Baseball is more than just the game played on the field. It can also be the game played on the virtual field. So, Baseball Prospectus is going to write about, review, discuss, whatever the many, many baseball video games released in the last half-century that the genre has even existed.
Strat-O-Matic for PC
Developer: Strat-O-Matic, LLC
Publisher: Strat-O-Matic, LLC
Genre: Dice-based Baseball Simulator
Release Year: 1961 as a board game, 1989 on the computer (updated annually)
Current Availability: Current edition can be downloaded for $47 with available add-ons
Why This Game? When I was a kid, I bought a Vanilla Ice album on cassette. I hated it. I thought I needed it because that’s what everyone else in my school was listening to at the time and I was embarrassed that I loved The Beach Boys and doo-wop music. By now, I’ve learned that retro things can be lots of fun and nerdy stuff is almost always better than whatever seems cool. Besides, if anyone knows what real “cool” is, it’s me—a 39-year-old dad who still owns jorts.
The history of the sabermetrics movement itself owes a great deal to Strat-O-Matic. In fact, some of the founders of Baseball Prospectus first bonded over the game. Hal Richman invented the dice-based board game in 1961 and, instead of using conventional statistics like RBI and ERA, matched player cards to their actual outcomes. For example, if Mickey Mantle walked in 17.1 percent of his plate appearances and hit a double in 2.6 percent of them, that’s what his Strat card strived to recreate with dice rolls. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to break baseball down more granularly, and it’s a formula the company still uses today to create modern player cards as well as retro seasons, Negro Leagues sets, and Hall of Fame cards. They continue to release a new version each spring based on the previous year’s player stats on both PC and actual printed cards. Given that this is Video Game Week, we’ll focus primarily on the software version.
There are three main reasons to play Strat-O-Matic on PC. Software quality is definitely NOT one of them.
- Interactive leagues. Personally, the appeal for me is playing in competitive leagues. These usually range in size from 16-24 players, each of whom serves as general manager of their team. Rules vary from league to league and may include things like free agency, salary caps, different types of player drafts, trade deadlines, and other nuances. Participants play games against each other directly over NetPlay or send computer manager files for everyone to sim on their own time. The most fun aspect of these leagues isn’t really the gameplay. It’s the trade negotiations with other players, draft prep, and occasional trash talk, much of which focuses on role players more than stars. One of my leagues has an ongoing joke about someone who traded away Luis Guillorme too early. It forces you to dig deep into middle relievers and backup outfielders who can have a significant impact on your team—much more than is possible in 5X5 category fantasy baseball.
- Retro simulation. In addition to modern player sets, Strat releases at least one retro set each year. Currently available on their website, you can download and play the 1947 MLB, 1986 MLB, 1932 Negro Leagues, and other seasons. There are retro leagues as well, which typically start in a given year and replay it all the way through to the present with teams drafting “rookies” who debuted each year. Here’s one retro league which recently drafted players from 1958. (If your Strat league isn’t using Stratdraft, you’re missing out.)
That draft lasted 18 rounds! For some reason, I’m told most normal people don’t get excited about drafting the 1958 Senators’ backup catcher, but most of the best things in life are niche entertainment anyway.
- Nostalgia. Given that Strat has existed for more than 60 years, several generations have grown up playing it, especially with dice and cards. Rediscovering the things we enjoyed as kids is always a good time. For many people, Strat is the baseball version of drinking a Yoo-hoo or playing Oregon Trail. Actually, Oregon Trail might have better graphics.
How Does It Play? Reveling in history is a substantial part of the Strat-O-Matic experience, and when you’re playing the PC version, it feels like you’re running Windows 95. (The game is not available on Mac or any other operating system.) Even the font reeks of the mid-90s.
The dropdown menus aren’t intuitive and have a steep learning curve. There are buttons like “Update Computer Manager” and “Schedule Batch Change.” If you’re brand new to playing the game, you probably have no idea what they mean, but they might actually be really important. There are others like “Insert Balance Rating,” which I’ve never clicked on in more than ten years of playing the game because I’m terrified I might ruin something. The same goes for those Paleozoic-Era icons below the toolbar. I’ve never touched them because I think my computer might laugh at me. If you join a league for the first time, you need a friend to explain which things to click on so you can actually participate without driving the other players crazy.
