Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Learned About Sabermetrics Playing Strat-O-Matic

I began playing Strat-O-Matic in the late '70s. My next-door neighbor and I started with the football board, dice and cards game, but quickly added Strat-O-Matic Baseball to our arsenal. We even dabbled with Strat-O-Matic Basketball a bit, but it didn't take long to realize it was a little boring.

Strat-O-Matic Football was fun, but baseball was definitely where it was at. Not because it involved a great deal of strategy—other than setting lineups and making pitching changes, it's mostly about the luck of the dice—but because baseball is, and has always been, about statistics.

The statistics some of emphasize have changed over the years, but they've always been a huge part of any serious fan's enjoyment of the game. Obviously, the kind of kid who got into a game like Strat-O-Matic was also the type who didn't mind digging into the numbers in an attempt to determine who was worthy of playing time and who wasn't.

It didn't take long for us to start figuring out the probabilities of each roll of the dice. It's pretty simple math, really. By determining, when rolling two dice, there are six possible ways to roll a seven, five ways to roll a six and eight, four for a five and nine, etc., we were able to determine the percentage chances of each outcome.

Eventually, my standard practice became to write each batter's total hit chances, on-base chances and home run chances versus both right-handed and left-handed pitchers directly on the card. Of course, I similarly evaluated each pitcher against each type of batter. I did this all in pencil, of course, which seemed like a good idea in theory. But, as you can probably imagine, eventually those numbers gave way to smudge marks.

Still, writing those numbers on the cards, and realizing a player with 54 on-base chances has only a 50% chance of making an out if the roll refers to his card* influenced me to emphasize on-base percentage and power. For some reason, when you're the one rolling the dice for each play, the value of avoiding outs becomes more obvious than usual. And, of course, what's better than a home run? Right, a home run with runners on base.

*When rolling two dice, there are 36 different potential rolls (6 times 6). A third die is also rolled, which determines which of six colums to refer to. 1-3 are on the batter's card, 4-6 on the pitcher's card. Remember how I said there were six possible ways to roll a seven? That would count as six total chances. 36 chances per column times three columns on the player's card equals 108. Now, of course, you see that 54 is exactly half of 108.

So, long before I had ever heard of Bill James, it was Strat-O-Matic Baseball that introduced me to the world of advanced statistics. Sort of. OK, not really advanced statistics, but we all know OBP was essentially the gateway to OPS+, wOBA, WAR and some even more advance sabermetric statistics.

After my initial purchase of the most current set of cards that came with the game, I developed an interest in the old-timers sets. I'm not sure why, except I'm pretty sure it was less jarring to my sensibilities to make what sometimes seemed like unorthodox personnel decisions with players I wasn't all that familiar with.

1956 was one of the first old-timers sets available, and when I bought it I had no idea how interested in some of those older players I would become. OK, well I will admit one of the catalysts for said interest involved a lot of drinking while in college.

I'll explain. One of my college roommates and I played a 162-game series between the '56 Reds and '56 Tigers, which we called the Busch Drinking Series.** Yeah, I know 162 is an even number, so in reality it was a 163-game series, since if it ended in a tie, we would have had to play the extra game. But, we wanted it to be the equivalent of a full season of games, although I'm not really sure why we played 162 instead of 154.

**The Busch Drinking Series, I would be embarrassed to admit if I wasn't in college at the time, was named after the 16 oz. cans of Budweiser's cheaper—but not necessarily inferior—cousin we drank while playing a drinking game which revolved around the "on-field" outcomes.

The defensive manager drank a sip of beer for each total base (one for single, two for double, etc.), walk, HBP, stolen base and run scored by the offensive team. I think he even had to drink when his team committed an error. The offensive manager drank once for each out his team made. Some simple math will tell you a grand slam meant eight sips, or about half of a 16 oz. beer. Needless to say, the drinks added up, especially considering we chose two strong offensive teams with mediocre
at bestpitching, and it was kind of an unwritten rule you never started a player for his defense if it meant sacrificing offense in the process.

What does the drinking series have to do with sabermetrics? Not much, really. But, a couple of those '56 Tigers players—the team I managed to a somewhat dubious 76-86 record—were among the prime examples of hitters who seemed much better to me than I would have otherwise thought.

Earl Torgeson was a .264 hitter with above average power, above average speed, and average defensive skills at first base. Not much to write home about, right? Except for the fact he walked 78 times in exactly 400 plate appearances, for a .406 OBP. Despite the fact he wasn't a base-stealer, he instantly screamed leadoff hitter to me.

