PS3 Game Review: MLB09 The Show

With the regular Baseball season in full swing now, it’s past time to put up my review of this latest entry.

There is good and bad to be had in MLB09.  I’ve had the game for a few weeks now, and wanted to get in a good deal of play time in various modes before putting everything down in writing.  Baseball fans will still enjoy this title immensely, and there is plenty of enjoyment to be found in the various game play modes.

The main strength of MLB09 is their propietary Road to the Show (RttS) mode.  In this mode you create your own player, and try to build a MLB career with them.  You start by customizing your player.  The degree of customization available is impressive.  While most people won’t be spending that much time adjusting chin size, it’s there for those that do.  You can set just about everything for your new player.  Age, vital statistics, skills, position, uniform number, and so on.

You then have a choice.  You can either enter the draft, and take whatever team team drafts you, or go the free agent route and try to sign on with the team of your choice.  I took the draft option with my 1B player, ending up with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  At this point, it’s on to spring training.  It’s tough to make the team as an 18 year old rookie.  I didn’t do it.  Instead I was sent to AA for my first pro season.  Due to some injuries at the ML level, I was promoted to AAA after about 6 games.

You must take advantage of your opportunities, just like in real life.  I made the most of my promotion, and stuck at the AAA level.  I didn’t make the 40 man roster at the end of the season, and began my second year in AAA.  Spent the entire year in AAA, no try out for the majors.  End of contract, and the Angels offered me a 6 year deal to be the major league starter.  Cut it back to 5, as I did want to be able to “move on.”

If you are on your teams 40 man roster, you get to go through spring training.  This is unlike previous versions where if you were on the MLB roster, you just fast forwarded to the regular season.  This gives you more chances to improve your player in a more balanced way, so you don’t skew one way then another during your career.  The other great feature to be had, both in spring training and in the regular season are coach called for training sessions.  This could be extra batting practice, featuring specific pitches, or base running training.  These allow you to put your generated skill points into other areas, and give you a better over all skill set.  I haven’t played as a pitcher yet, so I don’t know what training sessions they get as yet.  I’ve also heard that there is fielding sessions, but I haven’t had one of those as yet.

Your progression is tied more intimately to your skills.  Yes, your stats matter, but your skill levels are more important.  Much like the actual majors, they won’t rush you to a higher level if they feel you aren’t ready for it.  This can be a bit frustrating for a player “languishing” in AAA, but if you meet the majority of your in season goals, and improve your skills across the board, you can still rise quickly.  Case in point, in my 3rd pro year, I was the starting 1B for the Angels.

So far, I’ve found the balance in playing to much improved over previous versions.  In MLB07, it was just too easy to hit 60 HR with a .400+ average.  In MLB08, getting stolen bases was ridiculously easy.  I had over 200 SB in one season.  In MLB09, the balance has been quite refreshing.  The statistics and what you can generate are far more linked to your skill levels than ever before.  A player with only say a 40 in power isn’t going to hit many home runs, no matter how well you hit.

I’m sure that as I progress to higher skill levels, the ridiculous numbers will follow, but so far, they’ve been more than reasonable, and reflect the skill progression I’ve made in game.  In my second MLB campaign, I’ve started off rather well, with very reasonable statistics.

The other modes can be just as fun.  Manager mode can be real frustrating, just like real life.  Having to sit and watch your players choke is just awful.  But managing your bull pen, giving signals is as much fun in game.  Franchise mode is for the budding GM in every baseball fan.  Take a team, and to your best Theo Epstein impression.  It’s not always as easy as you think.  Injuries and problem players will tax your patience at every turn.  Then add inn budget concerns, from revenue to spending allocations, and you see why these guys make the money they do.  It’s not all just player management.  Season mode is pretty straight forward.  You play out the season.  Some player movement happens, but you pretty much just use the stock rosters.

However, while there has been some great additions and improvements, there has been a bit of a back slide in some areas.  Mainly these are graphix issues.  The camera can be a pain in the ass, with players disappearing, odd angles that don’t allow you to make plays, or views of peoples feet in the stands (this happens a lot in Minnesota).  There is also an issue of players running through walls to make catches (really annoying), the ball disappearing as it comes at you while hitting, and the usual “super fielding” ability of the AI.  There is also an issue with the announcers saying the wrong name for a player.  This only happens with computer generated players, but it can be disconcerting.  It also happens with pinch hitters, where the hitter is not who is announced.

