Recreating “Homer at the Bat”

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By: Connor Lenahan

The following was my final essay for an interdisciplinary course about baseball at Boston University. Jonah Keri of Grantland helped inspire the project, and it the grandfather to this exercise. Read his take here. Enjoy the following. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

The ethics of winning a bet for a million dollars are very fluid for Charles Montgomery Burns. Mr. Burns as the employees at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant know him, will stop at nothing to win over rival power plant owner Aristotle Amadopolous when they face off in their upcoming softball game. Burns elects that hiring outside help by way of recruiting major league baseball players as company employees is how he will vanquish his foe and come out victorious. His right hand man, Waylon Smithers, however, informs him that the team that Burns has created would be impossible to field. By 1991 Burns’ stars – “Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, Mordecai ‘Three-Finger’ Brown” – are either long since retired or deceased. Instead, Smithers travels around the country and rounds up nine of the best players in the MLB at the time to play for the company as their ringers. This is the central plot to 1992’s “Homer at the Bat,” a third season episode of The Simpsons.

In “Homer at the Bat” nine MLB stars lend their voices and guest star while participating in not only an all star quality game, but what is widely believed to be one of the best episodes of The Simpsons ever made. In 2014 Rolling Stone named “Homer at the Bat” the 15th best episode in the series history. To this day it has drawn praise not only for the comedy brought from the guest stars, but the parody of sports films that it brings. The main character, Homer Simpson, was the star of the team before the arrival of the ringers, mashing home runs with his homemade bat, “Wonderbat.” Homer plays the intramural softball Roy Hobbs, right down to the climactic, game-winning hit – Hobbs hits a dramatic home run, while Simpson, true to character, is hit by a pitch to his head with the bases loaded, thus winning the game and one million dollars for Mr. Burns.

Despite the fact that the episode in question first aired twenty-three years ago, it still draws interest from baseball fans and writers alike. In 2013 Grantland writer Jonah Keri, an admittedly large fan of The Simpsons, took it upon himself to recreate the team that had appeared in the original “Homer at the Bat” with current day ballplayers. The article, “The New Springfield Nine,” was an entertaining read that lacked a clear methodology to the selections outside of seemingly picking the best players at each position on the diamond. The goal was not to recreate the original championship team, rather to build one anew.

Keri is due a large debt as an inspiration for this paper. However, this paper will do what he elected not to – recreate the original Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team with current day players as accurately as possible. For the sake of clear investigation, more than one team will be constructed. The scope of “Homer at the Bat” did not limit the team to the field only. A defining part of the episode was the numerous misfortunes that befell the major league stars save for Darryl Strawberry, the evening before the championship game and prevented them from playing. It is equally important when recreating this team to consider the project through two separate lenses.

First would be to recreate the team – Mike Scioscia, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., Jose Canseco, and Roger Clemens – with their closest on field counterparts in 2014. The timing of the episode – first airing in February of 1992 – meant that the players selected were chosen for their 1991 production. Similarly, with the 2015 season only a month old, the season statistics for 2014 will be used for the sake of comparing players across time. Further, the statistics of the players were matched as closely as possible in major categories including hits, home runs, walks, stolen bases, batting average, runs batted in, batting average, on base percentage, and wins above replacement. The pitcher for the new team was weighed upon his ability to best replicate Roger Clemens’ win-loss record, earned run average, strike outs, walks, walks and hits over innings pitched, and again, wins above replacement. The wins above replacement (WAR) category was given special consideration in recreating the team as it shows a numerical representation of how many wins each player individually brought to the team. To make the 2015 Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team a player must resemble the statistics and style of the previous player – Jose Canseco’s replacement would need to bring something similar to his 44 home runs, for example – while filling their contribution to the team as closely as possible given last season’s results. This ensured that the modernized team that Mr. Burns would field would resemble his champions as best as possible in an effort to repeat the success of the 90’s.

