If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you grew up as a nerd. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, not in the least. I grew up a self-described “baseball nerd” and I know plenty of others who did as well. Often, with this sort of nerdery came other nerdy interests, such as comic books, video games, and science fiction. But on rare occasion, our interests intertwine in a way that’s particularly satisfying.
On February 20th, 1992, that very thing happened for me. Okay, maybe not directly for me, as I had just turned six years old and really hadn’t discovered baseball yet. But a masterpiece that I would discover as I hit adolescence, The Simpsons aired a season three episode titled “Homer at the Bat.” It had everything that someone obsessed with The Simpsons and baseball would want—an intriguing plot surrounded by Homer’s successes and failures, fairly strong Mr. Burns writing, and nine major-league players providing their own voices. It was a cavalcade of perfection. But the one question I’ve wondered about over time regards the group of players they brought in as ringers—could they have done better, at the time?
The story, if you’re unfamiliar—and if you are, how?—goes like this: Homer carves a special bat out of a tree limb after lightning strikes in his yard (wait, are The Simpsons known for parodying things?) and uses Wonderbat to club home run after home run for his Nuclear Power Plant softball team. The team has its best season ever and advances to the city championship game against the rival Shelbyville. Mr. Burns, the miserly and antediluvian plant owner, makes a $1 million bet with the Shelbyville nuclear plant owner on the outcome of the game.
Soon after, Burns reveals his clever plan to ensure winning to his assistant and chief confidant, Waylon Smithers—he would assemble the greatest baseball team ever to take the field. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Honus Wagner, Mordecai “Three-finger” Brown, Cap Anson, Gabby Hartnett, and Jim Creighton—who Smithers notes has, at this point in time, been dead for 130 years—are among the names on his archaic list, but nevertheless Smithers goes about gathering a more modern set of ringers to take phony jobs at the nuclear plant and, of course, play in the championship game.
Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Mike Scioscia, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr., and Darryl Strawberry are collected and set to take on Shelbyville. But, as good comedy would suggest, the majority of them befall some sort of tragedy. Sax is imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit, Canseco gets stuck running in and out of a burning building to get an old lady’s furniture, Scioscia is stricken with radiation poisoning from working in the nuclear plant, Boggs lands in a bar fight with Barney over the greatest English Prime Minister—it’s Lord Palmerston, not Pitt the Elder—and Griffey Jr. ends up with an odd case of gigantism.
On game day, the team is forced to start the original lineup—sans Homer, as the kiss-assing Strawberry remains to play in his spot in right field. But Homer gets his moment in the sun when Burns pinch-hits Homer with the bases loaded and the game on the line because, of course, the pitcher was left-handed and so was Strawberry.
The episode is packed with hilarious sight gags and baseball jokes, including that Homer pinch-hitting for Strawberry is Mr. Burns’ idea of “playing the percentages.” But as amazingly as this episode combined my two favorite things in the world, I keep going back to the lineup of players. Clearly, Burns is strikingly out of touch with the state of modern baseball—he did, after all, try to import an entire roster of deceased former players—and leaves Smithers to do the legwork. He got nine players—even if only one of them actually played—but were they the best nine available? If the owner of the Shelbyville power plant had come up with the same idea, for example, could a better team have been made?
To fully make that determination, we must examine the performance of the existing nine. Since the episode aired right as spring training began for the 1992 season we’ll use that season as the baseline. To start, Clemens had a fantastic year for the Red Sox with a 2.41 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and 5.6 WARP. Even if the team hypnotist had him clucking like a chicken, those are excellent numbers. But Greg Maddux had a similar, yet superior, season with the Cubs that year. He won the NL Cy Young with a 2.18 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 7.0 WARP. It also helps the case that Strawberry was 7-for-42 off Maddux in his career, but a decent portion of that came after 1992.
At catcher, Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers was chosen to work as the battery-mate for Clemens. Despite being one of the best defensive catchers in the game, Scioscia wasn’t anything to write home about on offense. It was clear that the priority wasn’t a slugger but a quality overall player, and Scioscia was that. He had posted a 3.3 WARP in 1991, which is fairly good for a guy with modest offensive numbers. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Scioscia was really more excited about working in the nuclear plant than he was about playing softball. But anyway, he fell off tremendously at the plate in 1992 and only posted a 1.3 WARP, leaving a decent amount of better choices for the spot. While Darren Daulton of the Phillies wasn’t near the defensive catcher Scioscia was, he was an offensive force in 1992—he had a 5.2 WARP, .327 TAv, and a .851 OPS.
