Taking an inside look at 'MLB The Show'

3/11/2011 - MLB

Even a video game can have the virtue of sentiment. I am not of our culture's first generation to grow up with video games. When I was a kid we had Pong, the Model T of video games, which held your interest for only so long before you eventually went back to your shoeboxes full of baseball cards. By the time video games evolved to actually become good enough to get sentimental about, my generation was supposed to be too old to care. However, the "MLB The Show" series, which launched its '11 version this week, is arguably the most superbly detailed sports video game yet developed, and I've been all-in -- with a bonus twist.

If you still cherish your attachment to your old baseball cards, and you played enough video games in your 20s to realize how well "The Show" series is produced, I've got the solution: Put those baseball cards IN the video game. We old guys are supposed to pick up relaxing, old-guy hobbies like building model train layouts in our basements. I've been building video baseball players with a computer and a PlayStation 3. If your goal is absolute accuracy, this can become an immensely interesting research project for baseball fans. Here's a blueprint for recreating your favorite players of the past for use in "The Show" series.

First, don't use the game's "Create Player" mode. Instead, load the current rosters, scroll down to "Edit Player" under the "Options" heading and decide which franchise you want to use. Call up the roster of your chosen team and scroll down to its minor leaguers at each position. Some Triple-A players have their identities frozen, but players at the lower minor league levels can be completely changed. If eventually you want to move your created players to a different franchise, you can easily do that in "Roster Control" under the "Options" heading.

For hitters, pick a position, scroll down to a minor leaguer at that position and hit "Edit Player." Begin changing name, height and weight, number, age, etc. Now comes the research, which you'll need to have done by this point. Let's say you were a fan of the 1979 world champion Pirates and you'd like to build a video game Ed Ott to use as your catcher in "Season" or "Franchise" mode. First, you need Ott's 1979 stat line:

117 G, .273 AVG, 7 HR, 51 RBI, 403 AB, 110 H, 26 W, 62 K, 0 SB, 1 CS

Remember, video game player "attribute ratings" are based on the previous season's statistics, so research actual players with similar numbers from the previous year. Start with batting average to establish "contact attribute ratings." Ott was a left-handed hitter, so you need lefties who hit as close to .273 as possible to use as models. Take three models per category then use the average to establish as consistent a pattern as possible while allowing for the fact that you likely won't find exact matches.

Ott hit .273 in 1979, but he was a .259 career hitter, so to find three accurate matches, I trended toward lower averages rather than higher ones to find sets that matched. Once you find three good examples from the previous season, go back into the game and get those players' corresponding "attribute rating numbers" in each category. To do that, go to "Options" and select "Edit Player." Then scroll to the appropriate team, select the player you're looking for and choose "Edit Player" on the "Player Options" banner. Scroll through to the "Batting Attributes" heading and find the player's "rating number" for the attribute you need. Here are the "attribute numbers" for a video game Ed Ott from last season, using 2009 actual player statistics.

Ryan Church, B/L -- .273, 359 AB, 98 H; right contact +72; left contact +43
John Baker, B/L -- .271, 373 AB, 101 H; right contact +74; left contact +48
Brett Gardner B/L -- .270, 248 AB, 67 H; right contact +62, ; left contact +58
video game Ed Ott average = right contact +69, left contact +49

Again, this involves poring through a lot of baseball statistics, which, for some of us, is the fun part. This is as much about the research project as it is the gaming experience. Allow for variables, as some stat lines will be a perfect fit while others will force you into accepting a wider range from which to find your numbers. For Ott's "power attributes" I found three left-handed hitters with seven home runs in roughly the same number of at-bats and used the average to determine Ott's "RT power" and "LT power" numbers. Once you've established your hitter's "contact" and "power attributes" you can use just one actual example per category and still get an accurate number. "Plate vision" can be determined by strikeouts per at-bat, "plate discipline" by walks per at-bat. Look for numbers that correspond as closely as possible and apply them to the player you are recreating.