However, there must also be a consideration for the players off the field. What made the episode a success were the personality types of the players and the cultural roles they presented for the viewer. Additionally, for the sake of story, the original players ended up being rendered useless because of pieces of their personality. It is important to find who could best replicate what Don Mattingly brought to the plate, but it is also key to find a modern first baseman with facial hair that would lead Mr. Burns to have a meltdown. That’s why the second team will focus less on the statistical output of the players involved and instead hone in on what made them each great characters that could be replicated with today’s ballplayers. To accomplish this, players from 2015 were chosen based upon their ability to mimic the identity of the champion team, including but not limited to the potential to suffer mysterious fates before the big game.

With a methodology lined out, it is time to recreate the greatest softball team that The Simpsons have ever known. The first team assembled will be the statistical and the latter team will be the cultural.


 

Catcher: John Jaso

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Also Considered: Yadier Molina and Wilson Ramos

Finding a replacement for Mike Scioscia was difficult in that Scioscia was the least impressive on the team with regards to offensive output. Scioscia was the only player who failed to log at least 100 hits for the season. He had the second lowest team WAR behind only Don Mattingly. Finding his replacement would involve finding a player who had a relatively subpar offensive output while also bringing his team close to two wins by showing up.

John Jaso was a strikingly similar player in 2014 to Scioscia in 1991. Jaso, as seen above, was able to almost perfectly mimic Scioscia in a number of categories except for walks and on base percentage as a result. Save for these connected numbers, the two hit incredibly similar lines and brought close to two wins to the field by playing.

The others considered for this position, Yadier Molina and Wilson Ramos, had legitimate cases to make for the team if it weren’t for Jaso matching the numbers as close or exact as he had. Molina provided 2.4 wins for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014, however he also had a much better season hitting than Scioscia (114 H, .282 BA) while matching Jaso for walks. Wilson Ramos got exactly 91 hits in 2014, but only brought a .9 WAR, leaving him far behind the others with regard to added value.


 

First Base: James Loney

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Also Considered: Joe Mauer, Freddie Freeman, and Anthony Rizzo

Don Mattingly brought to the team a veteran first baseman with an evolving game. His age-30 season was a departure from his stronger seasons in the past, including a MVP season in 1985 in which he had 211 hits and 35 home runs. This aging Mattingly was far from bad, however he was no longer a force at first.

This makes almost complete sense with James Loney as the replacement for Mattingly at first. A simple glance at their comparative lines will show that they had as close of seasons as possible with regards to offensive output. The two each produced a good season without making a large impact, as seen in each bringing only one and a half wins to the team. They were effective hitters, but neither was in consideration to be MVP in what was each of their age-30 seasons.

Multiple other first basemen were considered, but Loney’s statistics were so identical that it was far from a true competition. Joe Mauer had a weaker offensive season in all categories save for walks (126 H, 4 HR, 55 RBI, 60 BB, .277 BA) and somehow ended up with a 2.1 WAR, surpassing Mattingly in value. Freeman hit twice as many home runs, made the All Star team, and almost doubled Mattingly’s WAR, finishing 2014 with 3.1 wins above replacement. Rizzo was almost immediately disqualified despite his .286 batting average for almost quadrupling Mattingly’s home run total with 32 total for 2014.


 

Second Base: Howie Kendrick

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Also Considered: Jose Altuve, Daniel Murphy, Dee Gordon, and Dustin Pedroia

Steve Sax proved to be quite possibly the most difficult player to recreate on the entire roster. He had a number of odd statistics that made finding a mimic close to impossible. Sax had a terrific hitting season with 198 hits and a .304 batting average. He was able to bring four wins to the team when he played. Most impossible to replicate were his 31 stolen bases. Sax’s stolen base total was almost impossible to find a close enough comparison for. Jose Altuve and Dee Gordon were considered initially on the premise that their stolen base totals could potentially stand in. However, Altuve both obliterated Sax’s average, hitting .341, and stole 56 bases in all. Gordon hit only .289 but managed to steal 64 bases, well above Sax’s totals. Aside from those two, the highest number of stolen bases in the league for second basemen last year belonged to Emilio Bonifacio, who hit close to 50 points worse than Sax (.259 BA) while stealing just 26 bases.

