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Was THE SIMPSONS’ “Homer at the Bat” Lineup Really That Good?

Was THE SIMPSONS’ “Homer at the Bat” Lineup Really That Good?

Twenty-five years ago today, in an effort to win the softball league championship and his one million dollar bet with the owner of the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant, one C. Montgomery Burns decided to stack his team with ringers comprised of Major League Baseball players. I’m talking, of course, about the plot of one of the greatest and most important episodes in the history of The Simpsons: “Homer at the Bat.”

Smithers, after wisely pointing out it would be best to use players that were still alive, seemingly did a great job putting the team together. Even though Mr. Burns’ plan was nearly foiled by an impossible collection of absurd catastrophes, Darryl Strawberry wound up carrying the team with his nine home runs. That is until folk hero and local man Homer Simpson brought in the winning score.

But did Smithers do the best job possible? Did he put together the most talented team he could have managed? With the power of stats and hindsight, we’re going back and looking at the Springfield lineup to see see if we could have put together an even better squad.

homer-batting

Before we can do that, though, we have to set some ground rules…

1. Anyone chosen will join the team. While Smithers had no issue getting professional MLB players to say yes to his bizarre job offer, Simpsons creators weren’t able to get all the guest stars they originally wanted–Ryne Sandberg and Carlton Fisk each reportedly turned down a role in the episode. To make this simpler, we aren’t going to worry about real world complications and limitations.

2. We’re sticking between the ’91 and ’92 seasons. Another issue is timing. “Homer at the Bat” premiered on February 20, 1992, but the episode was written and recorded for months during the second half of the 1991 season. Clearly, Smithers was approaching these players during baseball’s off-season, so we need to pick a specific time frame to both evaluate Smithers’ judgment and to pick our team.

3. No switching players’ positions. Now, while Smithers primarily stuck to going after players for their specific positions, he did make one exception in the outfield, which means we can too, since we’re returning someone to their actual position. Otherwise we’re going to avoid shifting players around.

burns-team-dusk

Finally, before we begin, let’s really get into the Monday morning quarterbacking. Smithers was trying to pick the perfect team, but part of selecting the best players is projecting how good they will be. Sure, a guy might have had a great season in 1991, but what if he’d stunk it up in ’90 and ’92? Organizations make their biggest mistakes by rewarding players for flukes, or long faded strengths. If only they had the hindsight that we do in today’s undertaking.

Of course, Smithers wasn’t aiming to project success for five seasons of professional baseball, but rather for one single game of slow-pitch softball played in the late winter/early spring of ’92. That means we want power. Lots of power. And if we can’t get power in every player, we want guys guaranteed to get on base by hitting (it’s not as easy to earn a walk in slow-pitch softball).

The last thing we want to consider though isn’t as obvious, but it is really, in some ways, the most important trait: who could we count on? Eight of the MLB ringers didn’t wind up playing in Mr. Burns’ game due to some highly unlikely accidents and bad decisions, proving the value in a player’s reliability to “be there.” So, that leads us to consider injury history and the potential presence of questionable off-the-field habits that might have made one less likely to play (like, funnily enough, Darryl Strawberry).

To sum up, we will attempt to staff the Springfield Power Plant softball team with reliable, healthy guys, preferably with high averages and high home run totals, who were arguably the best players money could buy between 1991 and 1992. And we’ll find them by looking at their ’89 through ’93 seasons, as well as their historical place in the game so we can avoid ending up with a Christian Laettner-like player on this historic team.

Got it? Good. Bake em away toys.

homer-taunt-strawberry-clemens

STAT WARNINGS: If you aren’t comfortable with advanced baseball stats, stick around for this section, otherwise feel free to skip ahead.

Beyond home runs and batting average, we’ll be referencing some stats that casual baseball fans might not be familiar with, so here’s a quick explanation of them, with links to more complicated explanations courtesy of Fangraphs.

OPS+: “OPS” comes from a player’s On Base Percentage (times reaching base safely divided by plate appearances) added to a player’s Slugging Percentage (total bases divided by at bats). So OBP + SP = OPS.

The “+” comes from adjusting for variables that could unfairly make a player look better or worse than a counterpart (which stadium a player plays in, for example), with an OPS+ of 100 being league average. The higher the number the better the hitter. A 150 OPS+ means a player was 50% better than an average hitter, and that’s a great season.

WAR: A single number that tries to account for everything a player does to help his team win. oWAR refers to only what a player did offensively (more relevant for slow-pitch softball), with dWAR as their contributions on defense. As Fangraphs notes, a WAR above 4 makes you an All Star, 5 and above a superstar, and 6 and above an MVP candidate.

