Fantasy Baseball and Sabermetrics in 1986

This is most of an article by Don Oldenburg of the Washington Post from early September, 1986. It is a nice look at the state of computerized fantasy baseball and gaming at the time:

On a subfreezing February day in Bayside, N.Y., Alan Lefton called timeout on the ball field. With runners on base and two outs, he sent his manager to the pitcher’s mound to yank his starter and bring in the relief ace. A fastball or curve? Lefton signaled his decision . . . the windup . . . the pitch . . . strike three.

The game is baseball. The team: the New York Mets. And Lefton? A 33-year-old computer manager for a New York City accounting firm who, just maybe, has confused Walter Mitty with Casey at the Bat once too often.

“I played seven or eight games that day – 10 to 12 hours straight,” says Lefton, who describes himself as “a borderline fanatic” about the great American pastime – both computerized and the real thing. “My car was snowed in, nothing was on TV . . . so I sat at my PC and played.”

A fervent Mets fan since 1971, Lefton says he knew he was hooked on Micro League Baseball’s simulation software two years ago when, minutes after booting up the game for the first time, a tiny electronic Willie Mays stepped up to home plate and smashed a triple off the right-field wall. Since then, Lefton has managed his microchip Mets in “hundreds of games.” He spent more than three hours a day every day for 10 weeks playing the Mets’ entire 162-game 1984 schedule.

Consistently in Top 10 software ratings since its debut in 1984, Micro League Baseball combines entertaining if not lifelike graphics with serious baseball strategy and an accurate statistical base that influences the outcome of each managerial decision.

“You have to use your managerial moves to win,” says Paul Kelly, the 29-year-old vice president of Micro League Sports Association, the Newark, Del., publishing house that developed and markets the $36 program. “If Fernando Valenzuela is pitching against Rickey Henderson, accurate stats for those two produce the event on the screen.”

“Enlarging the market” is a phrase heard from every programming expert who sees high use ability, high play ability software as the key to reviving sputtering home- computer sales. Among the growing field of competitors are industry heavy hitters betting on a bigger strike zone for the simulated sports-software market. . . .

Electronic Arts (EA), a San Mateo, Calif., company known for innovation is now developing baseball and football software, and plans to release an America’s Cup sailing game before Thanksgiving. That is in addition to its new World Tour Golf game, to be available to the public by the end of this month.

Buddy Diamond, the 30-year-old founder of XOR Corp. in Minneapolis, which last year produced NFL Challenge, says, “More and more people are seeing it’s OK to buy simulations . . . being a football coach or managing a baseball team. It shows people what a computer can do in a way that isn’t hostile.”

Slick packaging and a $99.95 price tag aren’t the only features that separate NFL Challenge from other sports software. Although visually a “chalkboard” version with Xs and Os carrying out plays, this game’s strategy and statistics dazzle. Players can match any two NFL teams, and either or both can be human or computer coached. The offense is called from 49 actual football plays and the opposition counters with one of 26 defenses. But the action on the screen is determined by team and individual statistics for the NFL 1984 season (which can be updated).

“We wanted to assemble a team to build a state of the art, high-technology program,” says Diamond of the million-dollar software, which required “12 1/2 man years” to develop. But despite sales “in seven figures” its first year, Diamond echoes an industrywide complaint that dealers would rather stock high-ticket business software costing hundreds of dollars than inexpensive sports software.

Meanwhile, larger software companies talk of technological advances eventually taking on the home entertainment champs such as television and VCRs. “By 1990, you will have in your home . . . a computing system that will play back CD audio, videotape and laser-oriented ROM computer software that will convey on the screen something almost as real as images on TV and movies – except you will control what goes on inside of them.”

A few months earlier, Lee Walburn of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote this in mid-July, 1986-it shows how MLB teams, especially the Braves, were using computerized imagery and analysis:

Baseball is to athletics what creationism is to religion. Everything is literal and not to be challenged or changed without an authentic discovery of another stone tablet. Yet, periodically, some heretical claim comes along that gives momentary hope for life after mediocrity, and the infidels break from the fundamentalists and line up for a shot at something that is supposed to give them the edge.

Exer-Genie was such a device. Merely by anchoring it’s shiny casing into the ground or floor and tugging at its sliding ropes, pitchers were to be protected from sore arms, gain a couple of miles per hour on fast balls, and hitters were to develop wrists and shoulders of supple steel.

“Funny thing about that Exer-Genie,” Atlanta Braves manager, Chuck Tanner was saying recently, “It made a great pitcher out of Warren Spahn and a great hitter out of Henry Aaron, but it didn’t seem to help the ordinary mortals one bit.”

