by Anthony Zonfrelli
This post can also be seen on Deadspin.com here.
Backyard Baseball: the beloved childhood computer game of our generation, where everyday children played in pickup ballgames with the youthful incarnations of your favorite Major Leaguers. These sandlot games were held in such high esteem that future pros like Mike Piazza and Vladimir Guerrero traveled from distant lands to trod around on someone’s back lawn. Players earned ridiculous in-game power-ups such as the “Crazy Ball,” and every character was given a goofy nickname, like Jorge “Bonkers” Garcia.
And then there is Pablo “The Secret Weapon” Sanchez. Pablo is a short, Hispanic boy with a knack for pounding baseballs incredible distances, despite his slight stature. Born a Leo (August 18th), he speaks exclusively Spanish in all of the Backyard Sports games until Backyard Baseball 2003, when he reveals that he learned Spanish in school, and was fluent in English the whole time, much to the dismay of young John Rocker, who was known to frequent the Backyard. Pablo’s great skill and cool demeanor made him a fan favorite, often chosen first at the playground.
But if Pablo was so excellent as a child — better than every future Major Leaguer who just so happened to live in his neighborhood — then why didn’t he ever make it to The Show himself? Nobody knows for sure. Maybe he lost interest in the sport, or pursued his love of civic engineering. Perhaps he dropped out of high school, falling victim to a life of crime and drugs.
We may not know his ultimate fate, but using what we just learned about how the ratings were assigned, let’s try to learn as much about his hypothetical success in the Major Leagues as we can, based on the success of his childhood competitors.
After all, it used to be a simpler time: players were rated on only four categories (Batting, Running, Pitching, Fielding) on a very complicated and precise scale, ranging from 1-10 baseballs. Curious as to how the creators of Backyard Baseball (specifically, Backyard Baseball 2001) decided to rate how good the pros were as children, I investigated how their ratings matched up with on-field performance (and for reference, all of my findings are at the 95% confidence level).
ASSIGNING STATISTICS TO RATINGS:
I started by tallying the numbers of the featured major leaguers in the three years prior to their appearance in the game, adjusted for playing time. Rather than using advanced stats like WAR and VORP, I looked at the type of measurements that I assume the analytics wizards and gurus at Humongous Entertainment were using to judge players in the dark ages of the turn of the millenium: traditional counting numbers like home runs, RBI, and batting average.
By regressing the Backyard Baseball Ratings of the Major Leaguers on these typical baseball stats, I was able to figure out which ones mattered most to the head Humongozoids. Here’s what I found:
When determining HRs, RBIs, and SLG%, I found that only Batting Rating was useful in the prediction. By regressing each of these stats on his Batting Rating, I discovered that an average year for Pablo would consist of about 48 HRs, 128 RBIs, and a SLG% of .649. Using the rest of his ratings, I found that he’d also steal 21 bases out of 29 attempts per year, hit about five triples, and win three Gold Gloves within the first ten years of his career. I even figure he’d weigh about 180 pounds.
WHERE WOULD HE PLAY?
Finding these performance numbers was pretty straightforward, so I went even further and tried to guess what position he would play. Pablo often played shortstop when picked in Backyard Baseball (I know I always put him there), so I decided to narrow down my first test to find his chances of being an infielder, using logistic regressions consisting of the relevant stats significant to predicting whether or not he would be an infielder. The process consisted of creating a dummy variable on whether the pros were infielders or not, and then regressing it on all statistics that were significant predictors. I then substituted in Pablo’s predicted numbers to find the probability of him being an infielder. The first test yielded only a 28 percent chance that he would be an infielder.
So even though he was a great shortstop in his youth, he would probably be an outfielder in the pros – I predict a center fielder due to his speed. An interesting side note: I poked around, looking to find some people who have put up similar numbers to those predicted for Pablo. The two most similar players I could locate were Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Sure enough, Pujols was a great outfielder before making the switch to first base due to injuries, and A-Rod was a premier shortstop before moving to the Yankees.
WHAT ELSE CAN WE FIND OUT ABOUT HIM?
So had Pablo gone to the majors, he would have been a very successful center fielder, rising to superstardom alongside his neighborhood buddies “No Way” Jose Canseco, and his other, unusually large childhood friends like Barry “Big Guy” Bonds and Jason “The Slugger” Giambi. When perusing through the MLB players that were in the game, I noticed pretty quickly that 10 out of the 31 pros featured were at least heavily implicated in the use of steroids. What does that mean for lovable, innocent Pablo?
Similar to my methods for finding his position probability, I created a dummy variable indicating the use of steroids. By regressing it on the relevant factors, I found the probability that Pablo would have taken steroids, finding HRs to be the most significant indicator. What I found was that there was nearly a 90 percent chance that Pablo would have used steroids if he made it to the big leagues. And that number was likely even higher than that, considering Pablo sat next to Jose Canseco in Chemistry class.
So now that we’ve indicted our friend Pablo, let’s find the numbers he would have put up if he did in fact juice. Earlier we found his average output, but that was without taking steroid use into account. Now when I factor steroid use into his output regressions, I get the following table:
An interesting thing that came up while doing this calculation was that steroid use did not directly improve RBIs or SLG%. Instead, it significantly affected HR total, which then led to an increase in both of the other two stats. In fact, when holding HR total constant, steroid use tended to have a slightly negative effect in both of those categories.
Had Pablo Sanchez reached the major leagues, he probably would have been a stud center fielder, consistently putting up All-Star numbers. And had he done steroids, as he likely would have given the crowd he was running with — peer pressure can be strong at age 12 — he would have gained 20 pounds and produced at a level that would have beaten out Carl Yastrzemski in his Triple Crown winning season (and possibly earning him the Triple Crown last season, batting average being the only uncertainty). But then again, his success would be tainted by the notorious steroid asterisk that haunts so many of baseball’s most recent greats. Perhaps it’s better that we remember him in his glory years, reigning over the Backyard with his counterparts on the Crazy Wombats and the Mighty Melonheads.