Now, I must admit I don't necessarily deserve a lot of credit for looking past his lack of base-stealing ability to make him my leadoff hitter. Harvey Kuenn led the team with a grand total of nine stolen bases. But, Kuenn's .332 batting average better fit the bill—by the standards of those days—despite the fact his .387 OBP was almost 20 points lower, so in real life, he batted primarily at the top of the order.

Torgeson was a platoon player, but when he played, he mostly hit second. Since he had only one sacrifice hit that year, this probably means Detroit had the right idea with the way he was used. He simply was another guy at the top of the order who had the ability to get on base in front of Charlie Maxwell, Al Kaline and Ray Boone. But, I still thought it would make more sense to swap the two in the order, to have the higher OBP guy batting in front of the better run producer (Kuenn out-slugged Torgeson .470 to .425).

Another player on that team whose ability to draw a walk enhanced my desire to over-use him, somewhat unrealistically, was a catcher named Bob "Red" Wilson. Also a platoon player in real life, Wilson got the bulk of his playing time versus left-handed pitching, with Frank House being the other half of the platoon.

Wilson hit .289 with a .393 OBP and a .452 slugging percentage in 1956, and he was equally as good vs. RHP as he was vs. LHP. Of course, the batting average and slugging percentage only hint of a pretty good offensive player, but it was the OBP that made him stand out. So, despite the fact he wasn't quite as good as House defensively, he was an easy choice as my full-time backstop.

I guess the point of this all is to say playing Strat-O-Matic taught me to appreciate players who I might not have otherwise thought very highly of. Sure, I learned "a walk's as good as a hit" back when I was an eight-year old playing organized baseball for the first time. But, somehow those words never rang true. Even at such a young age, I knew, in most cases, a hit was actually better than a walk. As I got a little older, I realized those adults who were saying that really just thought of a walk as a consolation prize for kids who had difficulty reaching base otherwise.

What most of those adults probably never realized was they were making a case for why the ability to draw a walk is such an under-appreciated skill. Of course, when the pitchers are so young, we're probably talking more about their lack of ability than the batter's eye for the strike zone.

But, what I didn't realize was so important until playing Strat-O-Matic taught it to me many years later, is a walk accomplishes two really important things: it puts a runner on base—with the exception of a home run, a runner has to reach base before he can score—and it avoids an out (you only get a finite number of those).

It's a pretty simple concept, really. And, let's not let our judgment be clouded by what we've always thought to be true, the ability to draw a walk at competitive levels is a skill, perhaps even a talent. Dare I say, but maybe—in the discussion of what's often referred to as the five tools of a ballplayer—it's about time the ability to hit for average be replaced by the ability to get on base.

Anyway, what reminded me of this is that I recently signed on to "absentee-manage" the '58 Tigers in Jeff Polman's Mysteryball '58 Strat-O-Matic replay and murder mystery blog. Unfortunately, Torgeson has since been traded to the White Sox, but Wilson, Kuenn, Maxwell, Kaline and Boone—for a couple months, at least—remain. Still, it's a much weaker offensive team than the '56 version, partly because Maxwell is a shell of his former self, Boone's now a platoon first-baseman rather than a third-baseman (and on his way out), and Kuenn's offensive contributions come from center field instead of shortstop.

But, my excitement about this particular project, while it initially had to do with my minor involvement in it, is now more a product of my interest in the tale that Jeff will be telling via new entries to the blog three times a week. Let's just say he had me at "Tough to make out a dead body when it’s covered in peanut shells and Royal Crown Cola," the opening line to the story's first entry, "Unsafe at Home."

Only three posts have been written so far, so there's not much catching up to do if you're a fan of baseball murder mysteries, or if that concept intrigues you as much as it does me. I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed. Just don't get your hopes up for my Tigers.


  1. It's almost as if "Moneyball" was invented during a Strat-O-Matic drinking game. Great post, and props for the creativity shown in the Busch leagues.

  2. Thanks Dan. I guess I missed the boat on the credit I should have received for advancing statistical analysis, because I was drunk.

  3. I too believe I learned about Sabermetrics playing Strat years ago. Despite a losing record, I was always convinced the 1978 Ed Halicki could be dominant, just based on looking at that card. In the replay season that I played with my friends, he confirmed it, so after that, I always looked for pitchers who had less hits than innings pitched - not having a clue what WHIP was back in 1979-80.