The Future of Baseball Gaming Simulations

This article was written by Gordon Gattie

This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)


The magnificent September sunset offered the perfect backdrop for the final game of a four-game series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals. A cool northerly wind blew. Autumn had arrived, and the postseason was rapidly approaching. Although that breeze provided a momentary chill, the battle on the diamond—along with the sold-out ballpark and deafening noise—provided more than enough heat to stay warm. Looking overhead, beyond the reach of the stadium’s light towers, the brightest stars in the sky were shining, just like the brightest stars in the ballpark below.

The Pirates and Nationals exchanged runs during the fourth inning of a classic pitchers’ duel. Both Satchel Paige and Walter Johnson pitched brilliantly; each starting pitcher limited his opponent to one run on five hits while allowing only three other runners to even reach scoring position. In the top of the ninth, Pittsburgh jumped ahead on a solo home run by Willie Stargell. The Nationals were now down, 2-1 with two outs and facing elimination from the pennant race with a loss. Joe Judge, Washington’s underrated first baseman, reached on a right-field double to start the inning. Hank Aaron, who earlier that afternoon had tied the game with a fourth-inning run-scoring single, walked on five pitches. With the tying run on second base and the winning run at first, Pittsburgh manager John McGraw walked to the mound to talk with his ace. “Throw it low and outside,” demanded McGraw. “You know he can’t hit anything outside the strike zone, not even if it’s water and he just fell out of a boat.” Paige barely acknowledged McGraw’s comments, though he chuckled and suggested he throw his famous “whipsy-dipsy-do” instead.

As the noise levels at Nationals Park increased, Paige’s smile widened. He heard the cheers coming from his own dugout, and the jeers coming from the crowd. The scoreboard was playing some walk-up music he had never heard before, though he thought he recognized the artist. He watched Lou Gehrig, his first baseman, and Judy Johnson, his third baseman, inch closer to their respective foul lines to cut off any potential extra-base hits down the line. He heard center fielder Larry Doby suggest the next batter receive Paige’s “Midnight Express” since nobody could hit that pitch. Everyone in the dugout was standing on the top step. The crowd was waving rally towels, yet Paige was cool as a cucumber on the mound. As McGraw reached the visitor’s dugout, he glanced at the batter standing in the on-deck circle.

That batter is you.

Aaron encourages you from first base as he walks off the bag. Opposing catcher Mickey Cochrane wakes you from your trance, shakes his head as you dig in, and mutters, “Yeah…good luck, kid. You haven’t exactly hit ol’ Satch too well tonight.” Staring at you 60 feet and six inches away is Satchel Paige, with his determined yet calm demeanor. So far today, you’ve struck out twice and grounded out to third base against the legendary hurler. The season rests on your shoulders. Feet now planted and bat gripped loosely, you watch Paige’s unusual wind-up, determine he’s throwing you his famous hesitation pitch, and manage to make decent contact. Your eyes follow the ball’s trajectory into center field, but you lose sight of the sphere as you sprint toward first base.

* * *

Since baseball stars first emerged, fans have dreamt about exciting potential pitcher-batter matchups and asked, “What if this batter faced this pitcher in this situation?” As baseball continues building its long and storied history, the question isn’t just about contemporary matchups. Baseball fans wonder about the outcome of batter-pitcher matchups when the players are from different eras, geographical locations, and leagues. Those matchups aren’t limited to pitcher-batter matchups, but include team-versus-team contests such as playing a single game—or even World Series—between the 1927 New York Yankees and the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. What about dynasty-versus-dynasty, like the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords facing the 1970s Oakland Athletics if they’d been in the same league over multiple seasons?

During the early years of baseball history, matchups like these mostly existed as thought experiments. Before widespread communication through radio and television, only those fans lucky enough to catch a barnstorming team of stars during the offseason or an exhibition game could have seen such unorthodox matchups. Those thought experiments eventually gave rise to games fans could play at home. In the midtwentieth century, combining baseball statistics with tabletop gaming brought us some of the earliest simulation games, as Strat-O-Matic baseball and APBA arrived on the scene. In the 1980s, we saw the rise of “rotisserie league” fantasy baseball and variations. Putting baseball on video game platforms soon followed, and in today’s world, baseball fans have several ways to create simulated historical pitcher-batter confrontations such as Walter Johnson versus Josh Gibson or Sandy Koufax versus Babe Ruth. Those simulations aren’t limited to a specific matchup or a single game; fantasy baseball simulation enthusiasts will create an entire season, and even entire careers, for their fantasy teams and players.

Some fans immerse themselves in the role of a general manager, playing from a strategic level, building one’s own team through drafting and trading, using either historical, present-day, or fictitious players depending on the league/playing system. Some gameplay allows fans to manage their simulated baseball teams as a field manager, setting lineups and pitching rotations, and making numerous in-game decisions such as player substitutions, stolen base attempts, or fielding shifts. Other fans play first-person games at a tactical level, where they become the pitcher or batter, and playing the game as a ballplayer is the focus.