What Tanner was saying was just another variation on the most venerable baseball axiom of them all, “If he can play, he can play. If he can’t, he can’t.” Only in Walt Disney movies does a scientist develop an exlixir that renders baseballs unhittable or turns bespectacled math majors into jet-propelled shortstops with 70-homerun potential.N evertheless, science keeps pecking away. Despite Tanner’s traditional response, as 1986 spring training began to bloom, a former college catcher named Jim Guadagno could be found hunched over a computer terminal at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach, Florida. Working with him was a consultant from Price Waterhouse as the Braves attempted to gain through electronics that elusive edge.

For several years now, baseball teams have begun to turn to computers to spit out information on the opposition. It is talked about by veterans with hand over the mouth in self-conscious mumbled monotone. For the most part, it is nothing that managers such as Tanner haven’t been doing for a long time by hand, but is a grudging admission that computers offer a deeper repository of intelligence more handily recalled than in the past.

Some of the younger managers, such as Dave Johnson of the Mets, threaten to turn the dugouts into the College Bowl as they plot strategy on the one-eyed monster. Erstwhile Oakland A’s manager, Steve Boros, recently appointed boss of the San Diego Padres, can quote chapter and verse on the times he thinks his handy PC has helped him outwit the opposition.

On the other hand, the Chicago White Sox computer in 1982 told them that 50 of 83 fly balls hit to the Comiskey Park warning track were struck by White Sox players. The next year the fences were moved eight feet closer to home plate on the theory that Chicago would increase its home run output. The team hit eight fewer homers than the year before.W hat the Braves are attempting to do, with less lofty expectations than either Boros or the Sox, is to transform the statistics into color graph ics that will be more quickly assimilated than numbers by managers and coaches, and perhaps affect decisions in a positive way both before and during a game.

Similar charts are already laboriously produced by hand and assist mainly in the deployment of defensive players against hitters with obvious tendencies such as to pull the ball or hit to the opposite field against certain pitchers. The Dodgers have gained some degree of attention for their Spy in the Sky – a coach who sits in the press box with his charts and signals to the dugout where fielders should play against certain hitters.

“Tom Lasorda stole the Spy in the Sky from me,” says Tanner of his good friend. “I’ve been doing that for years.”

The Braves hold no illusions about what they are doing, but since other teams are exploring computer baseball, they feel compelled to conduct their own research and development.

“We didn’t use computers in Toronto last year and we did okay,” says Braves manager Bobby Cox, who won the Eastern Division championship of the American League with the Toronto Blue Jays. “Without good players, stuff like that isn’t worth a flip. But computers may help in ways we aren’t familiar with yet and we are going to experiment with them. Chuck has kept a lot of charts through the years and we are feeding all that into the machine.”

“I don’t consider myself to be working on the Bible,” says Guadagno. “If anything, my work will amount to having an extra coach.”

Since a computer is an apparatus to handle huge volumes of information that humans already know but have trouble sorting through, the farm department is a lot more enthusiastic about its applications than is big-league management.

The scouting combine that supplies information on prospects for each major-league team is completely computerized, and the Braves utilize Guadagno and Bobbie Cranford to program all their organization data.

“For instance, there will come a time when we can go to the computer and ask for all third basemen with superior power and their ranking as prospects,” says Paul Snyder, director of scouting. “This will be great in making trades by uncovering young talent in other organizations, great for monitoring their progress as they mature as players.

“We did a little of that before the last Winter Meetings. We rated all players from all the other organizations. As a result of that work, most of it by hand, we picked up pitcher Pete Smith from the Phillies in the trade that sent Steve Bedrosian and Milt Thompson to Philadelphia for catcher Ozzie Virgil. We think he is a terrific prospect and we were able to get him included in the deal. Computerized information will help even more.”

Published in: Uncategorized on March 6, 2014 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Pete Smith, huh? Guess they hadn’t quite worked the kinks out of that software yet. Cool to read about what amounts to fantasy baseball going all the way back to the mid-’80’s. I began playing it in a pencil and paper league in 1993.
    Although fantasy football seems to have overtaken fantasy baseball in popularity these days, it was the baseball nerds who first scouted out this territory and turned it into modern entertainment.
    Nice find,

  2. I played MicroLeague for *years*, until my old PC with the 5 1/4″ floppy drive died. It was great, because the game had a GM disk where you could create your own teams — inputting line stats and defensive ratings. Using the old Neft/Cohen baseball encyclopedias that gave team stats for every year back to 1901, I had all sorts of crazy leagues running, like putting horrible teams like the 1935 Braves and the 1982 Mets head-to-head; and, of course, replaying a bunch of old World Series, with Tom Seaver no-hitting the A’s in 1973 Game 6. I wouldn’t say MicroLeague was sabermetrics per se — it was less mathematically oriented than Strat-O-Matic — but, as I had zero hand-eye coordination, it was much easier for me to manage and GM, then use arcade style games like RBI Baseball…

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