I’m starting to believe that maybe Mr. Smithers was experiencing big market bias, as six of the nine players he chose had played for either the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, or Los Angeles Dodgers the season prior. Anyway, Mattingly had already seen somewhat of a decline after being one of the better overall hitters in the American League—slugging .521 from 1982-1989 but just .405 from 1990-1995. I would think it didn’t have anything to do with a Sampson-like loss of power related to his shaved sideburns, as the decline began two years before “Homer at the Bat.” He was worth just 2.7 WARP in 1992, and a host of others would’ve been better options—with White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas leading the way with 7.3 WARP.
Sax was traded from the Yankees to the White Sox in January of 1992—likely not due to his legal troubles in Springfield, I would imagine—where he would proceed to have the worst season of his career at the age of 32. After posting a .271 TAv and 3.0 WARP in 1991, Sax had just a .221 TAv and -0.5 WARP in 143 games with the Sox. You could probably have thrown a dart at a baseball game and hit a better second baseman than Sax in 1992. But for the purpose of specificity, Ryne Sandberg was good for a .318 TAv and 7.2 WARP that season and would’ve been the best possible selection.
Smith was an incredible shortstop with speed and athleticism, even if he had flaws such as a lack of power and occasionally falling into a bottomless pit. In 1992, Smith was 37 years old and already past his prime, but he still got on base at a .367 clip and put up a 4.1 WARP, which is pretty impressive for an older guy. Barry Larkin, a much younger shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, was considerably better. He got on base at a higher rate (.377), hit for much more power (.454 slugging), and had a 5.6 WARP. In this event, it just depends on what you’re looking for in forming your team—a defensive stud, or a very good defensive player with better offensive upside? Larkin is the better choice here.
Despite playing almost exactly as many games in 1992 as he did in 1991, Boggs had a significantly worse year. He dropped in doubles from 42 to 22, in TAv from .307 to .268, and in WARP from 4.0 to 1.3. The beating he took at the hands of Barney Gumble didn’t seem to keep him out of any games, but maybe he had trouble dealing with how wrong he was—I mean, Pitt the Elder? Seriously? Anyway, a young slugger for the Padres named Gary Sheffield would’ve made a better choice, as he posted a .965 OPS, .338 TAv, and 8.3 WARP. In reality, he played well enough to deserve an MVP award, if not for one of the best hitters of this generation taking it.
Speaking of, Smithers gathered Jose Canseco to play left field, even though he never really seemed to have much interest. For $50,000, Canseco agreed to do it—even though it was a pay cut—and then never even made it past the first practice. Despite clubbing 44 home runs in 665 plate appearances and posting a 6.1 WARP in 1991, Canseco hit just 26 homers in 512 plate appearances with 3.2 WARP the following year. He certainly wasn’t the best left fielder they could’ve chosen (he was a right fielder or DH, anyway). That honor goes to Pittsburgh’s Barry Bonds, who posted a 9.7 WARP and .378 TAv, taking home the National League MVP award.
It’s hard to argue with Ken Griffey Jr. playing center field, especially a 22-year-old Griffey. The talent oozed from Junior in the early part of his career, and he wouldn’t disappoint. But even though he didn’t have a down year in 1992—4.9 WARP, .317 TAv, .896 OPS—he probably wasn’t the best selection, based on the numbers. Andy Van Slyke, the outfielder to the left of Bonds in Pittsburgh, had his career year in 1992. Van Slyke had an .886 OPS, .326 TAv, and 7.9 WARP that season, and is the most deserving on our ringer team to man center field.
Finally, we come to right field, which we all know rightfully should be fielded by Homer Simpson. But Strawberry is the one who actually played in right field that day, and he had a helluva game—he hit nine home runs off Shelbyville’s pitching staff. Unfortunately for Strawberry, this one is somewhat of a sad case in that he had a variety of injury, personal health, and substance abuse related problems that derailed his career despite looking like a potential Hall of Famer through the age of 29. He posted just a 0.3 WARP in 43 games played in 1992, and the best right fielder in the game was Larry Walker of the Montreal Expos. He hit for an .859 OPS, .306 TAv, and 5.3 WARP that season.
If the question is whether Mr. Smithers knew enough about baseball to assemble the best team possible, I think the answer is clearly "no." He probably knew enough to have a cursory knowledge, possibly from overhearing the occasional chatter at work among the other plant employees. He did a great job grabbing the big names, for sure, but if Shelbyville had gone out and grabbed Maddux, Daulton, Thomas, Sandberg, Larkin, Sheffield, Bonds, Van Slyke, and Walker, even with a few misfortunes of their own they could have easily taken care of the Springfield Isotopes. As is, the 1992 Spingfield city champs are probably the greatest fictional cartoon baseball team ever assembled, but only by default.