 

In the future of baseball gaming simulations, you’ll be able to insert yourself into the lineup of the Big Red Machine. (VOLODYMYR MELNYK / DREAMSTIME.COM)

In the future of baseball gaming simulations, you’ll be able to insert yourself into the lineup of the Big Red Machine. (VOLODYMYR MELNYK / DREAMSTIME.COM)

 

Now imagine a game that combined the best of all worlds by using technology. The ideal baseball game would combine all three approaches, allowing you to play an entire season starting with using qualitative and quantitative player assessments to build a roster before the season begins, setting your team’s starting lineup during the season based on the roster you’ve built, and then inserting yourself playing shortstop and hitting third in the lineup. The stats you generate by playing the game will be part of the daily box score and contribute to the overall season statistics. And to play the games, you’ll immerse yourself in an environment using virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), pitting yourself and your team against simulated historical, present-day, or fictious players.

VR creates an artificial environment with a computer where a user’s actions may influence events in that environment. In 2021 to enter a virtual reality, users wear headgear and control an input device (e.g., joystick), and the action is contained entirely within a computer. The artificial model is only as realistic as the physics equations underlying the simulation and the field of view provided to the user. For example, depending on computer processing power, environmental details in one’s periphery may be sharply detailed or relatively fuzzy, or certain lesser details may not be added in an artificial environment (e.g., uniform details, subtle differences in the color of infield dirt on the basepaths).

AR, by contrast, creates an enhanced version of reality that uses technology to project additional information onto a natural or artificial environment. An example of mixed reality, AR falls between the real word and the virtual world. With AR, users view both the natural and artificial environment through a phone/mobile device, computer display, or headgear similar to virtual reality applications, and can use real physical objects. AR projects images in a fixed and limited area in front of one’s field of view. So your baseball opponents, instead of being represented as baseball cards or static images on a desktop or laptop computer screen,would appear more life-like, looking and behaving similar to their real-life counterparts. From this perspective, you could play a virtual game while interacting in the physical world. Envision a real pitching machine overlaid with an image of Bullet Rogan; the pitching machine and ball would be physical, and Rogan’s delivery would be displayed virtually, so the hitter “sees” a simulated Rogan windup delivering an actual physical pitch. The day is coming when you’ll be able to swing a real bat at a real ball and hit a double down the line of your virtual stadium. But that’s not all.

Immersive realism will come through improved physics models—capturing ball bounces through an infield or light changes as a fly ball travels into the outfield, background noises such as spikes pawing the dirt or uniform ruffling caused by slight movements, and other ballpark details. As processing power continues to expand, why not use the ability to create immersive spaces to expand what aspects of the game are included? Most baseball simulation games, whether of the tabletop or first-person player variety, focus naturally on the pitcher-batter confrontation. However, there are additional, often overlooked aspects of the game that would benefit from realistic simulation: fielding, baserunning, and umpiring.

For many years, fielding was an underemphasized part of baseball simulations, but as our understanding of fielding effectiveness grows, so should our ability to simulate it. Baseball analysts now rely on much more than counting stats (e.g., putouts, assists, and errors), generating metrics such as Defensive Runs Saved, Zone Ratings, and catch probabilities. The enthusiasm for measuring fielding greatness has not yet translated into simulations of baseball’s greatest fielders, but it will. MLB and other sports are building 3D modeling of player movement that can be extrapolated from 2D video input. How long will it be before MLB’s three million historical videos in the MLB Film Room archive are processed into the data for simulations? When that happens, for those who want to play alongside the 1980s Detroit Tigers Lou Whitaker or Alan Trammell, or the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson or Pee Wee Reese, virtual simulations will offer an opportunity to turn double plays with some of the best infields in baseball history. One could compare the footwork around second base between Joe Morgan and Willie Randolph, or evaluate if one could effectively play as part of the 1970s Los Angeles Dodgers infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey. (And for those players we don’t have footage of, like many of the Negro Leagues greats or players from before the film era, for gameplay purposes we will use statistical modeling to approximate as best we can.)

A virtual simulation could also recreate a given game scenario, so one doesn’t need to wait for the rare opportunity in a game to make a highlight-reel catch or turn a 6-4-3 double play. One could attempt to make over-the-fence acrobatic catches to rob home runs, like Willie Mays, Doris Sams, and Ken Griffey Jr., did throughout their storied careers.

Picture taking infield practice using AR with the 1970s Dodgers infield. With the appropriate technology and some space in the physical world, watch and listen to a virtual Tommy Lasorda hitting ground balls and creating game situations during practice sessions. Put on your real baseball mitt and step into virtual Davey Lopes’s cleats at second base, with a virtual Garvey on your left, Russell to your immediate right, and Cey in your periphery at third. The virtual Lasorda calls out the game situation: bottom of the seventh, one out, runners on the corners. “He” hits a grounder to you, and a sharply hit ball comes straight at you; do you field the grounder and turn right to attempt a double play, or turn left and ensure at least one out?

