How a Baseball-Obsessed Programmer Is Helping Us Live Our Hardball Fantasies
Baseball season is starting, and Markus Heinsohn is ready.
Heinsohn. Photo: Markus Heinsohn/Twitter
The Major League Baseball season is almost upon us, and with it comes one of the nerdiest of American pastimes: predicting the statistical performances of the league's 30 teams and 750 players. The task, while inexact, has made stars out of people like pioneering sabermetrician Bill James and FiveThirtyEightfounder Nate Silver. Meanwhile, with the recent release of the seventeenth edition of the baseball simulator Out of the Park Baseball, German programmer Markus Heinsohn has continued working to create a computer game that models the sport as accurately and robustly as possible.
The very existence of OOTP is something of a minor miracle: it's gone from a DIY passion project to a game that has been praised by everyone from former Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling to current Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. In the process, it has developed into a major enterprise, complete with MLB licensing and a full-time marketing and development staff.
"I started playing baseball, which is quite a rare activity in Germany, when I was 14," Heinsohn told me. "My friends and I founded our own club and played organized baseball, and that's how my obsession with the sport began. I read everything about it that I could find, studied its rules and its history, and watched as many games on TV as possible."
By the time he was sixteen, Heinsohn had created a file manager program for DOS that sold well, but after 1997, the development of OOTP consumed nearly all of his time. Although the game has grown in popularity since its debut, the path was not an easy one.
"Programmers who choose to work on games, even successful games, walk a difficult road," said Nathan Zimmerman, a software designer and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. "The cash payoff is rarely as great as when you are engaged in a more avowedly commercial project, which is often the case when it comes to activities pursued for love rather than money."
For some long-term fans, this imagined future is preferable to the reality presented by MLB
OOTP, however, is a game that is at its most basic level concerned with money: You are the general manager of a baseball team, and you must allocate your financial resources wisely. Like the award-winning Football Manager, a soccer simulator Heinsohn singled out for special praise, OOTP allows you to buy and sell players in order to maximize victories and profits.
"These simulation games put the player in the position of management, as opposed to labor, and that's the mentality that you'll begin to internalize, as is the case with fantasy sports players in general," said Ben Labe, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You're always asking yourself, 'if I had X amount of money and these particular players, could I do better?'"
Heinsohn, to his credit, has worked to improve the process of answering that hypothetical question by incorporating the advanced statistics developed by Bill James, Nate Silver, and other experts. "By keeping track of new developments, such as pitch FX data and fielding movement data and utilizing the ZiPS projection system as a base for player ratings, we have greatly improved the simulation engine. For example, we introduced DIPS theory, the idea that pitchers mostly have no influence over what happens to batted balls, in OOTP 6, and we've been miles ahead of the competition in terms of simulation accuracy and realism since then."
Although predicting the raw performances of the teams and players is important, the heart of the experience is its financial engine and the behaviors of the various artificially intelligent general managers against whom the player competes. Advanced statistics have also helped Heinsohn develop AIs that display a much better understanding of a player's worth.
"Features like that are so complex that we need years for them to be fleshed out and reach their potential," Heinsohn explained. New developers hired to work on the project have enabled the introduction of multi-threading support, thereby speeding up the time it takes to shop a player around—a truly annoying problem with earlier games. Crash issues, more prevalent in prior versions of the game and in beta testing for OOTP 17, have been resolved.
Projecting the future is no easy task, but OOTP 17 does it well, particularly with regard to the outcome of the season corresponding to its release. "That makes sense," Labe said. "Economists and statisticians are good at predicting the weather, but longer term forecasting is more difficult."
The distant future, at least in OOTP, leaves a great deal to chance: Career-ending injuries and certain behavioral variables, such as "work ethic" and "leadership," can shape the long-term simulation in unpredictable ways. For some long-term fans, this imagined future is preferable to the reality presented by MLB.
"I haven't watched a baseball game in years," said Chris Flora, a tax consultant in Florida who has played OOTP since 2004. "But I read Baseball Prospectus before each season starts, and then I get lost in these Out of the Park universes, thirty or forty seasons in a row, that are always better than the real thing—whatever 'real' means."
Flora compared his experience to that of J. Henry Waugh in Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, a novel in which the protagonist, who leads a boring life, immerses himself in the dice-based imaginary baseball association he runs. "I guess for some people it's about the money, they're identifying with the management or the capitalists or whatever, but for me, once the current players retire, it's about getting lost in the narrative my mind makes up along the way. It's always real to me."
Heinsohn, who closely monitors the game forums in which a dedicated core of users provides up-to-the-minute feedback, understands the challenges that accompany each release of a new game. "I have worked on the game for almost two decades, and unless someone offers me $25 million for the company, I won't quit doing it. Nevertheless, our hardcore fans are demanding, and while I think we do a very good job each year, it is certainly not easy."
Definitely not easy: innumerable fantasy baseball seasons and simulated players' careers are at stake, after all.