MLB’s opening day is traditionally a time of optimism and excitement for baseball fans everywhere. Every team starts with a 0-0 record and – at least theoretically – has an equal opportunity to win the World Series.
But due to the coronavirus outbreak that has halted all live sports since March 12, there will be no opening day on Thursday in the major leagues. And each team will keep its 0-0 record for the foreseeable future until play resumes.
In an alternate universe, the games would go on as scheduled. Max Scherzer would be on the mound for the defending champion Washington Nationals and Gerrit Cole would be making his first start as a member of the New York Yankees.
Fortunately, there’s a way to see what’s happening in that alternate universe … thanks to the incredible realism of baseball simulation games.
The oldest and most popular of these is Strat-O-Matic, which was first produced in 1961 – before two-thirds of the current MLB managers were even born.
The baseball board game Strat-O-Matic was first produced in 1961. (Photo: Tim Dillon, USA TODAY Sports)
To help fill the void with no live baseball being played, Strat-O-Matic is offering a simulated version of the MLB schedule, at least until the real thing is back.
“We’re able to provide baseball in the background,” Strat-O-Matic research director John McDermott tells USA TODAY Sports. “We’re still able to bring baseball to people’s homes and people are able to enjoy the game that way."
The results of each day’s games – complete with box scores and standings – will be revealed at 2 p.m. ET on Strat-O-Matic’s website (strat-o-matic.com) and various social media platforms.
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So that Scherzer vs. Jacob deGrom pitching matchup we didn’t get to see in real life will come to life in a box score. Sort of like the days when people turned to (gasp!) newspapers to find out how their favorite teams did.
How does it work?
Strat-O-Matic and other baseball simulations use statistics from the previous season to create “cards” for each player on a roster. The team managers select the batting order and the starting pitcher. From there, a series of dice rolls and calculations determines the outcome of each at-bat.
Strat-O, as it’s known to longtime players, first gained its immense popularity as a board game. The company has since expanded to a downloadable Windows version and one that’s played online. A few years ago, it introduced Baseball Daily – a new iteration that combined the player cards from the previous season with statistics from the real season being played at the same time.
“What we decided when we created Baseball Daily was let’s have the opportunity to be current in any season and have the ability for our consumers to be able to download a current data feed every day during the baseball season,” says Adam Richman, son of founder Hal Richman and a second-generation owner of the company.
A typical game between two opponents can take an hour to play, less depending on experience. Online, the time can be cut to around 30 minutes. A computer simulation takes only seconds.
That’s the version which will spit out the results of every simulated game on the MLB schedule as fans and media members provide input into the lineups and pitching rotations for each team.
“We’re taking injuries into account too,” McDermott says. That means no Chris Sale for the Red Sox. And Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees is likely to begin the regular season on the injured list. “We just have to use the latest reports that we have at the time. We’ll use the latest news reports and best judgments on projected return dates. We can’t be exact but we’ll try.”
Playing at home
Sports simulations have proven to be a popular way for fans to fill the absence of live sporting events.
“People want their sports fix,” Richman says. “Not only baseball, but there’s no basketball, there’s no hockey.” Strat-O-Matic also has games for those sports, as well as football, but baseball has always made up the lion’s share of its sales.
“Last year was our biggest year ever and this year will be much much bigger,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for us. We just are sorry that it’s happening in the midst of all this chaos.”
Another player in the sports sim world is Dynasty League Baseball. Like Strat-O-Matic, it began as a board game (originally called Pursue the Pennant) and has evolved into a more sophisticated version that’s played with either cards and dice or via an online engine.
Since the sports world shut down two weeks ago, traffic at the Dynasty League Baseball site (DynastyLeagueBaseball.com) has tripled, owner and founder Mike Cieslinski tells USA TODAY Sports.
Part of that stems from a technical upgrade that has enabled game play on all Windows and Mac browsers. But the largest percentage comes from people just wanting to play the game.
Dynasty League Baseball has just announced a new option that allows its users to play an entire 2020 season with their favorite team, while the computer simulates all other games simultaneously.
“The new solitaire season league mode will be great for those missing opening day,” Cieslinski says. “They can have their own opening day right from home managing their favorite team in the 2020 opener.”
One major upgrade from other simulation games is that offseason transactions have already been processed, so Mookie Betts is now on the Los Angeles Dodgers roster and Anthony Rendon is on the Angels.
In addition, the most promising rookie from each MLB organization is part of that team’s roster as well. Using publicly available ZiPS projections instead of last year’s stats to create their player cards, fans and game players can get a sneak peek of what to expect from top prospects Luis Robert, MacKenzie Gore, Dylan Carlson and more.
Jim Schaefer, left, and John Halpern of Cleveland TV station WKYC play out a Strat-O-Matic version of All-Star Game under the watchful eye of "umpire" James Williams at Cleveland Stadium, July 14, 1981. (Photo: Anonymous, AP)
Comfort amid chaos
One attraction for game players is having a sense of control, especially at a time when things are decidedly out of control. Simulation games bring some of that back.
“We’ve done this in the past with the NBA lockout in 2011,” McDermott says, highlighting another occasion when sim games had to serve as a substitute for the real thing.
One of the seminal moments in Strat-O-Matic history also came as a result of a prolonged sporting hiatus – a moment that bears a striking resemblance to what’s going on in baseball right now.
When the MLB Players Association went on strike during the middle of the 1981 season, the All-Star Game had to be canceled. Obviously, that didn’t sit well with baseball fans.
Strat-O to the rescue.
“We actually recreated the All-Star Game with Strat-O-Matic,” Richman, who was 10 at the time, recalls. “We played it in (Cleveland Municipal) Stadium where the game was supposed to be played.”
A pair of Cleveland TV station employees served as managers. Sports Illustrated and UPI were among the national media outlets who sent reporters. Strat-O-Matic’s James Williams filled the role as “umpire” and the National League routed the American League 15-2.
“It was a magical moment for Strat,” Richman says in making a 39-year connection.
“This is providing a similar need in that we’re giving people back baseball.”
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