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Strat-O-Matic Therapy

Or, “How I stopped worrying and learned to love baseball’s randomness”

I was introduced to Strat-O-Matic Baseball at a young age, just like a lot of Gen X baseball dorks. My first purchase of the game in the summer of 1986 included cards from the 1982 season. I instantly pestered my folks into buying me the cards for the most recent season, 1985. If you’re familiar with Cardinals history, you know the significance of both of those seasons. Coupled with my mom using baseball box scores and game wrap-ups to teach me both reading and math when I was younger, I was on some sort of Calvinistic predestined path to play Strat-O-Matic. That’s John Calvin Schiraldi, of course, the French theologian and 80s World Series failure. I abandoned Strat-O-Matic for a long time after I went to college in the mid-90s. Drinking, partying, and intense learning doesn’t leave much time for baseball board games. There were daliances intermittently after college, long enough to own and replay up to the 2005 season. Then it all stopped, mostly because SOM doesn’t offer a Mac version of their game. The additional time at home nefariously granted by this year’s quarantine offered me a chance to rekindle my interest. In April, I purchased a rock-bottom cheap PC and the most recent version of Strat-O-Matic Baseball. It has been therapeutic in more ways than one.

The computer version of the game can be played extremely fast. You can play about eight games in an hour, depending on the season you replay and the level of detail you want. I’m a stickler for replay accuracy, so I choose to use the actual lineups and rosters from past seasons. Since making the purchase, I’ve replayed the 2019, 1934, 1987, 2011, 2013, and 2004 seasons, managing the Cardinals each time. I recently started 2018 because I’m a glutton for punishment, with 1971 and 1996 on deck.

The different eras give you a crash course on how the game was played and how teams were managed. It’s both maddening and thrilling. For instance, Dizzy Dean was both the #1 starter for the 1934 Cardinals, but also their closer. He closed out seven games that weren’t completed by the starter. Over half of their games started resulted in complete games. Try managing a team that way- letting your pitcher cook all the way to a complete game even after they’ve given up 4 runs with everything you now know about baseball.

The 80s Cardinal teams encourage you to push the pedal to the metal on the bases, but I always try to infuse a modern tactics into it. As a result, I don’t rack up the obscene stolen base totals to match the real 80s Redbirds, but my success rate is better. The same is true for sacrifice bunts in any replay prior to, say, 2005. If a season featured a lot more bunting, I’ll still bunt more than I might otherwise with non-pitchers. But I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot. I’ll meet in the middle and bunt with, say, Chick Fullis or Lance Johnson instead of burning a bunt with McGee or Herr.

That’s the first level of therapy. In quarantine, it has given me something interesting to explore and another way to learn about baseball. It’s a time burner that also feeds my childhood nostalgia.

Padres v Cardinals

The second level of therapy is how much it teaches you about just how random the game can feel at times. Playing entire seasons in a few weeks allows you to see all kinds of outcomes, and you come to understand how things like cluster luck, variance from the norm, and just dumb luck can change a team’s fortunes.

In my recently completed 2004 replay, Jim Edmonds entered June hitting over .400 with 26 homeruns. He was a monster. He hit .255 with 25 homeruns the rest of the way. That’s still an amazing season- .314/.426/.715. But it was wildly uneven. The vast majority of the difference between his Strat-O-Matic season and real life was nine more flyballs leaving the yard in bandboxes like Milwaukee and Cincinnati. On that same team, Chris Carpenter’s ERA was half a run higher than real life (3.46), and he spent most of the season north of 4. It took a dominant September to get him under 4.

When I replayed the 2019 season, the Royals- the 59-103 Royals- racked up 79 wins in the replay. Yet the replay Royals weren’t very different from reality. They scored 18 more runs and gave up 18 more runs. The real Royals undershot their pythagorean record by 5 wins. The 36 run swing for the replay team explains 3 more pythagorean wins. The other 12 additional wins for the replay team were a matter of dumb luck and cluster luck. They were 24-18 in one-run games. The real Royals were 15-25 in those games. Suddenly, players with the same talent performing roughly the same en masse end up with 20 more wins. It has a ripple effect, too. In the replay, they went 30-8 against the White Sox and Tigers. In real life, they were 19-19. Both of those teams ended up undershooting their record in the replay by a few games.

Those are just a few examples. Randy Choate in my 2013 replay had a 0.76 ERA in his 35 innings. Through four starts in my 2018 replay, Miles Mikolas has an 8.02 ERA and has been popped for 7 homeruns allowed, compared to 16 in the whole season in real life. In my 2011 replay, the real life 97-win Yankees only won 81. The Cardinals in the 2011 replay fell 5 wins shy of reality at 85 wins, missing the playoffs thanks to a collective 10-23 record against the Brewers and Reds. This despite a pythagorean record of 89-73.

I should clarify that I find SOM to be quite accurate, even if I wish they would modernize the stats package they show. Play these seasons 100 times and I’d venture the stats and records would end up very close to real life. But in Strat-O-Matic as in real life, there will always be outliers.

All of that variance might sound frustrating, but I find it therapeutic. Weird stuff happens in baseball. Dumb stuff happens in baseball. It happens all the time. Strat-O-Matic gives you a crash course in that lesson one replay season at a time. It’s helpful to remember that the next time the otherwide steady Paul Goldschmidt hits into a double play with the bases loaded, or when a defensive wizard like Harrison Bader borks a flyball in a high leverage spot. It’s especially helpful when you stretch it out to a few weeks of outlier performance for a player.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Lastly, I find it therapeutic because it puts you in the manager’s seat. I don’t mess with lineups because I want replay accuracy, but the in-game decisions are all on me. It helps you understand all of the on-field aspects that go into a decision. For instance, Mike Matheny took a lot of heat for his bullpen management with the 2018 squad, and for running Jordan Hicks into the ground that season. However, seeing what the team had on the roster early in the season, I can understand how that happened. The early season roster was littered with relievers who would eventually be released, and not all of your innings can go to two or three guys. This doesn’t absolve Matheny, of course, but at least those choices have some context. Similarly, the 2019 replay taught me just how tough of a job Mike Shildt had in weighing the negative defensive value of several of his players against the negative offensive value of others. It seems like a paint by numbers situation, but game flow teaches you that it’s not always as obvious as it seems. The game flow of multiple games compound bullpen decisions, as SOM accounts for pitcher durability and lack thereof when pitching frequently.

You don’t have to choose Strat-O-Matic to get these lessons, although it is my game of choice. There are tons of replay games out there. Simply put, replaying seasons in large chunks are quite a balm for your angry reactions.