If you’re missing baseball this spring and you’d like to know what would be happening right now if they were actually playing, Out Of The Park Baseball 21 (OOTP) is the place you want to go. If you’ve always thought you could out-manage Joe Maddon or David Ross, OOTP Baseball 21 is the place to go. If you’ve ever wanted to be Theo Epstein and run and entire baseball organization, complete down to managing the minor leagues and running the draft, OOTP Baseball 21 is where you’ll start. Or if you just want to goof around and make an All-Star Team of your favorite all-time players, that works on OOTP Baseball 21 too.
If you don’t know what OOTP Baseball is, it is a realistic computer simulation of running a baseball team. (Maybe a bit too realistic for some, but more on that later.) It’s a descendant of the tabletop baseball games I played as a kid like Strat-O-Matic or Pursue the Pennant, but the difference between those two is like the difference between a book and a supercomputer.
OOTP Baseball is what places like fivethirtyeight.com use when they want to do a Monte Carlo simulation to try to determine things like playoff odds. I’m sure some front offices make managerial candidates play a couple of games to see how they’d handle things. (Although they may have their own versions as well.) This is both a game that you can play around with as well as a serious tool.
I had played OOTP once before, purchasing a copy in the early-aughts. I hadn’t played it since and when I was offered a free preview copy, I became curious to see how much the game had changed since then. I was also concerned that this might be the only baseball we got for a while.
I can tell you that while the basics of the game haven’t changed a lot (you set the lineups, decide how much control you want to take care of personally and then play out a season), the level of detail has grown exponentially.
This level of detail will intimidate some people. When taking control of the Cubs, I didn’t just take control of their major league roster. I also was given complete rosters for every minor league team. When the draft came around, I was asked which players I wanted to draft. I was given a list of international prospects that I could sign along with how much money they all wanted as a bonus. I was constantly being spammed by other general managers wanting to trade for Victor Caratini before I finally figured out how to tell them all he was unavailable in any deal. (Although the Royals did offer me Bobby Witt Jr. for him and I would have strongly considered that had I not been planning to play only one season.)
You can even get down into the nitty-gritty of payroll and contract extensions. In fact, I got a note from Tom Ricketts telling me to sign Anthony Rizzo to a contract extension. (Rizzo wanted nine years and $320 million, which is a sign that there are limits to its realism. I could have counter-offered, but I just cut off negotiations at that.)
Fortunately, you can turn a lot of this off. You can tell your bench coach Andy Green to handle a lot of the strategy if you want (and yes, they call him Andy Green by name) and Jed Hoyer (again, mentioned by name) can handle the GM duties should you prefer. What I liked to do was essentially the same thing I did with the tabletop baseball games I played as a kid: set the lineups, manage the bullpen, decide when to pinch hit and let Andy Green handle things like defensive positioning and warming up pitchers in the pen. At the end of every game, you get a game summary like this:
(You could scroll down to get the full postgame recap, but I couldn’t get everything they provide on one screenshot.)
If you want to know how the Cubs 2020 season went in my simulation, they finished a disappointing 78-84. However, there are a couple of real caveats to that. The Cubs were in first place in June with a four-game lead over the Reds when I realized that the whole thing was just taking too long and that I needed to finish the season and write this article. So I just simulated everything and kept skipping over things I needed to do to make the team better. After I started skipping details, Jason Kipnis (who was having a great first two months) went down with a season-ending injury. Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber both missed six weeks. Kyle Hendricks missed two months. And instead of doing something to try to make up for their absences, I just had the AI handle it, which probably wasn’t the best idea. I did trade to get Justin Wilson back because I needed another left-hander in the bullpen, but that was pretty much the only roster move I made other than calling players up from the minor leagues.
(I did find what appears to be a bug in the initial program. When I was told Jose Quintana tore a hamstring and had to be replaced, the game crashed when I tried to bring in a reliever. I went back to the last save and Quintana was healthy again, which was good for me but bad for the simulation. The same thing happened when Baez was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. I reported these crashes and hopefully they will be fixed soon.)
But you aren’t limited to just replaying this year’s season. Obviously you can manage the Cubs for a decade if you want — although be careful! Tom Ricketts can fire you, although you can turn that feature off as well. I’ve already mentioned that the entire minor league system is there, but the independent minor leagues are there too. If you want a different challenge, you can take control of the St. Paul Saints or Sugar Land Skeeters. The game goes well beyond these shores as well. Japan’s NPB and Korea’s KBO are here, so you can run an Asian baseball season if you choose. The Mexican League and the Cuban league are here. Even more shocking, the European leagues are here. If you want to goof around with the Italian, German or even the Czech league, it’s here.
You also aren’t limited to 2020. Here’s Opening Day of the 1977 season for the Cubs.
(I don’t know why Ray Burris is starting and not Rick Reuschel. I could go in and change all that, but I just wanted the picture to show you. I do know why Bill Buckner’s not starting — he was injured in Spring Training.)
You can play any season from 1871 to today. Obviously the more recent the season the more realistic the simulation, but the point is that the options are close to endless.
There is one other version that you can play and that’s “Perfect Team” mode. This is similar to the “Ultimate Team” versions of the Madden or FIFA video games where you collect players, make a team and then compete against teams made by other players.
You start out with several packs of virtual baseball cards that you build a team out of. Here’s the team I was able to build out of my packs.
As you can see, it’s a mix of present-day players and historical players. Beau Bell was an All-Star with the St. Louis Browns back in the late-30s. Jiggs Donahue is famous for being the first baseman for the 1906 “Hitless Wonders” White Sox (and also for dying of syphilis shortly after that). My starting rotation is a bit better, anchored by Jose Berrios and Nate Eovaldi. My closer is Joe Grzenda, who had one terrific year for the Senators in 1971 and his stats seem to be based on that season.
You don’t actually play the play-by-play against another player but rather set your strategy and then the game simulates the results automatically whether you’re logged in or not. Your team then earns points which can be used to purchase more players. You can also buy and sell players on a public market.
I’m not going to lie to you. OOTP Baseball 21 can be intimidating to those who aren’t used to it. Fortunately, there are on-line manuals, videos and forums where you can get your questions answered and the game helpfully provides a link to them from within the game. And as I mentioned earlier, you control how much detail you really want. If you just want to make lineups and see what happens, you can certainly do that. If you want to micromanage every detail of running a major league baseball team, that’s possible too.
OOTP Baseball 21 can be ordered through their website or via Steam. (You can also get a lot more questions answered on their website.) It is available for Windows, Mac or Linux. It costs $39.99, but currently there is an Opening Week discount for $35.99.
(Out Of The Park Baseball provided me with a free review copy of OOTP Baseball 21.)