In MLB The Show 20, the latest installment of the top-tier baseball sim, players will find plenty of similarities to MLB The Show 19. After all, when it comes to iterating popular sports game franchises, there’s only so much consumers can expect to change from year to year. The foundation of the game, the overall experience that determines whether you enjoy it, is mostly static. And that’s fine. Rather, the differences between annual editions are usually in the details. And in The Show 20, an, ahem, minor change may provide a major reason to shell out for this year’s version.

The Show 20 introduces minor league rosters into the game. For hardcore baseball fans, those that obsess over their favorite team’s farm system and eagerly await the arrival of the next big prospect, that’s a huge and welcome development. Particularly now — in an era where real-life MLB general managers place a premium on young, talented and (most importantly) cost-controlled players with star potential — this is an almost essential addition, and the MiLB rosters give seamheads a fantastic new immersive layer.

Gone are the John Hancocks and Joe Randoms, replaced by stars-of-tomorrow like the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wander Franco or the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, who broke into the big leagues for a taste last season. For players who embrace the “Road to the Show” mode (as I do), it makes both the early years in the minors and later seasons in the majors more compelling. Now you can measure your created character against real-life players with memorable names as you try to get yourself to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. And now that I can track my career against real prospects and not Guy Smith or some other anonymous bot, I may even play more than a handful of seasons in the mode.

Previously, minor leaguers were available only via a fan-made roster update. Now they’ll come standard.

There are plenty of other new features, which you can read about in full here, but the added players are clearly the biggest differentiator (to me) between the 2019 and 2020 installments. The rest of them (a new defensive first-step reaction to create more separation between top-tier and bottom-rung fielders, an extreme decision-making meter and a change to the throwing meter to up the difficulty among them) are mainly there to fine tune an already strong product that gets all the big stuff right.

There’s a little more joy in mashing a long home run thanks to the crack of the bat when you flawlessly match your swing timing with your plate coverage. The result is a scorched baseball that leaves the hitting zone with high-end exit velocity and fairly ideal launch angle. In baseball analytics circles, it would be called a “barrel." In The Show, it’s called “perfect perfect.”

Those blasts won’t always guarantee a hit, but thanks to the new first-step feature for fielders — which simulates how good a jump a fielder gets reading the ball off the bat and if he takes the proper path to make the catch — players should be frustrated less frequently when their line drives find gloves instead of a hole. In previous versions, computer fielders would always take the ideal route to make the play. Now that’s buffered a little bit, creating some cracks in the AI’s defense.

The new element that may impact game outcomes the most is the throwing needle. In this version, you only get one shot to nail a throw, making it all the more important to hit the green part of the arc, which shrinks according to the difficulty of the throw and the fielder’s abilities. At the plate, The Show 20 features a slightly altered plate coverage indicator. At its center, three stacked icons are proportionally sized to show what type of hitter (fly ball, line drive, ground ball) is at the plate and where you want to try to square up on the ball. Neither of these features need to be utilized, but they’re there if you want them.

Another wrinkle is the Extreme Catch Indicator, which informs fielders how quickly the ball is heading to the turf so they can better decide whether to charge hard, dive or concede the hit to take it on a hop. Word to the wise: Safe plays are often smart plays.

The new element that may impact game outcomes the least, but provide the most entertainment, is the introduction of dugout dances (a la the 2019 Nationals). (Bonus fun fact: The dances were performed by San Diego Studios designer and community designer Ramone Russell and the rest of the dev team.) Other small details and idiosyncrasies like “The Soto Shuffle” and “Let the Kids Play”-esque elements also amp up the joy of the game. If only there were an Easter egg of trash-can banging for breaking balls thrown in Houston. Alas.

There are two new modes: custom leagues and “Showdown." The former is fairly self explanatory, allowing users to shape their competitive environment to their liking in terms of league size, number of playoff teams, designated hitter rule, game length and frequency. The latter is an arcade-style challenge mode that allows players to draft a team and customize their abilities with perks. Rewards are then granted for prevailing in certain high-leverage situations.

Speaking of those clutch situations, the developers tried to focus more on delivering just those edge-of-your-seat moments in fine tuning one of its other newer modes, “March to October.” Now it focuses on more of the pivotal innings and at-bats that define a team’s season as it makes a push for the playoffs and the World Series. It also allows in-season call-ups and trade options.

The downsides of the game are few. The “Road to the Show” still features its largely lame RPG-like interactions between your character and their teammates where there is no wrong approach to a situation. Just pick which skill tree you want to rank up and choose that answer and move on. While better chemistry does give you and your teammates bonuses in certain skills, there’s really no way to muck it up, which makes it pretty flat.

I would love to see a dynamic where certain personality types (like Lightning Rod and Maverick) would grant bigger rewards but also be attached to more risk. If you overindex on those areas, like, say Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham,” your teammates start to loathe you during cold stretches. But if you talk the talk and walk the walk, you can benefit with skill bonuses or in-game rewards. At least that would give those interactions a little more meaning than just a gateway to ranking up your character.

What The Show 20 does best is deliver a rich, authentic baseball sim that players can engage with in a host of ways. The customization options for the main modes and the sheer variety of secondary modes and experiences ensures there’s something for every kind of baseball fan. Those who tend to geek out on Keith Law’s prospect rankings and subscribe to Baseball America should be particularly excited to dive into this year’s version.

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