Things I learned from Strat-o-Matic

PozCard

Strat-o-Matic was not the first tabletop baseball game I ever played. No, first was this game called "Statis Pro Baseball," which was this fantastic little baseball card game invented by an Iowa newspaper columnist and, later, sports gambling guru named Jim Barnes. There are two things I remember most about the game:

1. Unlike Strat-o-Matic, where hitters and pitchers have an equal chance to control the action (more on this in a bit), in Statis-Pro-Baseball the better pitchers had a lot more control of play. Dominant pitchers like Goose Gossage were what we called 2-to-9 pitchers, which meant generally that when rolling two dice, any number between 2-9 would signal that play be determined by the pitchers card. Other not-so-accomplished pitchers, like Rick Waits, might have a 2-6 card or even a 2-5 card, meaning that any number six or higher would trigger that play was powered by the hitters card.

2. Matt Alexander was the best player in our game. I will never, ever forget this. We were playing the 1979 cards, and that year Matt Alexander went 7-for-16 with a triple, 13 stolen bases and 16 runs scored. Played out over a whole season, Matt Alexander hit .538, slugged .692 and ran like the wind. When my friend Mike and I had a draft, we played paper-scissors-stones for like three days to determine who got the first pick (let's make it 4,598 out of 9,915). I ended up with it and took Matt Alexander, who was of course League MVP and star of my championship team. I believe he took some shlub like Dave Winfield or Mike Schmidt with the second pick.

In any case, Statis-Pro was fun but it wasn't until college that I got all serious and started playing Strat-o-Matic baseball ... and Strat-o, as much as reading Bill James, listening to Vin Scully and watching the miserable efforts of my hometown Cleveland Indians* taught me about baseball.

*Was so glad to hear a Cleveland team was changing its logo. Then I found out that it was the Cleveland Browns. Sigh. I guess this would be like the Washington Nationals changing their name.

Let me give you a very, very basic crash course on Strat-o-Matic baseball before getting to what I learned. Basically, the game goes like this: You take three dice, one red, two white (or whatever colors you like). The red die determines on which card the action takes place. So if you roll a 1-2-3, the action is sparked by the hitters card. If you roll a 4-5-6, the action goes on the pitchers card.

As mentioned above, I really liked the Statis-Pro system where different pitchers had different levels of control. Still, the Strat-o-Matic method is tidy and works well. Here are two cards:

KershawCard

TuloCard

Two pretty good players. Very big deal what card you are using for each play. Let's say you roll with the two dice you roll a 3-2, adding up to 5. That's a pretty common number ... and now everything depends on that hitter-pitcher die. If you roll a 5 or 6, that's a strikeout because that goes on Kershaw's card. If you roll a 1 that's a home run because it goes on Tulo's card. But there is something else you might have noticed: If you roll a two, it goes on Tulo's card but that is "gb (3b) A plus injury." That's very bad ... Plus injury could mean you lose Tulowitzki for a game, a week, a month, the rest of the season, who knows?

So, again, it all depends on pitcher card and hitter card. You will notice a lot of other symbols -- not going to go into all of them, but will mention a couple of things because they will come up later:

See the diamonds on Tulowitzki's card? You will find a diamond, for example, on 1-8 against left-handed pitching. The diamond refers to the ballpark where the game's being played. It might say HOMERUN but the diamond means that it is only a home run in certain ballparks. For this, you use a 20-sided die and and the ballpark chart. I'm not going to go into specifics but let's just say that it probably IS a home run if the game is being played at Coors Field or Arizona or some great home run park. And it's almost certainly NOT a home run in San Diego or Los Angeles.

Then there are the horseshoes. Look on the right-handed batter side of Tulowitzki's card -- you will see upside down horseshoes on 1-7 and 1-8. Those refer to a players clutch ability. Strat-o-Matic has determined that Troy Tulowitzki was a very unclutch hitter last year. Those two numbers are singles UNLESS it's what Strat-o determines is a clutch situation. They they magically become outs. Again, I don't need to go into details but will talk about what Strat-o taught me about clutch hitting ... probably not the lesson they intended to teach.

OK, so let's get to what Strat-o-Matic taught me:

Lesson 1: You really need a defensive shortstop with range.

A man named Hal Richman invented Strat-o-Matic -- he came up with the name when he was shoveling snow one day in Great Neck, N.Y. -- and Hal has always been fascinated with baseball defense. There is much brilliance in Strat-o, but I would argue that the thing that Hal got right before almost anyone else was how baseball defense works.

You will notice on the hitters cards that there are two different numbers. Tulo, for instance, is a "1 e8." The 1 reflects Tulo's range as a shortstop. The e-number or error rating generally reflects how often he is likely to boot routine plays. A "1 e8" is a fantastic defensive shortstop ... which is obviously true for Tulo.

