigers, in that you have both an all-time great pitcher and position player to choose from, in Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano. I think Cano being a free agent (and a relatively new one, at that, whereas Cabrera has been in Detroit for a decade) hurts him a little, so I’d give Hernandez the edge even though he’s a pitcher.
Rangers-I’m glad that Adrian Beltre is still playing and still good. It’s kind of weird to think that he could have been included way back in Backyard Baseball 2001, and it wouldn’t have even been a bad pick at the time; he was at least as good as Shawn Green on a per-rate basis at that point, even if Green was more famous.
Diamondbacks-Zack Greinke could be a solid choice, but at this point, Paul Goldschmidt is better and has been a Diamondback longer.
Rockies-Nolan Arenado looks like the clear choice. It’s weird how stacked third base is now, especially compared to 2001 and 2003’s rosters. The second game only had Chipper Jones and Cal Ripken (who was only a third baseman at the end of his career). Troy Glaus was added in the third game, but Ripken retired and Chipper was playing outfield when it came out, so you could argue that Glaus was the only representative. Now, here we are with five, maybe six if you take Manny Machado over Adam Jones.
Dodgers-This is another case where you have good young players like Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager, but for now, this is still Clayton Kershaw’s team.
Padres-Probably Wil Myers? The roster is pretty thin, and at least Myers is an All-Star and former Rookie of the Year. That seems to line up with some of the picks from thin rosters in past Backyard Baseball games.
Giants-Buster Posey is just too marketable a player to not use. Madison Bumgarner has a case, but I’m still giving Posey the edge.
In both Backyard Baseball 2001 and 2003, one team was granted two representatives. In the former, it was the Reds, with Barry Larkin and then-recent acquisition Ken Griffey, Jr. In the latter, it was the Yankees, with Derek Jeter and then-recent free agent Jason Giambi. Although I suppose I could use the spot this time to look for a big-name acquisition like that, it’s probably better just to use it as a random bonus slot for one of the many players I referenced as runners-up for their teams.
Looking over the tentative roster, the first thing that jumps out at me is the lack of middle infielders; as of right now, it’s two second basemen (in Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve) and no shortstops. There are a lot of good, young shortstops in the league right now, it’s just that many of them are younger players on teams with a lot of star power as is. In my estimation, the best choices are one of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, or Xander Bogaerts. I’m going to go with Carlos Correa out of personal preference.
It’s also worth noting at this point that four pitchers may be excessive, given that most of the old games only had two or three. Maybe that was the result of the originals coming from a more offense-heavy era? But if you do think it’s worth changing the roster to match, an easy swap to help with that would be Lindor-for-Kluber (or Cano-for-Hernandez, if you want middle infielders in general). Ultimately, I’ll stick with what we have, as the roster is already pretty young relative to 2001 and 2003 as is, but know that this decision will weigh on my mind more than it has any reason to.
How does our hypothetical Backyard Baseball 2017 stack up? The end result is surprisingly close to the original games, albeit a little bit younger. The average age of players is just shy of their age-30 season (29.8) and just under 9 seasons since they arrived in the majors, so not too shabby there. The player quality isn’t too far off either, with 32.5 WAR to date on average and just under 5.4 WAR/162. You can probably chock a little of that up to how WAR has come to shape our understanding of the best players.
Positionally, there’s been a definite shift. The original games were dominated by first basemen, shortstops, and outfielders, while this proposed roster has seen most of those shortstops moved to third base and a few outfielder slots spread amongst the other positions. Overall, we have 4 pitchers, 4 catchers, 6 first basemen, 2 second basemen, 5 third basemen, 1 shortstop, and 9 outfielders.
So all in all, it seems this is a reasonable guess at what a modern day Backyard Baseball would look like. Now all we need is for someone to revive the series, do all the work of programming, and bring it back to its glory days, but that should be the easy part, right?
The Pro Roster, summary: Jose Abreu, Jose Altuve, Nolan Arenado, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Braun, Kris Bryant, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Correa, Khris Davis, Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Felix Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, Adam Jones, Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Evan Longoria, Joe Mauer, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina, Wil Myers, Dustin Pedroia, Salvador Perez, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Noah Syndergaard, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, (possible hidden character: Carlos Beltran)