Some people play Dungeons and Dragons. Some play Magic cards. Some read horrible romance novels. Some watch reality television. Some people show up to Star Wars and Harry Potter premieres in costume.
Me, I play Strat-o-Matic baseball. I’m not ashamed because everyone does something dorky like this.
For years, since I can remember loving baseball, I’d been trying to find a simulation game that encompasses the actual game. Most of the time I was trying out baseball video games in hopes to getting an accurate representation of the game I loved. I never cared about graphics or how real it looked – I only cared about how accurate it was statistically. I needed something that let me be the manager.
I found brushes with what I was looking for. My friend Nick had a statistics based game for his Apple IIE called MLBPA Baseball, based on the 1986 season. There were no graphics except a diamond draw out in green and the fielders and players who were on the field at the time. I remember playing a game in which Greg Gagne hit two home runs.
I loved playing the original Hardball!, but there were only two teams with fictional players and it was horribly inaccurate to the real game (only certain players could steal or hit home runs).
Then there was Tony LaRussa Baseball for the PC. It featured only retired players and it was the most realistic video game I’d played. Sadly, you had to buy separate disks to get the AL and NL stadiums (about $15 apiece). The gameplay was accurate and there was a coaching feature where you didn’t have to actually move the fielders. You just had to make the calls from the dugout. It was a great game, but died once my family’s computer became obsolete.
High Heat Baseball for the PC wasn’t bad, but still wasn’t quite what I was looking for and the same can be said for MVP Baseball for the Gamecube. I don’t care how much the batter really looks like Jason Bay. I just want Jason Bay to hit like he did in 2004 and I want it to matter whether he’s facing Johan Santana or Kris Benson. I want it to matter whether the ball is hit to Omar Vizquel or Jose Vidro. There’s a difference.
Then my girlfriend and I stopped by a board games store in the mall the autumn of 2004. I’d heard stories of baseball games played with dice based on hitters and pitchers statistics, but never seen one. It was there I finally found the most accurate baseball simulation – Strat-o-Matic. My girlfriend bought it for me that Christmas after watching me drool over it in the mall. When I showed it to Nick that evening, he said, “So, this is the sort of thing you need a 12-step program to get out of?” I’ve been playing for six years and Nick’s statement couldn’t have been more accurate.
What is Strat-o-Matic? I like to tell people it’s Dungeons and Dragons for baseball nerds. From afar, it looks insanely difficult and far too in-depth for the casual fan. I’ve never played Axis and Allies, but I’d imagine that’s equally in-depth.
When you get your Strat-o-Matic set, you get a separate card for each individual player from that respected year (mine was the 2004 season) with two sides to each card. One side contains the information and statistics for the basic game and the other side is for the advanced and super advanced.
After a thorough reading of the basic instructions, I began to play and instantly fell in love with the game. It wasn’t long before I learned the advanced and eventually the super advanced. Even though the first two games are accurate in their play, now that I’ve mastered the super advanced play, I’ll never go back and can’t stand playing a “lesser” game when playing with someone else.
I’ll do my best to sum up how the super advanced game is played. A hitter’s card has two sides to it. One side is for when he’s facing a right-handed pitcher and the other for lefties with the numbers one, two and three headlining the columns. It’s the same for a pitcher’s card, only it matters what side of the plate the batter is on with four, five and six on top of the columns. A single die is rolled. If the number is one, two or three, the outcome of the at bat will be based on the hitter’s card. If it’s four, five or six, the outcome will be based on the pitcher’s card. Then two more dice are thrown. The sum of the numbers will direct you to the corresponding number in the column in which the first die was thrown.
Sometimes the outcome will be something simple like “Fly LF(B)”. This means, with no one on base, the batter has flown out to the left fielder – one out. Simple, right? Or maybe it will say “Strikeout” or “GB 2B(A)”. The latter would mean, with no one on base, the batter grounds out to the second baseman.
Every outcome is aligned with the probability of the sum of two dice. The most likely sum of two dice is seven. The second most likely is five or eight. The least likely is 12 or two. Let’s say a batter hit only three home runs over 600 plate appearances. If he’s to hit a home run, a two or 12 would likely have to be thrown. However, if a batter hit 45 home runs, the home run sum would likely be three or four.
Strat-o-Matic also considers the fielders. If an outcome says “GB SS(X)”, the “x” means the play will unfold based on the shortstop’s fielding range and ability. Each infielder is rated on two fielding scales: range and errors. Range is ranked from one (best) to five. The probability a fielder will make an error is based on the number of errors he made that year.
Without explaining each rule, I’ll just mention everything that’s considered in a game of Strat-o-Matic baseball: an outfielder’s arm, a catcher’s arm, a pitcher’s ability to hold runners, a hitter’s hit-and-run and bunting ability, a baserunner’s speed, ability to get a good lead for a stolen base and stolen base chances, a pitcher’s likelihood to commit a balk or wild pitch as well as his endurance, a catcher’s throwing error rate as well as his passed ball ratio and a hitter’s clutch-hitting ability. Strat-o-Matic also takes into consideration the size of a ballpark and the likelihood for home runs and singles.
There’s also a 20-sided die involved for most plays, which makes it even more geeky. Just about every aspect of baseball is considered in Strat-o-Matic. You can purchase many season sets from the dead-ball era through the 2009 season. I own the 2004, 1966 (Koufax’s final year) and 1911 sets (Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson bat over .400). For the 2004 set I took the top five teams in the leagues and made them give up their two best players to the bottom five teams in the league for better parity. After dividing the teams into five divisions, I played out a small season of about 10 games apiece and had a playoff to determine the champ (Florida Marlins).
For the 1966 season I left the teams as they were and created an unbalanced schedule with two divisions. I wondered if I’d end up with a Baltimore vs. Los Angeles finals, but it played out differently. The Twins ended up defeating the Astros in the finals.
I’m a little over halfway through my 1911 season. The AL half is done with the Philadelphia Athletics easily taking the pennant (much like what really happened).
When I’m in the mood to play (usually in the fall and winter months), I’ll take in four or five games a week. Playing a game includes throwing at least three dice for every at bat and scoring the game. The depth of scoring is up to the player. I started simply keeping track of wins and losses for each team, but have progressed to keeping basic hitting and pitching stats. I keep hitting statistics for the first four or five batters in a lineup and all pitchers.
I work nights and don’t have kids, so I’m usually up until at least four a.m. What else am I going to do with my time in the middle of a Wisconsin winter after I’ve exercised, socialized with friends, watched a movie and read a book? I read somewhere that baseball broadcaster John Miller honed his play-by-play skills playing Strat as a kid.
It’s dorky, I know. But when I think of the time I’ve spent over the statistics and simulated play, I think of other people using that time to watch Two and Half Men or read James Patterson novels or watch the first three quarters of an NBA game. Then I realize that everyone wastes time in their life. If you’re going to waste time, it might as well be with something you’re passionate about and doesn’t involve dampening your eyesight or dropping your brain cell count.