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March 8, 2012

Painting the Black

The Show Review

by R.J. Anderson

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MLB 12: The Show aspires to be an interactive baseball broadcast—it says so on the box. Ergo, the developers designed the game to be a made-for-television event made for Playstation.

The baseball-broadcasting staples are present. Close-ups focusing on the pitcher or hitter’s face depend on the result of the previous pitch. Should Roy Halladay struggle to throw strikes then the simulation is a poor one, but your unreal Halladay will fidget with the baseball or wipe his brow in between offerings. Walk the leadoff hitter in a tight spot and Charlie Manuel will appear troubled. Have Shane Victorino gun down a runner and you might see him flex afterward; similarly, expect Placido Polanco to glare at his glove after committing an error. Emotional response from the actors is a key piece of a baseball broadcast. The Show understands and employs this as well as any game has before.

Mimicking a real-world graphic package is another aspect that The Show gets right. A PITCHf/x-inspired overlay follows each pitcher, displaying the pitch’s location, speed, and type, as well as pertinent game-only information—like the swing or release timing. Replays hone in on pitch sequencing, questionable umpiring, and key moments—State Farm sponsors one such replay in an act of shameless product placement designed to get you to get a better State.  

There are audio clues of a legitimate broadcast as well. Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell, and Eric Karros form the announcing crew. The result is mostly talk about the on-field action, but the game immerses players in seemingly real conversations at times. Playing against the Royals might spark Vasgersian to ask what the Royals have to do to take the next step while referencing—in his words—“a much ballyhooed farm system.” Karros returns serve and suggests the Royals’ hopes depend on how well they can pitch, and  Campbell surveys the rest of the American League Central, suggesting that the Royals have a chance—not a great one, but a chance nonetheless.

Some conversations are ripped from the headlines—like the talk about Theo Epstein (albeit without naming Epstein) during Cubs games—while others are more esoteric. Play with or against the Marlins and you may hear Vasgersian reference Mike Stanton’s number of “no-doubt” home runs from last season in a shrewd and realistic reference to Hit Tracker Online’s data.

Readers of this site undoubtedly have some interest in the statistics The Show offers. Many of the stats are of the rudimentary level because this is a game tailored after a real broadcast and meant to appeal to the hoi polloi. The game will alert the player that Chase Utley is 5-for-22 lifetime against Jair Jurrjens during select at-bats. Imagine how useless that information is, given what we know about the meaning of those numbers in real life.

Not everything in The Show revolves around game presentation—just most of it. There are still modes that allow you to guide a virtual player from Double-A to the majors, and you can still take control of a franchise and deal with all the minutia in a general manager-team president role. The game tends to leave sabermetrics fans without their favorite tools of the trade, presenting a dilemma when attempting to assemble a virtual team. In-game statistical analysis used to literally go as far as the numbers on the back of a baseball card—this is how previous incarnations of the game displayed player statistics—meaning the only strategy involved in choosing between two players boiled down to their game-produced rating and salary demands.

But fear no more, because there are advanced statistics built into the player cards this season. No, you will not find True Average or Wins Above Replacement Player on the cards. You will, however, find Bill James and Voros McCracken-created metrics like Component Earned Run Average and Defense Independent Pitching. Even Range Factor and linear weights make appearances. All told, about a dozen advanced metrics are involved, with hitters receiving more tools of exposure than pitchers. The game does not offer definitions or accompanying scales (luckily, there are online guides to these statistics), which raises the question: What’s the point of the advanced stats being included?

In Swing Your Sword, Bruce Feldman reveals Mike Leach’s motto toward practices and meetings: the acronym KILL—Keep It Likable and Learnable. It is unclear if The Show intends to educate people about the advanced metrics, but the metrics presented here are neither likable nor easily learnable. The Show’s developers included an in-game manual to all the arcane transactions rules they added in recent editions, but did not appear to do the same with these new metrics. If that weren’t enough, many of the metrics border on archaic. How much value is a gamer gaining by learning about and using metrics that expired 10-15 years ago? (Insert your joke about batting average here.)

Ideally, The Show will update the metrics offered in future editions, even if they are just throwing a bone to the sabermetrics fans in the crowd. Logistics issues might prevent a stat like WARP or TAv from making an appearance, but nothing stops the developers from employing an ersatz version of those metrics. Besides, the advanced metrics represent a previously untapped portion of the game’s depth.  In the aforementioned franchise mode, players can hire and fire scouts and coaches in order to receive boosts in player performance and development. There are no baseball operations or baseball research departments present. You cannot hire or fire quantitative analysts (or director of decision sciences). But maybe you should be able to, and maybe the quality and timeliness of your available metrics should depend on the caliber of your baseball operations staff.

That brings up a final point about The Show including advanced metrics: How much do these metrics help in the game-playing experience? Owen Good asked tough questions about how realistic these games want to be and came away with the knowledge that the developers did not adjust for parks as recently as two years ago. Considering the ballpark is a basic sabermetrics principle, one wonders just how much attention these advanced metrics should receive when building a virtual team. Does the game favor those willing to use their noggins to look for potential numerical steals, or is building a lineup akin to the 2010 Royals, more prone to success than a lineup mimicking the Moneyball-era A’s? Following sabermetric principles is nothing more than a masturbatory act if there are no expected differences between those two lineups.

Building a game marketable to the hardcore and casual baseball fan alike is no easy task. Finding the equilibrium between a realistic play and one that allows a gamer to invoke his or her inner Delmon Young at the plate without damming them to a Delmon Young-like career is vital. Those familiar with The Show know that the game is enjoyable with or without advanced statistics. In that sense, the developers did deliver a product comparable to a baseball broadcast.

Note: For those interested in the gameplay aspects and improvements, check out Steve Berthiaume’s review

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Mlb 12,  Mlb 2012,  The Show 2012,  Mlb The Show,  Video Game,  Review

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