Next, take outfield practice using AR from famed fungo hitter Jimmie Reese in the deep part of center field in the Polo Grounds. One could notably improve catching skills when the ball is hit consistently, but the surrounding environmental conditions (e.g., light source and shadows, wind velocity, wind direction) change. VR/AR can simulate weather conditions. Whether the sun is shining brightly in Florida, or a cool wind is blowing across Wrigley Field from Lake Michigan, or a steady New England rain is falling in Fenway, given atmospheric characteristics (e.g., temperature, air density, cloud coverage) will cause a batted ball to fly differently or challenge a catcher to successfully catch a relay from center field and apply a tag to an incoming runner. Playing as an outfielder, one could learn how to quickly judge the ball’s trajectory in different conditions and adjust accordingly without having to get rained on in real life.

Baserunning is another oversimplified aspect of baseball simulations that has yet to be effectively translated into simulations using AR. Tabletop games and computer simulations may assign a specific player a speed rating, stolen base attempt success probability, or ability to reach third from first on a single to right field, but having the ability to attempt stealing against great pitchers and catchers hasn’t happened yet. Suppose you’re taking a lead off first base against Steve Carlton, who is throwing to Dottie Green behind the plate. You’re looking for an opening to steal second base off this historic pair. How far is your lead off first? Can you successfully anticipate when Carlton will throw home instead of attempting to pick you off first base? If you read Carlton right and get a good jump off first, do you have the quickness and speed to beat Green’s throw to second base?

Using either VR or AR, that entire steal attempt can be completed virtually. As a virtual Carlton starts his windup, you take off for second, with your virtual representation (your “avatar”) running down the basepath. Here comes the throw: You need to decide if you’ll slide feet-first, head-first, or attempt to elude the virtual second baseman’s tag with a hook slide. In a video game you’d just hit a button to make the choice and wait to see the outcome, but in an AR scenario, biomechanical markers and sensors could determine your speed and your sliding position. Whether the ball is real or virtual would depend on the game’s setup. In multi-player mode, maybe a real second baseman could even attempt to catch the throw and apply the tag.

Video games today often try to incorporate real world differences between ballparks right down to the billboards in the outfield. Ballpark differences will be captured in future baseball simulations as well. A similarly-hit ball in Miami, Philadelphia, and Denver could play differently depending on the field dimensions, weather, and park factor. How does the size of the foul territory at Dodger Stadium compare with Guaranteed Rate Field and impact one’s ability to catch a foul ball? Certain local weather conditions notably impact ballgames. You could attempt to catch fly balls in the swirling winds of Wrigley Field, field groundballs on Three Rivers Stadium’s artificial turf, or roam the Polo Grounds vast center field on a warm July afternoon.

Umpires have been chronically underappreciated throughout baseball’s history, and now movements are afoot to replace human umpires with robotic umpires—or at least to provide them with technological assistance-based on the perceived ability of current technology to provide more accurate calls compared with human umpires. Another potential AR/VR application could put you in the role of home plate ump to see how accurately you can call balls and strikes, and make the correct calls on the field. Perhaps these virtual simulations could build empathy for the roles umpires play in the game, as well as provide a tool for umpires to gain extensive experience in evaluating whether a ball has crossed the three-dimensional strike zone—not just the plane at the front of home plate—from different angles and under different lighting conditions. In addition to fielders and baserunners creating specific game situations, umpires could recreate game scenarios to determine if different calls should have been made or different rules invoked. Because of course any sophisticated AR game simulation will have applications in training and practice as well as entertainment.

* * *

… As you cross first base and look toward the warning track in center field, you watch your fly ball land softly in Oscar Charleston’s glove. Charleston runs toward the infield with hands raised high above his head to excitedly celebrate with his winning teammates. You watch Cochrane race toward Paige and congratulate him on another fine performance. Among the deafening silence of the stunned Nationals Park fans, you begrudgingly turn toward the dugout, knowing the game, and your season, just ended. Your teammates stare blankly ahead, and nobody utters a word as you toss your helmet aside. There’s no music blasting from the scoreboard. The sky even seems to grow darker when you look up.

As you review your season, where will you make changes so you’re on the winning side next time? From a general manager’s perspective, will you draft different players or make trades you hadn’t considered before? From a field manager’s perspective, will you change your lineup, perhaps dropping yourself down in the lineup? From a player’s perspective, will you take more batting practice against a simulated Satchel Paige to improve your timing?

Future simulations will allow everyone from fantasy owners to aspiring general managers to fans the ability to play against or watch their favorite historical, present, or even fictitious players and experience different aspects of baseball more than ever. 

GORDON J. GATTIE is a lifelong baseball fan and SABR member since 1998. A civilian US Navy engineer, his baseball research interests include ballparks, historical trends, and statistical analysis. Gordon earned his PhD from SUNY Buffalo, where he used baseball to investigate judgment performance in complex dynamic environments. Ever the optimist, he dreams of a Cleveland Indians World Series championship. Lisa, his wonderful wife who roots for the New York Yankees, and Morrigan, their beloved Labrador Retriever, enjoy traveling across the country visiting ballparks and other baseball-related sites. Gordon has contributed to several SABR publications, including multiple issues of The National Pastime and the Games Project.

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