Daniel Murphy was a candidate given his proximity to Sax’s team in 1991 – Sax a Yankee, Murphy a Met. However, Murphy’s WAR of 2.0 was only half of Sax’s, creating too large a disparity for the sake of the team. Dustin Pedroia and Howie Kendrick were the final two players that even remotely resembled Sax’s 1991 season. Pedroia proved to be too far away from Sax in hits and average in comparison to Kendrick – Pedroia had 153 hits and a .278 average. This left Howie Kendrick as the closest statistical comparison for Sax, despite adding more than an extra win above what the replacement was supposed to bring.

This selection was the one most representative of the difficulty of trying to replicate the team exactly. It’s a close to impossible task to attempt to pick from a limited pool and hope that numbers line up exactly. Some, including the two players previously added to the modern team, create easier fits than others. Others, such as Kendrick, create larger problems. It is not a perfect fit, but perfection in this case is impossible.


 

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez

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Also Considered: Starlin Castro, Jose Reyes, and Erick Aybar

Ozzie Smith, like others in this experiment, brought his own set of challenges to account for statistically. For one, Smith was walked 83 times in 1991 while the league leader in 2014, Jimmy Rollins, was only walked 64 times. Smith also had an on base percentage of .380 while the best of 2014 belonged to Hanley Ramirez and finished 11 points behind. Further, Smith was such a presence on defense that his WAR reached 5, something no player even remotely close to Smith’s numbers could touch. Castro, Reyes, Aybar, and Ramirez each had WARs below 4, let alone the 5 that Smith amassed. This created special consideration between three players – Aybar, Reyes, and Ramirez. Castro was far enough behind in WAR, only adding two wins in 2014, to be eliminated early in consideration.

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Hanley Ramirez was the selection for the team primarily because of his on base abilities. The differences in WAR were fairly negligible between Aybar and Ramirez, less than half a win between them. However, with Smith reaching base as much as he did, it would be impossible to justify putting someone that got on base at a clip over 50 points worse on the team. Ramirez is not the absolute perfect solution, neither are Reyes or Aybar, but he stands in as the most balanced solution possible.


 

Third Base: Adrian Beltre

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Also Considered: Josh Harrison

What was surprising to find upon investigating into potential third basemen for the current team was that Boggs was absolutely nothing like the rest of the candidates. Boggs was the only player that more or less commanded the best player at the position to be put in and hope they would somewhat resemble his output. Adrian Beltre and Josh Harrison were the only two candidates even considered for the spot, as they were the only two third basemen to hit above .300 in 2014. From there the selection of Beltre was fairly simple. He had three less hits than Boggs while Harrison was 17 behind. Each had more home runs, however this was rendered acceptable later. Boggs finished 1991 with 89 walks, Beltre finished 2014 with 57, but Harrison only finished with 22. Harrison had a solid season with 5.3 wins added above replacement, however the margin to Beltre’s 7 was smaller. Most notably, Beltre’s on base percentage was 40 points superior to that of Harrison. Much like the rest of this team, Beltre isn’t exactly Boggs. However, finding a direct, perfect replacement to a Hall of Fame third baseman is far from easy. Choosing the active third baseman closest to joining the Hall himself is a simple decision.


 

Outfield: Justin Upton

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Also Considered: Marlon Byrd, Seth Smith, and Brett Gardner

Darryl Strawberry, the villain of “Homer at the Bat,” was the only member of the recruited ringer team to actually see the field in the original story. Strawberry, who replaced Homer in the line up, managed to hit nine home runs in the championship game, good for almost a third of his total from the season before. Luckily it wasn’t all that hard to find another outfielder to step into Strawberry’s place in Justin Upton. Upton brings almost the exact same production and WAR to the team as Strawberry did.

Upton also was able to fairly easily rule out the other choices for the position. Brett Gardner looked attractive momentarily but was missing the home run production (17 to Strawberry’s 28 HRs) and the RBIs (58 to Strawberry’s 99) to make the team despite actually posting a higher WAR (4.0 to 3.6). Seth Smith similarly hit too light to replicate the home run threat of Strawberry, posting lower numbers in all aforementioned categories for Brett Gardner.

The closest anyone was to Strawberry/Upton was Marlon Byrd. Byrd was within an acceptable limit in some categories (156 H, 25 HR, 85 RBI) before being proven not quite as good a fit as Upton (.312 OBP and 2.6 WAR). With Byrd lacking in total value and on base percentage, Justin Upton was proved to be the strongest fit for Strawberry’s spot.