The AI itself still sucks badly.  It makes very strange decisions all the time.  David Ortiz bunting with the bases loaded and no outs.  A-Rod batting lead off.  Sending players for an extra base too often with the wrong base runners on.  The AI bunts far too often, and in all the wrong situations.  The defensive AI also makes odd choices at times, going to the wrong base, or just always taking the easy out.  Take for example a situation where you are up by a run, there’s a runner on third and 1 out.  The batter bunts, the pitcher fields it.  Instead of going home, where the runner would be out, he goes to first, allowing the run to score and tie the game.

The in season manager interactions could also stand to be tweaked.  In my current RttS season, I’m second in the AL in RBI’s, and Mike Scioscia is whinging about my “lack of RBI production.”  Say what?  Only Dan Uggla has more RBI than I do, and I have 31 RBI in 25 games.  What lack of production?  So I haven’t had an RBI in 2 games.  That’s a bit touchy, more so as the team won those two games.

The music provided with the game is OK.  Nothing special, and at least you can turn off anything that annoys you.  Same with the voice announcers Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell, and the god-awful Rex Hudler.  Hudler has to go.  Get anyone else.  Well, maybe not Ken Harrelson, but someone else for sure.  The commentary beyond Vasgersian is lame at best, and pathetically awful at worst.  Far too often, the commentary is off by a wide margin, inappropriate to the situation.  But, like with the music, it’s easy enough to turn off, and you don’t really miss anything.

On the whole, this is a mixed bag of terrific improvements, and awful backslides.  If you like the franchise, and are into the whole create a player thing, the bugs and such are little more than annoyances.  Otherwise, you may find some of the frustration to be more than it’s worth.



Real vs Fantasy in Baseball

As I watched the Sox rally against Mariano Rivera, and fall agonizingly short, a discussion between Tim McCarver and Joe Buck got me thinking.  They were talking about what the Sox were going to do with Varitek at the end of the season.  Tek is 36, and having a miserable year at the plate.  Rumor has it that he’s looking for Jorge Posada type money and deal (4 years).  But Tek isn’t around for his offense.  What he gives is bonus as far as the team is concerned.  It’s what he does calling a game, managing his pitchers, and how he controls the club house, or why he wears the “C” on his jersey.

So this got me to thinking.  I play Stratomatic Baseball, and have for almost 20 years now.  I’ve also been involved in several other Roto type leagues.  There is a definite disconnect from players of value in MLB, and players of value in fantasy leagues.  Sometimes the gap between the two is very, very wide.

Jason Varitek is a prime example.  He’s a bust in fantasy leagues.  Crap average, little power, no SB, few RBI’s.  Few owners of Roto leagues, and few Strat owners (especially those in leagues with a salary cap), will have him on their teams.  He’s just not worth it.  Yet in MLB, he’s invaluable for things that don’t translate into fanatsy numbers, or a Strat card.  It’s a “problem” of Fanatsy leagues and games, and often times skews fanatsy owners perceptions of players.

And yes, the converse is true as well.  There are players who would be a third stringer on a MLB team, yet get hyped up value on fantasy and especially Strat teams.  I’ve been in leagues where a bozo ripper, who had 60-75 AB’s, with a bunch of HR’s one way (against either left or right), gets drafted, yet an every day guy, who doesn’t have gaudy numbers one way, drops low in drafts, if he even gets drafted at all.

Call it the “Bill James Effect.”  Player performance and value distilled down to a set of numbers.  Sabremetrics.  Yes, these can be indicators of a players over all effectiveness, and thus value, but cannot always take into effect the intangibles a player may bring to a team.  Again, Jason Varitek is a prime exmaple.  How he calls a game, how he handles the guy on the mound, are all just as important, and sometimes more so, than the number of hits or HR’s, or RBI’s he produces.

Video games are even worse.  Take MLB The Show.  The trade AI is just nuts at times.  CC Sabathia for Willy Mo Pena?  Straight up?  Can you imagine the outcry in Cleveland if that ever happened?  Mark Shapiro would be strung up on the nearest lamp post, and Theo Epstein would be in jail for grand theft player.  But, the numbers indicate this would be a good deal, with Willy Mo’s power numbers (when he connects).  Tell me, who would you rather have on your team, CC or Willy Mo? 

I’m not even going to get into all the unrealistic aspects of the various fanatsy games for PC and Consoles.  I’ve sort of done that before, but I’ve got more details to use now.  Maybe that’ll be my next post.