Ball on a Budget: A guide to winning early in MLB 15: The Show's Franchise Mode with teams that can't buy wins

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Teams like the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs are among what you would call baseball's royalty. They have more cash than they know what to do with, and as a result, they are the ones that consistently reel in the big ticket players through Free Agency, often plucking them from small payroll teams like the Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's.

However, if you check the current standings, that doesn't necessarily equate to putting a winning team on the field. Major League Baseball is a league that is fundamentally imbalanced in terms of each teams' chances to win a championship. And in true simulation fashion, MLB 15: The Show represents this inequality to near perfection.

Some of the most fun you can have playing a Franchise or Dynasty mode of any kind is taking a team from the bottom to the top. It's the closest thing to a common narrative thread that you can find in just about any other kind of game, no matter the genre. Overcoming the odds to defeat the great evil.

Some of the best baseball games in the history of the game have come from teams with little to no budget (see the 2014 AL Wild Card game between the Oakland A's and the Kansas City Royals), and are proof that teams without the big bucks can win big games.

What I will do here is lay out roster building and transaction related tips that I have found most effective for winning games without spending loads of money. There are a few other aspects - like better coaches getting better player development - that are pretty obvious, so I'll leave those out. Without further ado, here's how to play ball on a budget.

Don't chase the big bats. 

It's pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one super sexy power hitting outfielder can turn your team's fortunes around in a heartbeat. But that's not necessarily the case. It's not that a player like that can't help your team; they certainly can. But there's a pretty big cost associated with acquiring said player, and getting them doesn't necessarily give you the boost you might think. Let's break it down with some numbers.

According to the TeamRankings website, on average each team gets 33-35 at bats per game (which seems like a lot). The best players, hitting near the top of the lineup, will likely go to bat about 4 times during a 9-inning game. To make it even, let's say every player in last night's game went to hit 4 times, bringing the total to 36 team at bats. That hypothetical super sexy power hitting outfielder we were talking about before only had a chance to affect 11% of those at bats (because he only hit 4 times and 4 divided into 36 equals 0.11). 

Factoring in that (on average) a good hitter will pick up one hit every 3-4 at bats, this hypothetical player likely will only have a positive offensive impact across 5% of your team's total at bats on any given night.

That's not a lot.

It goes without saying that power equals big money, and since you are playing as a team without a lot of money, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to sacrifice other areas of your team for one player. So kiss your dreams of a Bryce Harper/Mike Trout/Andrew McCutchen trio goodbye; it's time to get real.

Emphasize Pitching and Defense

Now that we've talked about something that doesn't affect the outcome of a game as much as you'd think, let's talk about something that does: pitching and defense. Since MLB 15: The Show is a simulation, I will refer to some more real life statistics.

According to Baseball Reference, the average number of pitches thrown by a team per game is 146. About 100 of those should be thrown by the Starting Pitcher (or SP), while the rest are handled by the Bullpen. 146 is indeed a big number, and that is 146 different instances that something can go wrong for your team. MLB 15: The Show does a pretty good job of getting close to this number, but it depends on the caliber of pitcher you have on the hill.

If your pitcher gives up a hit, they go into a mode called "The Stretch". The longer they pitch "in the stretch", the more stamina is drained from their energy bar, and the lower their stamina, the more vulnerable they are to make mistakes and give up more hits, which inevitably lead to runs. Since offense is tough to buy, it's vitally important to keep the runs against you to a minimum.

The rule of thumb I've always had across any sports game is that if the other team can't score on you, you've got a chance to win every time.

Pitching can also be (and will get) expensive, but just because you don't have Clayton Kershaw going every fifth day, doesn't mean you can't churn out quality starts up and down your rotation like its nobody's business.

Supplementing your pitcher with quality gloves in the infield is paramount, and having pitchers that emphasize control rather than power end up being cheaper in the long haul. A pitcher that throws with a velocity in the upper 80's or low 90's can end up looking better than they are if your infield has high speed, arm strength/accuracy and fielding ratings (which have less monetary value in Free Agency than offensive statistics do).

Pitchers that rely on control have to throw the ball in the strike zone to be effective, so as a result, opposing hitters end up swinging and putting the ball in play earlier in counts, lowering the number of pitches your SP has to throw to get an out, which in turns allows them to stay in games longer. It sounds cliche, but it's really the fundamentals that help carry your team and keep you competitive. 

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Build Your Offense around Speed

Who doesn't love hitting the ball out of the yard? It's as fun to watch in real life as it is satisfying to pull off with a controller. But we've already established that power is not the way to go. You can't win if you don't score, and there are some alternative methods to give opposing pitchers headaches.

The old adage in sports goes, "speed kills", and that's where the best solution lies. Why?

Speed is twofold in how it benefits your team. It plays favorably into both offense and defense, making it the most cost-effective way to attack your opponents. From an offensive perspective, speed can limit how hard you need to hit the ball to get on base. Slow rollers down the third base line end up being tough plays for the opposing defense, which makes bunting a viable strategy for getting on base. 

Once you get a speed burner on base, you are an immediate threat to the pitcher to steal Second Base. In essence, by stealing second base, you are creating an extra base hit without actually accomplishing it. There is some risk involved in getting caught stealing, but even the best defensive catchers only throw out about 35% of base stealers, which puts the odds in your favor.

Defensively, you want your speed burners to be your middle infielders (2B, SS) and your outfielders (LF, CF, RF) as those are the positions that cover the most ground on balls in play. With an outfield that consists entirely of speedsters, you'll be able to run down balls that would most likely be extra base hits against other teams, preventing other teams from getting on base and scoring. Run prevention FTW.

Prospects

Prospects are the lifeblood of any small payroll franchise. Without them, there is no future, and you always have to be mindful of the future in every decision you make. Player salaries escalate faster than you'll be able to boost your team's payroll, and the reality is that you won't be able to keep most of your players.