1979 Ed Ott -- 403 AB, 26 W, 62 K
2009 Willy Tavares -- 404 AB, 58 K, plate vision +64
2009 -- Juan Uribe -- 398 AB, 25 W, plate discipline +48

For baserunning and defensive "attribute ratings," find stolen base/caught stealing ratios with equivalent plate appearances, errors and assists with equivalent fielding chances. "Bunting," "clutch" and "durability attributes" can be more intangibles. So, find an actual player who most reminds you of the video player you are recreating. In Ott's case, a workman-like catcher would work. Once you have all your corresponding player ratings, simply go back into your video game Ed Ott and fill in all the numbers. Next, you have to make your created player actually look like Ott. "The Show" producers have provided a remarkable set of tools to allow you to build realistic faces and with practice and patience you can learn to recreate your favorite player's likeness to put into the video game. For models, use old baseball cards, Internet photos or video, which is especially helpful for batting stances. For Ed Ott in last year's "The Show" game, I popped in a DVD set of the 1979 World Series and found that "Generic Batting Stance 90" was a near-perfect match. From there, it was simply a matter of going with the commensurate wristbands and batting gloves, and eventually I had a video game Ed Ott that closely matched 1979 Ed Ott in dress, expression and ability. A finishing touch was to download Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" into the PS3, for his walk-up music. Fair warning: Recreating your pitchers will take considerably longer.

To get a truly accurate video game recreation of a former pitcher, you'll need to expand your research. Exactly what pitches did your guy throw and how often? What kind of snap did he get on a curveball? What was his out pitch? What was his difference in velocity from fastball to changeup? How tight was his slider? Sinker or cutter? Two-seam or four-seam fastball? Did he have outstanding command of one pitch but struggle to locate another? If you don't consider these questions, your recreated pitchers' performances won't translate once you play the video game.

"MLB The Show" has six essential "pitching attribute ratings." "Stamina" and "pitching clutch" can be intangibles. If your guy was an ace, find a corresponding "pitching clutch rating." If he rarely got through six innings, make sure he has an appropriately lower "stamina rating." Next establish H/9, HR/9, K/9 and BB/9. Fans of the 1984 world champion Tigers will remember Milt Wilcox won 17 games. Let's use Wilcox's 1984 stat line as an example for pitchers:

17-8, 4.00 ERA, 33 G, 33 GS, 0 CG, 193 IP, 183 H, 13 HR, 66 W, 119 K, WHIP: 1.286.

Set your recreated video game pitcher's "rating attributes" by dividing the actual stat line as follows, for Wilcox:

183 H/193 IP = .9481 H/9
13 HR/193 IP = .0673 HR/9
119 K/193 IP = .6165 K/9
66 W/193 IP = .3419 W/9

Once you've established those four essential numbers for the pitcher you are recreating, then go through all the actual pitching lines from the previous season's stats with your calculator and start dividing until you find ratios that match up. For position "player attributes," we used three examples and took the average. For pitchers, because the accuracy is so critical to the game's playability, go with four examples. You may have to stray from your target innings total but you'll find that the "pitching attribute rating" numbers will stay consistent. Here's how the math broke down on Wilcox using equivalent stat lines from 2009 to determine video game Milt Wilcox's H/9 rating:

Scott Feldman -- 189 IP, 178 H, .9417, +67
Hiroki Kuroda -- 117 IP, 110 H, .9401, +65
Ryan Madson -- 77 IP, 73 H, .9480, +68
Aaron Heilman -- 72 IP, 68 H, .9444., +75
video game Milt Wilcox average = +68 H/9

Use that same formula to determine your recreated pitcher's HR/9, K/9 and W/9 and you've established his fundamental "pitching attributes." Now you have to determine your recreated video game pitcher's stuff. Research his pitches to find out exactly what he threw using a Google news archives search. It will instantly call up dozens of old newspaper articles from which you can read about past performances and, most importantly, pitch selection. I typed in "Milt Wilcox pitches threw" and came up with his video game repertoire based on these and many other newspaper quotes:

Wilcox said he used a good, popping fastball to set up off-speed curves and split-finger pitches that dip sharply down and away from right-handed batters. "Now I have a good curve, the split finger and an off-speed pitch." -- The Associated Press, April 20, 1983.

