Alright, baseball fans, let's see if you can tell what is going on here in MLB The Show 17. It's so subtle I missed it when it happened, and got it wrong the next two times I looked at it. And I'm the one pitching.
It's a balk.
It's like getting whistled for traveling in NBA 2K17 or for 12 men on the field in Madden NFL 17: It should never happen, because sports video games just aren't designed to bring out the carelessness — or intentional stupidity — behind such violations. There's no fun in it at all.
But there it is, and I did it, and I did it to myself.
There's an option within MLB The Show's gameplay menus to allow balks. I've always clicked it on, because I figured it it governed CPU pitchers committing a balk either in live play or in a background simulation — not me.
That's because, of the 15 esoteric ways to commit a balk, the most common is that a pitcher with runners on base does not "come set" — that is, bring the ball to himself with both hands in a recognizable pause before initiating his delivery. The rule is there to give baserunners a fair opportunity to steal a base. Coming set is like making sure to come to a complete stop before turning right on red, especially if a cop car is right behind you.
Well, in MLB The Show, as the user is aiming a pitch and setting its accuracy within any of the game's four pitching interfaces, the pitcher is automatically coming set. It’s been this way for years. A user would have to be deliberately careless of the accuracy and timing components in the pitching interface in order to select a pitch and throw it before coming set.
But in ShowTime, it's a different story. And ShowTime is a relatively new feature, introduced just last year.
ShowTime is the slow-motion super power available only in the Road to the Show career mode. Hitters and fielders can use it, but for pitchers, ShowTime allows them to pinpoint a pitch's delivery while then bypassing the meter, analog or pulse interfaces that actually deliver the pitch and govern its accuracy. Because of the slow motion, and one fewer step, it is easy to set the coordinates for the pitch and begin its delivery before the pitcher's animation comes set.
And that is exactly what happened here. I didn't know it, because Dan Plesac (of N.C. State!) was mid-anecdote during the play, and MLB The Show's janky, last-gen commentary engine is incapable of interrupting itself to call out the violation. In other, deliberately initiated balks, play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian notes that the pitcher didn't come set, and the umpire, after waving his hands, will make a clutching motion at his waist as if advising the thrower that he forgot to do so.
When this happened, I thought the Royals' Blake Swihart (IRL he's with Boston; it's 2018 in this playthrough) had called time during the pitch, not only making me dry-fire on a two-strike pitch but also wasting my ShowTime juice. I was livid, but impressed. Batters have tricks to destroy a pitcher's timing, too, and I thought that's what it was doing here, but that wasn't the case.
It all folds back into the level of realism that sports video games are asked to approximate. The edgier the edge case, the more intriguing it is when one appears in a game. More than 700,000 pitches are thrown in a Major League Baseball season, roughly speaking. Fewer than 150 balks were called in 2016. Their frequency is minuscule, but their effect can be enormous; in this case, I balked in Whit Merrifield and trailed 2-0.
It also shows there still is so much unexplored territory in video game representations of sports a century or more old, within series straddling two decades or more. I've never been called for a foot fault in Top Spin 4, for example. The Fair Catch Kick, a trick of the rulebook that absolutely delighted John Madden himself, still has never appeared in any video game bearing his name. And now I'm wondering if NHL 18 might account for a bizarro rule that turned a five-minute penalty kill into a seven-minute ordeal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yet just last year, we got special code accounting for Pat Venditte's ability to pitch with both arms, a first in Major League Baseball. And this year, The Show finally got AI fielders to create a 3-6-3 double play. Each year video games seem to unearth something new from the ancient, perplexing rulebooks of their namesake sports.
P.S. Here’s what happened to Swihart on the very next pitch.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.