The sun is shining just a little bit brighter. The grass is starting to get a little bit greener. Birds are chirping happily in the trees. The dirt's being raked, the sunflower seeds purchased, the field's being chalked, and the eye black applied. Spring is in the air. Baseball's Opening Day has arrived.

As sure as the seasons turn, you can count on a new version of MLB: The Show arriving just in time for the start of the baseball season. Though last year's PlayStation 4 version arrived a little later than usual, this year Sony San Diego delivered the goods on time, and MLB 15: The Show showed up ready to play. Featuring its trademark simulation-style baseball, deep franchise and career modes, and a retooled Diamond Dynasty, MLB 15: The Show has improved in just about every conceivable area from its previous incarnation. So why does it feel so stale?

The most important thing a sports simulation can do is, you guessed it, simulate the given sport well enough to make you feel like you're actually playing the real thing. The MLB: The Show franchise has been doing that for years, and this entry is no exception. MLB 15 does an outstanding job replicating both hitting and pitching, two of baseball's most key aspects. This year Sony San Diego added in a new directional hitting mechanic to better emulate how real MLB players will look at a certain spot for a pitch, and a new pitch locator that would show where a pitch would land versus the starting point for the break. These new elements are appreciated and make their respective aspects that much easier to manage for newcomers and vets.

Sony San Diego

For the most part, baserunning and fielding have remained largely unchanged from last year. There's been a slight revamp to controlling multiple runners on the bases, which is now managed by flicking the left stick in the direction of the runner you wish to control and then using a face button to direct him. The defensive play in the infield is virtually identical to the past few years, for better or worse. There are still far too many animations that take too long to play out before you can throw the ball, and fielder reaction times still aren't as fast as they should be for many of the more skilled position players. But really, it's the needless slow reach to the side and the stand and wait for the ball to arrive animations that really stick out like a sore thumb. They've been in place for years, and it's time for something new.

In the outfield, MLB 15 has actually taken a few steps back. Defense for the outfield was too good last year, so Sony San Diego listened to feedback, and attempted to swing the curve back to make it more of a challenge. In creating new defensive algorithms to determine whether or not a fielder can actually get to a fly ball in time and catch it, the developers went too far. Now you have to cross your fingers every time there's a fly ball hit anywhere but directly at your outfielders. In more than a dozen different games, both online and offline, the outfielders on numerous teams completely whiffed on catching balls even when they were in the circular catch range MLB 15 uses to determine the probability of a catch. Sometimes, the ball would hit a player's glove and bounce right off, as if he was swatting it away. Other times, a player would inexplicably stumble (from a standstill, mind you) to his left or right and bail out of the way of the incoming ball. It's made all the more frustrating by the fact that it's completely out of your hands once the fielder is in position, too.

Sony San Diego

Despite those issues, MLB 15 still somehow manages to be a lot of fun to play in any of its various modes. For the first time ever, you can import saves from the previous year in both Franchise and Road to the Show. The process is as simple as choosing to load an existing save from the menu, and you're off and running with all the new bells and whistles. Of course, you can start over from scratch, too, if you're into having the most up to date roster in your various games. Both Franchise and RTTS still rely a bit too heavily on menus to navigate your respective careers, but longtime players will appreciate the new contract negotiations and trade systems, as well as the new official sponsors. MLB 15 features real companies and equipment for the first time, allowing you to give your RTTS player authentic gear that comes with a variety of stat bonuses. Replay challenges (initiated by the AI, not you) and the real Wild Card playoffs are also added this year, which adds another level of authenticity to the season.

The bigger changes to those modes come in relation to Diamond Dynasty, MLB 15: The Show's collectible card game mode. This year, in addition to purchasing card packs with Stubs (MLB's in-game currency), you can collect cards simply by playing the game. Randomly, cards will be awarded to you representing players, stadiums, gear and sponsors you can use across the various game modes. You can fill out a decent roster even by never playing a single game in Diamond Dynasty, though you'll be rewarded by playing it frequently. Additionally, cards no longer have an expiration date/usage limit in Diamond Dynasty, which means you'll be able to keep whatever roster you want together for as long as you want.

Sony San Diego

Instead, cards are used to improve your Diamond Dynasty create-a-player, should you wish to create one. By "feeding" cards to your player, his skills will get better in areas specific to the player cards you "destroyed." The created player can play any position at any time, so you can build a truly rounded superfreak that can do anything, or you can merely focus on getting him to be a superior position player by giving up one type of card. Big power hitters add power, great fielders improve fielding, and so on down the roster. It's a fun way to eliminate the lower tiered players you'll unlock in the mode, and there's hardly a shortage of cards to use to improve your player. The gamble on dumping a more valuable asset to improve him is there, too, and adds some strategy to how your cards are used.

All of that would be for naught if the online wasn't up to snuff, and for the most part, MLB 15's online works. You can play Diamond Dynasty offline, but only against normal teams. Putting your teambuilding skills to the test against others online (with random pitcher selections) is a lot more fun. In years past, the timing was off when it came to batting and pitching, and if those two elements don't work, you don't have much of a chance for a successful baseball experience. This year, we encountered minimal issues online, and even those problems we did encounter (choppy fielding, swings that resulted in hits on one screen but outs for another player) were few and far between. The hitting and pitching was almost indistinguishable from the offline, and that's a huge step forward for the franchise.

Sony San Diego

There's a lot to be said for being the dominant force MLB: The Show has been for the past half-dozen years or so. With each new year, Sony San Diego has managed to keep the core baseball experience intact, improving in different areas with each subsequent season. MLB 15 is full of little adjustments here and a tiny bit of tinkering there to ensure that it's still an incredibly fulfilling and complete baseball game, and the developers have done this knowing there's virtually no competition on the market.

While that would normally be great news, the fact that MLB 15 is so on point in so many areas makes the flaws stand out that much more. The outfielder AI is suspect at times, the career modes are really starting to show their ages, and the animations are still fairly floaty and inconsistent. Even though MLB 15 is an improvement, the changes implemented don't make this year's version that much better or different than MLB 14. The Show is still the best game in town, but that doesn't mean this year is the best it's ever been.

This review was completed with a purchased retail copy of MLB 15: The Show for the PlayStation 4.