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    Monday, May 15, 2017

    Out of the Park Baseball 18: Trying to Build a Playoff-Caliber Core, Part 2

    Out of the Park Baseball once again gave me the chance to try the newest version of their game, Out of the Park Baseball 18. I decided that, this year, I would run a more comprehensive simulation than it years’ past: I would take the roster of a tanking team (namely, the San Diego Padres) and slowly add star players until the team made it to the postseason.

    In Part 1, the team got an infusion of Mike Trout in center field, but it wound up not being enough; the team lost 94 games, coming nowhere near playoff baseball. Clearly, one man wouldn’t be enough to turn this team into a powerhouse. But what about two men? Enjoy these dispatches from the alternate timeline, 2017-A:

    ATTEMPT 2: 2017-A

    Okay, so the best position player of today wouldn't be enough to bump the Padres up to playoff status. What about the best pitcher on top of that?

    There was just one problem with that: if my goal was to take the Padres to the playoffs, taking Clayton Kershaw directly from a division rival would have double the effect of just adding a great pitcher. I'd be directly harming someone standing right in the way of my goal. So at this point, I basically decided that I would have to limit myself to taking only the best AL players, as even players from other NL teams would still make my path to the Wild Card easier.

    And so, that's how I wound up adding both Mike Trout and Chris Sale to the 2017-A San Diego Padres. After once again sending Manuel Margot to the Angels, I followed that up by sending Jered Weaver to Boston. They probably won't notice the difference, right?

    2017-A's Opening Day went considerably better than regular 2017's, with Sale beating Kershaw in an extremely close 3-2 pitchers' duel (8.0 IP, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 6 H, 1 R versus 8.0 IP, 6 K, 2 BB, 4 H, 2 R). Mike Trout once again went 2-3 with a double and a walk, but at least Hunter Renfroe had the courtesy to drive him in once this time. Would things go much better this time?

    At the start of April, we were 12-15. It was still last place in the division, but we were only 4 games out of first, and we had more wins already than nine other teams. Heck, we would have even been in third place in the East. Trout (.287/.364/.509, 139 OPS+. 1.1 WAR) and Sale (45.1 IP, 2.98 ERA, 133 ERA+, 54 K, 2.29 FIP, 1.7 WAR) were of course doing the heavy lifting, but they actually had something of a supporting cast this time, between guys like Jhoulys Chacin, Jarred Cosart, Ryan Schimpf, and Wil Myers. Yeah, it wasn't great, but it's something if you're looking to avoid the cellar.

    We spent the first half of May flirting with .500, touching the mark a couple times but never exceeding it. We had a mid-month swoon that threatened to sink our chances of breaking even, but the team fought back, and sure enough, on May 28, we finally broke .500! We promptly lost the next three games, but I'm willing to call it a moral victory. At 27-29, we sat in fourth place in an eminently-winnable West division, just four games back from the division-leading Giants. Mike Trout and Chris Sale were still doing their things, but getting seriously challenged by Cosart and Schimpf (just like everyone expected). Sale and Trout held their narrow leads in WAR even as the latter two led the team in things like ERA+ and OPS+. And even guys like Chacin and Erick Aybar had proven to be above-average contributors. If this kept up, maybe I would need to swing some deadline trades to make a late-season push. We even pushed back above .500 by the end of the first week of June.

    As it turned out though, things weren't all that sustainable. Well, our performance was; we entered July 41-40. The unsustainable part was expecting that the much stronger teams at the top of the division wouldn't figure things out, which is why we now stood 6.5 games out of first rather than just 4. But anything is possible when you have Mike Trout (4.0 WAR) and Chris Sale (3.0 WAR) at full power, which they seem to have finally reached (plus a still-surprising Ryan Schimpf, at 2.5 WAR).

    We were at .500 exactly for the All-Star break shortly thereafter. Despite the acquisition of an ace like Chris Sale and the strong performance from Ryan Schimpf, Mike Trout remained our only representative (starting in center fielder again, of course). He still didn't get a hit, going 0-2 with a K, but he did score a run after a walk, so it's better than last time. Much like our season, in fact. It would be kind of cool if Mike Trout's All-Star game performances continued to serve as metaphors for each season going forward.

    At the end of July, we were technically a little better than mediocre, but still only 54-52. That put us 11.5 games out of the West, but only 5 out of the second wild card, so maybe a hot streak could help us out, but it wasn't looking likely. Trout was on fire, raising his OPS+ for the year to 161 (.299/.418/.535) and his Wins Above Replacement to 5.5. Chris Sale was looking like a definite All-Star snub, sitting at a 1.00 WHIP, a 2.91 FIP, a 126 ERA+ (3.17), and 4.3 WAR. A fresh-off-the-disabled-list Yangervis Solarte picked up where he left off chipping in from the fringe with Schimpf and Chacin. Did this team have what it took to kick things up a gear and make a run at the Wild Card down the stretch?

    We got off to a good start, beginning August with our first 6-game winning streak. Jarred Cosart came off the DL shortly thereafter, which was much appreciated seeing as he was fighting with Jhoulys Chacin for the title of our #2 starter. So a few good signs, but we weren't making great progress, still sitting just above .500. A few days later, no notable signs of progress, but Austin Hedges came back from the DL to catch. That, plus some lineup tinkering, got us to a whole 5 games above .500 and third place in the division (as well as only 2.5 back from the Wild Card)!

    A four-game losing streak right after that set us right back to where we were, though. Yep, this was pretty much a .500 team through-and-through it seemed. At the start of September, we were right back to 4 games over .500, but in a tie with the Diamondbacks for third place in the division and 4 games back from the second wild card, currently held by the Diamondbacks. At least having two divisional rivals in the way gave us a little more control over our own fate the rest of the way, with three series remaining against those two teams.

    It felt like we were losing one for every loss, but we somehow picked up two games in the first half of the month, putting us two behind San Francisco and two ahead of Arizona. The next two weeks were a lot of back-and-forth, but going into the final series of the season, we were tied with the Diamondbacks at 83-76 and a game behind Giants, with our last three games being played at AT&T Park (the Dbacks would be in Kansas City, meanwhile). Unfortunately, my big acquisition Chris Sale was not slated to pitch any of the games.

    We lost game one 4-3 on a walk-off error that capped a two-run ninth inning. That's a painful way to guarantee a tie at best. "Thankfully", the team made sure to end things quickly and painfully the next day, losing in a 10-2 blowout that cast the rest of the season in a darker light. But Mike Trout finally got his first batter of the month award, and we did ultimately finish 83-78, good for third place.

    Despite an 8.7-WAR, 32-homer, 170 OPS+ (.296/.429/.559) season from Trout and a 6.2-WAR, 242-K, 0.98-WHIP, 134 ERA+ season from Sale (as well as pretty competent depth all-around), we were still short of the ultimate goal. A fifteen-game improvement is nothing to sneeze at, but we wanted even more. We wanted so little sneezing at the results that it would be like allergy medication. For baseball game results.

    I think that’s how this idiom works at least, but maybe I lost the thread somewhere. Either way, tune in next time, when we upgrade the Padres from a Dynamic Duo to a Triple Threat.

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