OPS+ and WAR are great stats to help us compare players in the fairest way possible, and we’ve relied on them a lot for this exercise. Even though we’ll reference OPS+ a lot more, WAR was extensively used for research purposes to help identify the best players in each season and from that time period. We got all of our stats from the absolutely phenomenal Baseball-Reference.com, a baseball fan’s trustiest (and most addictive) companion.

Let’s use Mr. Burns’ (horrible) lineup as our guide.

lineup

SECOND BASE: Steve Sax

sax-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: We begin with Smithers’ Christian Laettner, a guy that now stands out from his softball teammates for all the wrong reasons: Yankees second baseman Steve Sax.

It brings me no great joy to start by ripping Steve Sax, who is said to have been the sweetest guy that The Simpsons creators worked with (granted, they said the only player that wasn’t pleasant to work with was Jose Canseco, which surprises no one), but the fact is he had no business being near this team. The 1982 National League Rookie of the Year had a nice career, making five All-Star teams and winning a Silver Slugger in 1986, and he was incredibly durable most of his playing days, (from ’82-’92 he played at least 136 games every year at a very tough, demanding position). But in his entire 14-year MLB career, he only had an OPS+ over 100 three times, with his highest far and away coming in 1986 (137).

Smithers might have been thrown off by the other two seasons of above average hitting coming in ’89 and ’91 (OPS+ of 113 and 110), but in 1990 he was pretty bad (OPS+ 80), and he was even worse in ’92 (OPS+ 71). By 1993 he was basically done, and he retired in 1994. With a career batting average of .281 and with only 54 home runs total in 14 seasons, he was about as bad a choice as you could make for a softball team.

And while lineup order is vastly overrated, it’s still insane that Mr. Burns batted him LEADOFF!

Playing for the Yankees from ’89-’91 helped raise his profile, and having players who were used to the spotlight is what you’d want in a winner-take-all championship with big money on the line, but this was the worst signing by Smithers. (Hey, at least such a nice guy and decent ballplayer will always be remembered for being charged with every unsolved murder in New York City. I could only wish for that kind of success.)

sax-prison

OUR PICK: So who should it have been? The very man that turned the show down for the position: the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg. From 1989 to 1992 the Hall-of-Famer was at his apex, playing at least 155 games every season, with OPS+ marks of 134, 140, 138, and 145, excellent numbers for a second baseman. And while we might not expect a ton of power up the middle, during that time he had season home run totals of 30, 40, 26, 26, also great for his position. For the three most important years for us, ’90-’92, he was also Top 10 in WAR and oWAR in all of them.

He was a machine. And he almost definitely didn’t kill anyone in New York City.

THIRD BASE: Wade Boggs

boggs-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: A 12-time All Star with five batting titles, two Golden Gloves, eight Silver Sluggers, and a career batting average of .328 to go along with a career On Base of .415, Boggs was already heading to the Hall of Fame when Smithers chose him. He didn’t hit for any power, but he would have been able to get himself on base every single time and then jog home when the next guy hit one out of the park.

But literally none of that matters. It doesn’t even matter that we could consider replacing Boggs, who followed up a very good 1991 with two mediocre seasons, with the Giant’s Matt Williams, who from ’89-’93 had 143 home runs. Because Wade Boggs had a specific skill that made him arguably the easiest choice to play for this softball team: beer drinking.

boggs-barney

The quantity of beer that Boggs is known to have been able to drink is so legendary that it’s often the first thing people mention when talking about him. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia dedicated an entire episode to it. He once reportedly drank 64 beers ON A CROSS COUNTRY FLIGHT, but that number is, unsurprisingly, disputed now. (The new claim is it was actually 107. I would believe any number.)

Why does this matter so much? Well, in the episode, the umpire goes over the rules with Homer and Chief Wiggum before the first game.

“Any man scoring has to chug a beer. Chug a beer at the top of all odd-numbered innings. And the fourth inning is the beer inning.”

“Hey, we know how to play softball!”

OUR PICK: You could have any professional baseball player for this game, and there’s a Hall-of-Fame talent with the beer drinking ability of a camel? Boggs could have had Steve Sax numbers and he’d be worthy of this spot. Just keep him away from Moe’s.

