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Baseball sims can never replace the real thing

Baseball can easily be constructed in a virtual space, but the same can’t be said for the people who actually play the game.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Live baseball has resumed in Taiwan, but it still looks a long way from coming back in North America. For the time being, we have to rely on simulated baseball to take the place of the real thing. Sorting through Baseball Reference’s Out of the Park 21-generated standings and leaderboards scratches the same kind of itch. Listening to Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper call a simulated Giants game is still delightful. For those who want some actual competition, the player’s league for MLB the Show 20 fills in quite nicely. None of these virtual realities, no matter how enjoyable or needed, can ever fully replace real baseball, though.

It’s not that I’m one of those people who can’t fathom watching other people play video games. I love watching people play video games. The only thing that’s given me something close to that horrible and wonderful feeling of torture when the season’s on the line is watching Squillakilla finish out a no-damage run of Dark Souls. That this baseball exists in a video game isn’t the reason that I can’t become truly invested in it. It’s that simulated baseball can’t be weird in the same way as real baseball.

That isn’t to say that baseball sims can’t be weird. In the first season I simmed in OOTP, the San Diego Padres won 104 games, and the Dodgers still won the NL West. Amir Garrett yelling, “Somebody tell Jeffrey that’s why you don’t make dumb mistakes! Don’t do dumb stuff!” and then getting his baserunners mixed up is incredible and hilarious.

When the unexpected happens in OOTP or The Show, it’s because something broke. Garrett’s blunder on the basepath wasn’t some historic mistake like Merkle’s Boner. The baserunning controls in The Show are just a bit jank. The Padres winning 104 games didn’t illustrate that the Padres are actually much better than analysts give them credit for. It’s because the simulations are constructed with what are essentially very complicated dice rolls. The Padres simply rolled box cars several times in a row, and their season was just an outlier that gets thrown out when compiling the data.

The Padres winning 104 games in a simulation is weird blip that’s not all that interesting when it’s revealed to be improbable-not-impossible sequencing. If the Padres were to actually win 104 games and walk away with nothing but a Wild Card as a consolation prize, it’d be unforgettable. There’d be retrospectives written every 10 years looking at how it all came together (Trent Grisham playing like an MVP), how it all fell apart (Trent Grisham getting hurt in the final weeks of the season), and how it could have ended differently if the Padres got more than just 0.6 WAR from Eric Hosmer.

Baseball is, of course, played by humans and humans think, adapt, and make choices. These choices create stories in ways that simulations just can’t. These stories delight and irritate and break your heart and put it together again. Simulations can reconstruct baseball in its absence, but they can’t replace the people who make baseball great.


Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.