When I first started playing, I was very concerned by the error rating. There are players out there who are e24 or e36 and I was scared to death to play those guys. Meanwhile, I was much less concerned with a player's range number -- I would readily play 3s and even 4s at shortstop in order to get some offense and a relatively low-error rating.

This proved to be disastrous. What happened was hits would leak through my infield ALL THE TIME. In Strat-o there are different kinds of ground balls and a coordinating chart telling you whether or not the ball gets through based on your infielder. Basically, 1 shortstops and second basemen, well, they get to EVERYTHING. They save inning after inning after inning. But when you have a 3-range player at a middle infield position, you find that innings are extended all the time because balls are constantly seeping through.

Errors stink, but Strat-o really taught me that they are a ridiculous way to measure defense. Give me a shortstop who can get to everything. If he blunders a few easy plays, that's a winning tradeoff.

Lesson 2: On-base percentage! On-base percentage! On-base percentage!

What really comes across when you manage 200 games over a summer is the painful price of outs. You don't need to see the charts to understand that if the hitter leading off an inning makes an out, your chances of scoring a run go down exponentially. If you have nobody on and two outs, you're unlikely to get anything going. You begin to feel that rhythm in your bones as you manage game after game. A 1-2-3 Strat-o-Matic inning can end in about 10 seconds ... that's the most helpless feeling East of Vegas blackjack tables.

And so, you just want players who extend the inning. You just want to keep the conga line moving. Sure, I idealized batting average when I was a kid. We all did. And when I started playing Strat-o, I didn't even THINK about walks, I just looked at a guy's batting average, his power numbers, and that was it.

And what I found was: There are .300 hitters who make A LOT of outs. And there are .250 hitters who seem to keep innings going a lot. I remember when one of the guys in our league, Ed, announced that he was going to lead off Don Slaught. It made absolutely no sense at all to me, Don Slaught was a slow catcher. But Slaught had a .380 or so on-base percentage, and he was a pain in the butt because he'd get on base a lot, and I realized that my speedy .300 hitter, whoever it was, was absolutely killing me because he never walked.

It took a little longer for me to start thinking about on-base percentage when it came to my baseball writing -- that's the power batting average had on my psyche. But as a Strat-o-Matic manager, I got on-base percentage pretty quickly.

Lesson 3: Ballparks matter.

My friend Chardon Jimmy tells a great story about Roy Smalley. Jim had a lousy hitting team and he decided in 1986 to trade for Smalley, who had hit 20 home runs for the Twins that season. Jim badly needed power and was willing to put up with Smalley's basic inability to play defense by that point in his career.

Trouble is: He didn't pay attention to those diamonds. Remember: Those diamonds are listed as HOMERUN on the card, and it's easy to get suckered by that. They are only home runs based on the size of the ballpark. For instance, the Metrodome that year was a good home run park ... it was probably a 1-14 homer park, meaning that when rolling a 20-sided die, any number between 1 and 14 is a home run.

Unfortunately, Jim's team played in the Astrodome ... which was one of the worst home run ballparks in baseball history. It was, in his memory, a 1-2 home run park, meaning that the only time Roy Smalley hit a diamond home run was when the 20-sided die ended up 1 or 2. In other words, all those home runs Smalley hit in smaller ballparks turned into warning-track outs in Houston. A diamond at the Astrodome is an out. And Smalley was an out-and-out disaster for Jimmy's team.

It's one thing to understand ballpark factors intellectually. It's quite another to throw Royals pitchers in the shrunken Kauffman Stadium of the 1990s. It's by playing Strat-o, by the way, that I came to my theory that if Dave Kingman had spent his career with the Boston Red Sox, even for all his flaws as a player and a person, he would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame right now. So much of baseball is context. Some much comes down to where you are.

Lesson 4: Clutch hitting is baloney.

I give Richman and the Strat-o-Matic team so much credit for making the game feel and smell and taste like real baseball. There are so many awesome elements they use. For instance, on a pitcher's card there will be an X next to outs. You will see a bunch of Xs on Clayton Kershaw's card above for instance. That tells you that the play not an automatic out ... you have to go to the advanced fielding chart to determine what actually will happen.

Let's say you roll a 6-9 against Kershaw. That is "GB (ss) X." That means that you roll the 20-sided die and go to the chart. If you roll a high number -- 13 or higher -- then it is a always an out.

But if you roll a low number, then the result depends on the range of your shortstop. If you roll a 1 for instance, that is a single UNLESS you have a 1-range shortstop. I already mentioned above how important it is to have a shortstop with great range, and this is the reason: They turn every kind of ground ball into an out.

But my point here is this: If your opponent rolls a 1 on the 20-sided die and you have someone like Tulo or Andrelton Simmons at shortstop making the out, then you know your guy just made an absolutely FANTASTIC play. A dive to his left, scramble to the feet, throw out the runner. A backhand deep in the hole, plant, throw. You can see it in your mind.