RIGHTFIELD: Darryl Strawberry

strawberry-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: As much fun as we’re having with this, we’re not going to be glib about Darryl Strawberry’s drug issues, and especially not his domestic violence incidents. He was a supreme talent on the field when motivated and healthy, but self-destructive outside of the game, and his problems might have cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame. The truth is, if you truly needed to win one game in 1992, you’d probably stay away from his just for that reason alone, even though he had so much talent. (The good news is that he now lives a clean and sober life.)

But what about his numbers? He was an All Star every year from ’84 to ’91, and finished in the top nine of MVP voting in ’87 (162 OPS+), ’88 (165 OPS+), ’90, and ’91 (140 OPS+ both years). He had plenty of power (280 career homers at the end of 1991 when he was only 29 years old), and with the exception of 1985 he was mostly on the field for the Mets every day (he signed with the Dodgers in ’91).

Considering there are not many great right field candidates from this very specific time period, Smithers had every reason to think he had the right guy talent-wise, other questions aside. But 1992 is when it all fell apart on the field too. Starting with a bad back that year, when he played only 43 games, Strawberry could never again stay in the lineup. Until his last year in ’99, the two single season highest games played total for him were 101 in ’98, and 63 in ’96. The rest were even worse, and during it all he continued to battle his addiction (he was suspended three times in his career).

Which means we need a different right fielder.

strawberry-cry

OUR PICK: Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest contact hitters ever, Tony Gwynn was in a little bit of a lull (for him) from ’90-’92, even as he kept making All Star teams. Andre Dawson (playing right field at that point in his career) was still an All Star, but more because of his reputation than his production. And it was too early to go with a young Larry Walker.

If we had to choose from these players we’d go with Gwynn, but there’s a better–though less pleasant–option for right field in a slow-pitch softball game. We’ll come back to this soon enough.

LEFTFIELD: Jose Canseco

canseco-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: It’s easy to see why Smithers was drawn to the larger-than-life Canseco. Even though he only played 65 games in ’89, he was otherwise reliable from ’86-’91 (though never really again). In ’88 he led baseball with 42 home runs, then had 37 in ’90, and again led all major leaguers with 44 dingers in 1991. Canseco has the power we want in the lineup, and with only 24 hours to get everyone signed it’s obvious why Smithers went to him first. (Especially since Canseco would never pass up a chance to make an extra buck.)

OUR PICK: But the best player in the world also happened to play left field during this time–a man who dominated MLB from 1990 to 1993: Barry Bonds.

After a down year for him in ’89, Bonds was the NL MVP in ’90, finished second in ’91 (he was robbed), and then won it again in both ’92 and ’93. His OPS+ numbers during that time: 170, 160, 204(!), and 206(!!). During that time he had home run totals of 33, 25, 34, and 46. Oh, and he won a Gold Glove for his defense each of those years too. Go ahead, catch your breath. I’m excited too.

You could say that it’s also weird to not have a place for Rickey Henderson on the squad, but there is no greater omission from this team than Barry Bonds. He could do it all, and he’s an easy choice even if Canseco makes sense for what we want.

canseco-rescue

But you know what? Jose Canseco didn’t play left field then; he played right field during that portion of his career. So if it was okay for Smithers to move him and only him to a different spot, it’s okay for us to put him back where he belongs. We recognize the constant problems he had staying healthy after ’91, but he played 119 games in ’92, so we think we can squeeze one game out of him that off-season. Canseco was basically a softball player anyway, and he would have hit a home run every at-bat. All we’d do is tell him he didn’t get his paycheck until after the game, and he’d be there.

Although, we kind of want to move Canseco to a very different position altogether…

FIRST BASE: Don Mattingly

mattingly-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: I can already hear the cries from New York.

“Hey! Don’t you dare badmouth Donny Baseball. The man was a saint and he should be in the Hall of Fame!”

Rebuttal: He shouldn’t even be on this team. Come at me Yankees fans!

From 1984 to 1989, Mattingly certainly looked like a future Hall of Famer, but his career was derailed by a bad back, which just so happened to make him a poor hitter in 1990 (a stunningly terrible 81 OPS+). He rebounded in ’91 from that disaster, but he was still far below his former numbers, coming in with an OPS+ of only 103, and 108 in ’92. (He was better in ’93 and ’94, but never again the elite star he had been when he was a perennial MVP candidate–which he won in ’85.) It also didn’t help that he was, as Burns put it, a “dirty hippie” that refused to do what his manager ordered. Mattingly actually did have a spat with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner over his hair being too long… though in fairness, C. Montgomery Burns and George Steinbrenner were both regarded as lunatics, so it wasn’t really Donny Baseball’s fault that he kept ending up with crazy owners.

mattingly-sideburns

OUR PICK: So if not Mattingly, who should man first base? One candidate is the power-hitting Cecil Fielder, who didn’t play more than 82 games in a season in Toronto before leaving to play in Japan in 1989. He returned to MLB in 1990, where he played 159 games and hit a mere 51 homers. He followed that up in 1991 with 44 home runs, and then had 35 and 30 the next two years, all while playing at least 154 games both seasons.