However, if you always have a number of prospects waiting in the wings, you will be able to mitigate the loss of any player from your big league squad more effectively.

Even if/when you manage to get to a point where you find yourself with a log jam of prospects at one position, you can always turn to the trade market, where prospects are one of the most valuable commodities there is - particularly if they are 24 years old or younger. If you do find yourself with a log jam, try and trade C-level prospects (players whose potential ratings are graded between 70-79) first, as their value will likely never be higher before they reach the majors.  

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Versatility is king

One thing you can always count on is that injuries will happen. It's quite easy to get caught with your pants down if you've built a team with players that are only capable of playing in one or two spots. Technically you could just assign a player to a position that they don't play and the computer won't stop you, but the results won't be pretty.

Utility players are one of the most vastly underrated types of player there is, and by and large they come fairly inexpensively, so you won't have to give up much in cash or in a trade. Most of them won't produce much in the way of power, make many (if any) All-Star teams, or even look all that impressive on the outside. But that's not their purpose.

What you're looking for is a cheap player who is competent with the glove and won't be a total black hole at the plate. And more often than not, a back up utility player who is rated 72 overall will end up getting more playing time than a backup SS rated 80 overall that can't play anywhere else.

Make use of Lefty/Righty Splits 

Sure, you should have a few players that you can rely on to stick in your lineup every day, no matter what kind of pitcher you are facing, but be prepared to start caring more about splits than you ever have before. Why?

This is one of the sneaky ways that you can add power to your team without sacrificing a whole lot to do so. There are a number of players middling in Free Agency that end up getting passed over by the bigger teams because they have trouble hitting either Right or Left-Handed pitching and have a penchant for striking out. 

That's not to say that they won't strike out a lot with you, they will. But a lot of the risk will be mitigated if you only play them against the type of pitchers they are strongest against. In most cases, Left Handed hitters do well against Right Handed pitchers and vice versa.

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Don't be afraid to trade big name players.

This is where it can get tough for people both in MLB 15: The Show and in real life. Very few players who start their careers with a small payroll franchise end up finishing them there, so inevitably you will have to trade some big names if you hope to stay competitive. 

But isn't trading a star player counter-intuitive to winning?

To the average fan, yeah you probably would think that, and it's easy to see why. But as it's been mentioned before, player salaries escalate every year, meaning you will have less and less flexibility available to you every offseason, and you will quickly find yourself in a hole, being forced to jettison other good players just to fit one great one on your team, which ends up hurting your team as a whole.

Star players are great for a team both on the field and on the trade market. And when it comes time to trade a star player, the return for you is exponentially better than if you just let them hit Free Agency. 

I mentioned earlier that being mindful of the future was a big deal. Well here's why. Knowing when your big players are going to hit FA is important. The number of years left on a contract adds value to the player you are trying to trade, so you can end up netting a bigger return.

Assuming that you have a number of prospects on the way (and if you've been following this guide, there's no reason why you shouldn't), you likely already have someone waiting in the wings to replace your star player. Also, by trading a star player, you have a chance to add even more prospects to what should already be a deep pool of them. The more prospects you have, the fewer holes that you will have to patch on future teams, increasing your chances of making championship runs, which in turn will increase your payroll. 

Extend players that are consistent, anticipate drop off

So we've pretty much established that you're going to watch a lot of players leave your team. But what about the players that can stick around?

You will only be able to commit to a few, especially at the beginning of your Franchise Mode, and it's important that you pick the right players to give contract extentions to. But how do you do that?

I've found that knowing a player's Potential Rating is a good first step in the process, as it gives a general idea as to what rating that player will max out at. That said, it's not a definitive number, and you will see some players surpass their potential ratings, sometimes even enhancing them with good play over long stretches in a season.

Tracking hot and cold streaks is another factor in the process. For hitters, streakiness is fairly common, but I've found that it is a stronger indicator of future development for a pitcher. Cold streaks can more devastating for a pitcher because they go through prolonged exposures of vulnerability, resulting in an increased risk of negative results, especially if they are a Starting Pitcher (throwing 100 pitches a game as opposed to 4 at bats for a hitter).

If you find that you have a player that is going through frequent cold streaks, they won't develop at a rate that will make them a consistently productive member of your team. And since you can only stash a player in the minor leagues so many times, it doesn't make much sense to keep that kind of player around. 

For players that do produce consistently good results, try extending their contracts during an offseason before they hit Free Agency. The earlier you extend them, the lower their cap number will be, and they will be a better value to you.

Sometimes you may end up with a veteran free agent gem that had a surprisingly good year (because you played to their strengths on Left/Right handed splits, right?) but they did not develop much at all. That's OK. 

Once their contract is up, they may ask for a dollar figure and length that can seem a bit more than you are comfortable with, but don't feel like you have to meet those demands simply because they had one good year with you.

There's a good chance that they won't replicate that kind of year again, and with so many players on the FA market that have comparable ratings, plus a year of development from your prospect pipeline, you are better off taking a chance with someone new that will likely cost less.

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These are just a few of the things that I have found to work for me early on in a Franchise Mode. By the time you build up your payroll enough to be able to retain and sign big ticket players, the group you started with will be long gone. It can take a few generations of players to shuffle in and out, so be patient and enjoy the fact that you can compete with teams with two to three times the payroll you do.

Focus on the name on the front, not the back, and you can build a dynasty of your own.

Published Sep. 13th 2015

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Freelance Game Writer and Journalist. I'm an Independent Writer who's passionate about spreading the word about all things gaming. My favorite games of all time are Pokemon Blue and Final Fantasy VIII. Check out more of my writing at thevideogamejournal.com.

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