That's the wonder of Strat-o ... it moves with your imagination. A diamond on the card that is caught is a fly ball that would have been a homer in any other park. When a pitcher gives up a hit on his own card -- say someone actually rolled a 4-5 against Kershaw -- that would mean that the pitcher made a mistake, threw a pitch that caught too much of the plate. If you love baseball, you can feel the very drumbeat of the game when you play Strat-o-Matic.

OK, all that said: The horseshoes don't work. They just don't. It's the one part of the game that feels make-believe and disconnected from the real game. I'm supposed to believe that Troy Tulowitzki gets a single on 1-7 against righties EXCEPT when it's a pressure situation. Baloney. It doesn't make sense. It cuts against everything I believe about baseball. And it makes even less sense when a mediocre player has a regular horseshoe and gets a hit in a pressure situation that he would not have gotten during the regular course of play. Playing Strat-o-Matic, more than anything else, convinced me that the idea of clutch hitting as a unique skill is completely bogus.

Sadly, Chardon Jimmy and I only play Strat-o-Matic once ever few years but when we play we don't use the horseshoes. That's kid's stuff. It's a very rare Strat-o-Matic misstep in my opinion, but it did form my view about clutch hitting.

Lesson 5: Don't use outfielders with no range and low error numbers.

This is a corollary to Lesson No. 1 but it's slightly different: Real baseball managers tend to love those limited veterans who make few obvious blunders. They call those kinds of players "true pros," and praise them beyond reason, and give them 400 at-bats or something crazy like that. I referred to this in the Gloaden Rule:

1. Use Ross Gload correctly, he will help your team win games.

2. Use Ross Gload incorrectly, he will get you fired.

Outfielders who are "3 e1" defenders will get you fired. You think they are helping you because they make so few mistakes. They almost never commit an error. Remember the 20-sided die? Well, if you have a right fielder who has a 1-range, he gets to every ball. If you have a 3-range outfielder then rolling a 1, 2 or 4 means double, 2, 5 and 6 are singles. You learn very quickly that solid but immobile outfielders are barcaloungers with good hands, and they will hurt your team.

Lesson 6: Matchups matter but ...

By splitting the card between lefty and righty, Strat-o-Matic does a great job of emphasizing just how much matchups do matter. Troy Tulowitzki absolutely kills lefties, especially in his home park. He's not nearly as good against righties. How bout this Dellin Betances card?

In case you missed it: There are exactly zero hits on Betances' card when facing lefties. ZERO. There are a couple of dots -- those become hits after a pitcher gets tired. But again, not to get too technical, matches do matter a lot in Strat-o-Matic.

What's interesting, though, is that while matchups matter a lot, from what I have seen in Strat-o, overmanaging often backfires, just like in real baseball. I think this is because the difference between a good matchup and a bad matchup is pretty miniscule. I mean, it isn't like righties get a lot of hits against Betances either. We tend to overrate moves in baseball because we tend to think that the optimal play is significantly better than the non-optimal play. And that just isn't the case. Sending a .350 on-base percentage player to pinch-hit for a .320 on-base percentage hitter is only adding three-percent to my on-base chances. And it might not even be that depending on a thousand other factors.

Anyway, the point I'm making is: I'm probably going to use Betances a lot if I'm managing the Yankees.

Lesson 7: Twenties happen.

Chardon Jimmy and I talk about this lesson all the time -- it's more a life lesson than a baseball lesson. In Strat-o-Matic you will sometimes have a play that is almost a sure thing. It might be a single into center field with two outs and Jose Altuve at second base. Altuve scoring is almost a sure thing -- in Strat-o-Matic Jimmy and I call that a 1-19 play. That means, you roll the 20-sided die and if it lands 1 through 19, Altuve scores.

Most of the time, you would never even roll the die because the defending team would cut off the throw to keep the batter from going to second. But now and again the throw does go home. It's a 95% chance of scoring.

But every now and again the 20 comes up. Twenties happen. Ask Harold Reynolds about his 1-19 play against Bo Jackson and the Royals.

"Twenties happen" is so true about so many things. Marty Schottenheimer has had a lot of 20s rolled against him in his life. The Seattle Seahawks had a 20 rolled against them. Sergio Garcia has faced a lot of 20s. All of us, in life, have had 20s rolled against us. It's pretty devastating. How do you respond?

I had a 20 against me in a big series against Jim -- I was about to score the tying run, it was a sure thing, 1-19, and I rolled the die and the 20 came up, and instead of extra innings the game was over. I remember going to sit on the brown lump that I called a couch in those days and thinking about the unfairness of life. In retrospect, that might have been an overreaction. And I say that because my team came back to win the series on an epic Dwight Evans home run that haunts Chardon Jimmy to this very day.