However, his other numbers leave a lot to be desired. His 167 OPS+ in ’90 was great, but the highest mark the rest of that four year span was “only” 133, and the other years didn’t see him crack even 120. So there are lots of question marks around him, including whether or not he’d abandon the team to go play for the Tokyo Power Plant.

And if you’re wondering about Mark McGwire, in ’89 and ’90 he was good to very good, and packed lots of power. But he was an average hitter in ’91 (22 home runs, only a 103 OPS+). He more than rebounded from that, since he was a total beast in ’92 with an AL leading 176 OPS+ along with 42 home runs. But due to injuries he barely played in both ’93 and ’94 (27 and 47 games). All of that makes it impossible to know exactly what you were getting from him when this game would be played in early 1992. Fortunately there was a future Hall of Famer who just so happened to be blossoming into a pitcher-eating monster right when this game was played: The Big Hurt, Frank Thomas.

He only played 60 games in his first MLB season in 1990, but he posted an OPS+ of 177. If anyone thought that was a fluke, the next year in 158 games he bettered it with a 180 OPS+ and 32 homers. At age 23.

And here are his OPS+ numbers for the next six seasons: 174, 177, 212, 179, 178, and 181. His lowest batting average during that time was .308. So he was young, hitting for a high average, and doing it with lots of power. He played more DH in ’91 than first base, but was in the field for all of ’92. A lineup with young Frank Thomas and best-player-alive Barry Bonds just made me tear up, thinking of a dream world that never was. It’s hard to imagine anything better.

CENTERFIELDKen Griffey Jr.

griffey-intro

…UNLESS YOU ADD A YOUNG KEN GRIFFEY JR!

SMITHERS’ PICK: I don’t think I can objectively judge, analyze, or even speak about young Ken Griffey Jr. No athlete in my lifetime has ever been cooler. I was a little kid when he was basically a young Willie Mays with a backwards hat and the world’s biggest smile, and I can promise you everyone my age felt the same way.

He had some pop in ’90 and ’91 (22 homers each year), and was a .300 hitter in each, with an OPS+ of 136 and 155, all while playing a Gold Glove centerfield both years (he was like watching a gazelle with a glove). He was a five-tool player, and he was only 21 in 1991.

griffey-giant-head-drink

OUR PICK: There are lots of great centerfielders from this time, like the late, great Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett… and maybe he would have avoided an addiction to nerve tonic. But we’d take Ken Griffey–even with a grotesquely swollen jaw–every single time for the rest of time.

CATCHER: Mike Scioscia

scioscia

SMITHERS’ PICK: In some ways this is the hardest spot to fill. All we need defensively out of our catcher is someone who can handle an underhand lob, and possibly place a tag, so we don’t have to worry about defense at all. We want a catcher who can hit. That wasn’t really Mike Scioscia, at least not after 1985.

He had big years at the plate in both ’83 and ’85. By 1991 he was a nice little hitter, but nothing special. In fact, for his career, he only had an OPS+ of 99. A totally average hitting catcher who plays stellar defense is nothing to sneeze at in MLB, but not for slow-pitch softball. The problem is finding the right replacement for him.

scioscia-sick

OUR PICK: We would love for this team to be made up entirely of Hall of Famers, or at least unforgettable talents, but no catcher that fits that description makes for a great option in early 1992. The Simpsons wanted future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, and from ’89 to ’91 (his 40-42 age seasons–the original Pudge was a freak of nature) he put up really good numbers. His OPS+ during those three years were 155, 136, and 134, but his games played totals were only 76, 103, and then an excellent 137.

In 1991, at age 43 he played 134 games (seriously, this guy was made of steel), but his OPS+ took a nose dive, to a below average 97. And he followed that up in 92 with only 63 games and a terrible 76 OPS+. As such, his performance in a game in early ’92 would be a very dicey proposition.

But the second Pudge, Ivan Rodriguez, debuted in ’91 and was years away from being the hitter he would become. Mike Piazza, maybe the greatest hitting backstopper ever, debuted in ’92, so he is even less of an option. So if we really want to win this game we have to look at lesser remembered players (Benito Santiago and Sandy Alomar Jr. were making All Star teams, but weren’t anything special at the plate).