"I can't get by on my fastball because it's not an overpowering fastball," Wilcox said. "He [Roger Craig] said, 'Let's get rid of your slider,' which was a very good pitch at the time, and he taught me an overhand curve and a split-fingered fastball." -- Baseball Digest, August 1988.

If available, research actual video. On iTunes, I downloaded Game 3 of the 1984 ALCS, which Wilcox started for Detroit. Here's Jim Palmer from the ABC Broadcast: "Wilcox doesn't sink the ball. He's just a basic cut fastball, has a great forkball [split-finger] and has a slow curveball. No slider." Watching the game, I was also able to see that Wilcox didn't break 90 mph with his fastball and his windup and delivery looked just like Jered Weaver's.

Based on the research material, I gave video game Milt Wilcox five pitches -- four-seam fastball, splitter, cutter, changeup and sweeping curve. Don't give your recreated video game pitcher something he didn't throw. Not every starting pitcher threw five pitches and relievers have fewer pitches than starters. Next, you need to establish your pitcher's three "pitching attribute ratings" for each pitch -- speed, control and break. These numbers are critical. If they're not accurate, your recreated video game pitcher won't perform up to specs once you begin playing games.

Find an actual pitcher from the previous season with a WHIP comparable to your video game pitcher's. It should be one who also has a similar pitch velocity and repertoire. WHIP will most accurately reflect the effectiveness and command of each pitch.

I found that in 2009 John Danks, Kenshin Kawakami, Scott Feldman and Ryan Franklin were all comparable to 1984 Milt Wilcox. All had WHIPS of either 1.2 or 1.3 and threw with similar velocity. I then used their "pitching attribute ratings" to select the "speed," "control" and "break attributes" for video game Milt Wilcox's five-pitch repertoire.

After some trial and error in exhibition games to judge the numbers mix, I gave video game Milt Wilcox Kawakami's "speed attribute rating" for his four-seam fastball. Wilcox had more movement on his fastball than Kawakami's +44 "break attribute rating" so I went with Feldman's +70 "attribute" for four-seam fastball break. I gave Wilcox's splitter Kawakami's "speed" and "control attribute ratings" but Kawakami's "splitter break" was +74. I don't want video game Milt Wilcox dominating with a Bruce Sutter-like splitter, so I used Ryan Franklin's more modest +55 "splitter break attribute" for Wilcox. That's an important distinction: Be honest with yourself on these ratings. The playability of your game will eventually depend on how realistic you make these pitchers' attributes. Use the same formula for all the other pitches and your blueprint will look like this, using video game Milt Wilcox's first three pitches as an example:

Again, it's important to experiment with your video game pitcher's "attribute ratings" for each pitch before you lock him into either a "Season" or "Franchise" mode roster. Does he get too much velocity on his fastball? Too much drop on his change? Not enough bite to his slider? Is he locating too well or not well enough with each pitch? It's critical to your game's playability that these "pitching attributes" are accurate and mixed correctly. Once you've recreated your pitcher's facial likeness, scroll through the "Pitching Style" selections and choose a windup that best fits. Then, simply use the previous formulas for your recreated video game pitcher's offense and defense.

Remember, the goal here is to accurately recreate your favorite players of the past, not build a dynasty of guys hopped up on video game steroids. If you're loyal to what your research tells you, your recreated player will succeed and fail in "The Show" just as he did in real life, back in the day. You can recreate one or two players or build an entire roster of both superstars and role players from those old baseball cards. I just played a season after recreating the 1973 Milwaukee Brewers (long story). Strive for realism and enjoy the research. It makes this twist to your "MLB The Show" experience that much more enjoyable. Any questions, send me a tweet.

Steve Berthiaume is a host of "Baseball Tonight". Follow him on Twitter: