Inside MLB's inaugural All-Star skills competition: Who will compete, how it will work and more

Inspired in part by a video game, the MLB Futures Skills Showcase will debut Saturday in Texas

It all started in 2005 with Manny Ramírez, 22 triangular ramps and a herd of tractors scooting across the outfield grass.

That image, for video gamers and ball fans of a certain age, might ring a few bells. MVP Baseball 2005 was the final MLB-centric release from sports gaming giant Electronic Arts. And that final edition featured a batting mini-game mode that allowed users to rack up points by spraying balls at various targets splayed out across the diamond.

Delightfully enough, MLB’s newest All-Star event, officially dubbed the MLB Futures Skills Showcase, is largely inspired by that decades-old blast of nostalgia, according to an MLB employee who helped dream up the contest. The first-of-its-kind competition, to be held at 7 p.m. ET Saturday in Texas, will pit eight Futures Game participants against one another in a three-round, comprehensive battle of bat control. Much like in the MVP '05 mini-game, participants will receive points for hitting baseballs to specific locations in the field.

Since 1999, the MLB Futures Game has functioned as a minor-league All-Star game, an opportunity for the league to showcase the stars of tomorrow on a grand stage. But the inherent flaws of a single-game exhibition often limit how much young players can show off their skills. Bryce Harper, for instance, went 0-for-4 in the 2011 Futures Game.

The brand-spanking-new skills competition, however, ensures that the eight contestants, their skills and their personalities are front and center for the baseball world to see. This year, the prospect octet consists of Orioles catcher Samuel Basallo, Rangers infielder Sebastian Walcott, Red Sox outfielder Roman Anthony, Rays first baseman Tre’ Morgan, Reds infielder Cam Collier, Pirates infielder Termarr Johnson, Cubs catcher Moises Ballesteros and Nationals infielder Brady House.

The scoring is equal parts simple and complicated. The simple: Whichever of the eight participants finishes with the most points wins. The complicated: Points are doled out for a variety of reasons over three rounds of competition.

In Round 1, competitors will have eight swings to tally points by landing baseballs onto enormous targets laid out across the diamond. Trapezoidal tarps, each about the size of a two-car garage, will be in the two outfield alleys and worth four points if hit. A pair of circular mats will butt the foul lines, each about the size of an above-ground pool; those will be worth eight points. In the infield will reside two bunt targets, each exactly the size of a pitcher's mound, with concentric rings of increasing point values up to 24.

Round 2, a.k.a. “Call Your Shot,” will require players to announce which third of the field they intend to hit toward. After hitters call and knock one each to left, center and right (in any order), they can then pick whichever direction they wish to rack up as many points as possible in 10 more swings. Hitters will receive six points for each successful batted ball; ground balls do not count.

Round 3 will be the closest to a traditional home run derby, with hitters again getting 10 swings to score as many points as possible. Six points will be awarded for every ball that clears the fences to the pull side or center field, while opposite-field blasts will be worth 12 points. Consecutive home runs will activate a six-point bonus. In other words, two pull home runs in a row would elicit 18 points (six each for the taters and then the bonus).

The Skills Showcase and the Futures Game itself are undeniably related to the league office’s increased focus on the non-MLB aspects of the sport. In March, the league unveiled the Spring Breakout Series, a parcel of special spring training games featuring organizations’ top prospects. It’s all part of putting a brighter spotlight on players as they embark upon their “Road to the Show.”

And this new contest’s nod to video games is no accident. The league recognizes that for many young people, video games are a useful gateway into baseball. Many people who play baseball video games are familiar with the feeling of trying to aim and direct the baseball to a particular part of the field, whether on the ground or in the air, and how that relates to pitching timing and swing path.

But watching professional players do that in a gamified way? That’s a brand-new phenomenon.

And it’s part of what makes this Skills Showcase so intriguing. Certain players are lauded for their bat control but never really need to put it to the test. That unknown element here is going to make for fascinating viewing, even if there are bumps along the way.

Worth noting, the event isn’t going to be broadcast live; it will happen right after the Futures Game on Saturday evening but won’t air until 10 a.m. ET the following day on MLB Network. For the league, this is a low-risk test run to see if gamified competitions can work during All-Star week alongside the Home Run Derby.

The NBA has the 3-point contest, the skills challenge and the dunk contest. The NHL All-Star festivities feature a skills competition, too, one that includes shooting accuracy, skating speed and hardest shot. Baseball, as a sport, lends itself less obviously to quirky mini-games, but the league’s willingness to test a skills competition shows that it’s at least open to new, more whimsical ideas. Who knows what the future holds?