The best hitting catcher during this time period was Detroit’s Mickey Tettleton, who led all catchers from 90-93 in WAR, and who had an OPS+ of 140 in ’91, and a 137+ in ’92. He also had 31 and 32 home runs those years, and his ’93 season was just as good.

So who do we go with here? Tettleton is under-appreciated, but he’d be the de facto Christian Laettner on this team. Fisk has the prestige, but he wasn’t himself at the time of this game. A million dollars is nice, but bragging rights are priceless, so we want to win. Tettleton gets the call.

SHORTSTOP: Ozzie Smith

ozzie-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: We love Ozzie Smith. The Wizard was the rarest of baseball players–one so good with his glove you’d watch just to see him field. But he couldn’t hit, and he shouldn’t have been on a slow-pitch softball team.

His career batting average was .262, and his career OPS+ was 87 (remember, 100 is an average hitter), with his single season career high of only 112 (though in fairness to Smithers, that was in 1991). We want to be prepared for Shelbyville to have ringers too, so we can’t imagine his defense up the middle would be enough to make up for his offensive shortcomings.

OUR PICK: We can’t put him in this lineup as is, but especially when Cal Ripken Jr. was at the height of his powers in 1991. From 1989 until 1993, the second highest single season WAR was a tie between 1990 Rickey Henderson and 1993 Barry Bonds, both with a 9.9 WAR (an absurd number). Bonds has the second highest oWAR during that time too, at 8.7 in 9’3.

So who is first? Cal Ripken in 1991 tops both of those lists, with an 11.5 WAR and a 9.2 oWAR. That’s Babe Ruth territory.

guillen-fall

I took a cold shower after seeing those numbers. They are so good we’re totally throwing out our concerns about fluke seasons, since he wasn’t particularly exceptional in ’89 or ’90, and he was actually a below average hitter in ’92 and ’93. It seems insane to think you’d play a winner take all game in early 1992 and not have him at short.

Especially since he, more than anyone to ever play the game, accounts for one of our biggest concerns about…well, accountability. He is MLB’s Iron Man, having played in 2,632 straight games over 16 seasons. With eight no shows for the game, we have no doubt that he would have been in the lineup.

So while we love Ozzie Smith, and deeply apologize to Barry Larkin for not making a case for him, we have to go with Ripken, who was otherworldly in 1991, and who would not have fallen into a timeless void right before the game. Probably.

PITCHER: Roger Clemens

clemens-intro

SMITHERS’ PICK: You know how when a newspaper is owned by the person they are covering, and they have to put a disclaimer so the readers are aware of any conflicts of interest? Yeah, well I’m a Red Sox fan and I hate Roger Clemens more than George R.R. Martin hates deadlines. But the good news is, I don’t have to put the big chicken on this team–in fact, I don’t even have to look at his amazing stats–and for totally legitimate reasons: it would be insane to pick an American League pitcher.

OUR PICK: There was no DH in this softball league, meaning Clemens would have had to hit. But only National League pitchers hit, so it only makes sense to look to them for this spot… except that none of them could really hit. So we’re going to make this simple and decide between two Hall of Famers: the Braves’ Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Glavine was better in ’91, winning the Cy Young and the Silver Slugger, but Maddux was the Cy Young winner in ’92 and one of the all-time best fielding pitchers.

Starting in 1992, Maddux went on one of the great runs ever by a pitcher, but Glavine was the better hitter. Neither guy would conceivably walk anybody in this game, so we’re putting Glavine on the team. (But you know what we really want to do? We want to put Tony Gwynn in right field instead of Canseco, and move Jose to the mound. In 1993, the former high school pitcher actually pitched in a MLB game. And sure, Canseco then immediately had surgery on his elbow following that appearance, but we just want him to throw underhand, which wouldn’t put much torque on his arm. This is violating our own rules, but we thought we should throw it out there as a suggestion.)

homer-ground

To recap, here’s our final replacement lineup:

2B: Ryne Sandberg
3B: Wade Boggs
RF: Jose Canseco
LF: Barry Bonds
1B: Frank Thomas
CF: Ken Griffey Jr.
C: Mickey Tettleton
SS: Cal Ripken
P: Tom Glavine

Despite the great job he did in only 24 hours, that team would beat Smithers’ squad easy.

homer-carried

…assuming everyone showed up.

But what do you think? What players did we get right, and which ones did we get wrong? We’re talking softball in the comments below, on Facebook, and on Twitter at @nerdist and @burgermike.

Images: 20th Century Fox

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