Once you figure out how to get a game started, it does have real pictures of stadiums as a backdrop. Instead of images of the players, you just see their names and ratings, which again have a bit of a learning curve to understand what they mean. Defensively, each player’s range is rated on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. There are also ratings for how many errors they’re likely to commit over a 162-game season and arm ratings for catchers and outfielders. It’s somewhat complex, but if you’re playing Strat in the first place, simplicity isn’t the point.
The game is played by “rolling the dice,” (read: clicking on the dice picture on the top right). Each batter and pitcher has two sets of dice outcomes, one if their opponent is right-handed and the other if they’re a lefty. If the white die is a 1, 2, or 3, the outcome is determined by the batter’s card. If it’s a 4, 5, or 6, you look at the pitcher’s. The digital dice outcome cards cost an additional $20 and look like this:
If you ever played Strat with physical cards and dice, this will look familiar to you. The two red dice determine the outcome of the plate appearance. For example, let’s say Manny Machado is facing a right-handed pitcher, and the white die lands on 2 with the red dice totaling 9. The “9” in the “2” column against a righty is a popup to the second baseman.
Is your head spinning? Does it seem needlessly complex? Does it look like the graphics would get a C- in a 9th-grade computer programming course? Strat isn’t built to keep up with modern baseball sims like MLB: The Show or Out of the Park because that was never the intent. The best parts of the experience are the league maneuverings like trades and drafts which happen outside of the actual game. The software is designed just to remain constant for people who have been playing it a certain way for decades. It’s not pretty, but it works.
What This Game Does Better Than The Rest: I first joined a Strat-O-Matic league in 2012. When it was my turn to pick in the first round of our rookie draft, I was torn between two players: Anthony Rizzo and Jemile Weeks. Fortunately, I chose Rizzo and he’s still my starting first baseman to this day. The connection to history and the long-reaching impact of each decision in league play is what gives the game such unsurpassed staying power.
Even the moves with less oomph than the Rizzo/Weeks draft decision illustrate the depth of the game. One team in my league recently traded Yoshi Tsutsugo for a late-round pick in next year’s rookie draft. To be clear, Strat generally mirrors real life so Tsutsugo is absolutely not good. There isn’t some weird quirk that bizarrely inflates his value. The fact that anyone would want him enough to acquire him in a midseason trade shows how far Strat players have to plumb MLB rosters. For better or worse, that’s hard to match on any other baseball sim.
Using dice to determine outcomes of plate appearances was innovative for several decades, but given that we run PECOTA, like, a bajillion times before each season to simulate MLB, that’s no longer true. However, the care and effort that the makers of Strat put into developing player cards keep the game realistic, and there’s still something magnetic about rolling dice, even digitally. Another baseball sim game might just say “single,” but Strat shows you the batter hit a single because you rolled a 3-8.
Industry Impact: Massive for Strat-O-Matic writ large, minimal for the PC version. Strat-O-Matic was the original baseball simulator, the original fantasy game, and the original impetus for “think-outside-the-box” baseball analysis. It’s the Sputnik of baseball. In The Numbers Game by Alan Schwartz, a study showed that half of all baseball executives polled in 2002 learned the game by playing Strat.
That likely is no longer true because the computer version of Strat declined to keep up with the times. This was a conscious choice to placate loyal devotees, but the upshot is that the game no longer has gravitas for most baseball fans under 40. As such, the PC game was left in the dust a long time ago.
Fungo: Holy smokes, Jemile Weeks was soooo bad! What the hell was I thinking? I dodged a bullet there. For the record, my next pick in that draft was Trayvon Robinson, who I selected just ahead of Brandon Crawford, Kyle Seager, and Lance Lynn. Anyway, what was I talking about? If you’re looking for years of torment and regret that keep you awake at night, silently cursing 2012 Brandon Crawford, this is a fantastic game.
A few months ago, I tried to NetPlay an opponent. It took us 45 minutes to get both of our computers online and connected over Strat’s software. In 2022. Meanwhile, my 11-year-old son is sitting next to me playing Roblox online with his friend from down the street and seven random people from California, China, Australia, and South America. Technology!
Wins Above Replacement: 0.4. That’s the same WARP that Albert Pujols has in 2022. Like Pujols, Strat-O-Matic was once a revelation that dominated the industry for years. Now, it’s older and slower than its competition and certainly isn’t pretty, but it’s still a lot of fun in the right setting and belongs in the Hall of Fame. Just as you wouldn’t want Pujols playing shortstop, Strat will never again be the go-to game for baseball fans, but if it just so happens to hit your geeky sweet spots, it remains a fantastic hobby.
Thank you for reading
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