 

Outfield: Michael Brantley

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Also Considered: Mike Trout and Alex Gordon

The biggest surprise of the Statistical team research was that Mike Trout was not the correct replacement for Ken Griffey Jr.’s production. Given that each is respected as one of the most incredible young talents the game has ever seen, it appeared that Trout was the easiest selection to predict. However, upon comparing the two it became clear that they did not match up as well as Brantley and Griffey Jr. had. Alex Gordon was briefly considered for the sake of being thorough, but his batting average was 40 below that of Griffey and Brantley, leading him to be disqualified.

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Trout had more or less a better season – certainly by WAR – than Griffey Jr. did in 1991. This makes sense given that Trout in 2014 was the best player in the game and the AL MVP, whereas Griffey Jr. was ninth in the AL MVP voting for 1991. Brantley makes sense as the replacement for Griffey Jr. in that this was not the best season of the latter’s career. Peak Griffey Jr. would more closely resemble Trout, but a 21-year-old Griffey matches seamlessly to a 27-year-old Michael Brantley.


 

Outfield: Nelson Cruz

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Also Considered: Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, Adam Jones, and Yasiel Puig.

Jose Canseco led the league in home runs in 1991 alongside Cecil Fielder. His 44 home runs were more than any player hit in the MLB in 2014. With this in mind the immediate starting point for finding the Canseco to round out the position players on the team was to look at outfielders by home runs. The six names above were at the top of the list.

Yasiel Puig, despite being an intriguing possibility to replace Canseco, hit only 16 home runs last year while having a more productive season overall (.296 BA, 5.4 WAR). Adam Jones similarly hit too few homers with too high an average (29 HRs, .281 BA) to take the Canseco spot. Despite all finishing with 35 home runs or more, Bautista, Trout, and Stanton all finished with WARs too high to fit the mold in comparison to Nelson Cruz (6.0, 7.9, 6.5, respectively). Nelson Cruz led the league in home runs with 40 in 2014. By finishing with just half a win less by WAR and putting up fairly similar offensive output elsewhere, Cruz was the final piece in the outfield.


 

Pitcher: Corey Kluber

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Also Considered: Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez

Similar to the Trout/Brantley assumptions, it would appear from guesswork that Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher alive in 2014, would take the spot of Clemens. However, much like his Los Angeles counterpart, Kershaw proved to be too good to fill Clemens’ spot. Similarly, Felix Hernandez was given a chance but provided a full win less than Clemens, leaving him in a distant third.

Kershaw’s 2014 output had him finish with a 21-3 record and a 1.77 ERA. This alone was enough to remove him from serious consideration given that Kluber finished one loss less and one fifth of a run per game better than Clemens. However Kershaw also was injured early in 2014, which led to him pitching only 198.1 innings last season. This serves to signify what an incredible season Kershaw had – 7.5 WAR – while also illustrating why he was overqualified for the position.

Instead the reigning AL Cy Young winner takes over for the former Red Sox great. The biggest disparity between Clemens and Kluber would be innings pitched, a category that context explains. Last season David Price led the league in innings pitched with 248.2, meaning no one got within two full games of Clemens total. Kluber takes the mound for the modern Springfield nine.


 

Here is the final recreated roster by statistics for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in 2014.

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For comparative purposes, here is the original team in the same format.

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Finally, here is the direct comparison of the two finished product teams.

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The end result is not perfect, but that’s to be expected. With the 1991 team it had three Hall of Fame players on the roster without including Roger Clemens, accused of steroid usage and far away from making the Hall. To completely recreate a team with that talent while looking narrowly at numbers is a monumental task. However, to be able to get relatively close margins in hits, batting average, on base percentage, and WAR, this experiment is at least on some level successful. They are the modern day team. It may not be perfect, but it’s as close as they’ll get.


 

This leaves the more fun portion of the team to discuss. Numbers are numbers all the same. However, as like in the episode this project is based upon, nothing is guaranteed. Only Darryl Strawberry ever saw the field in “Homer at the Bat.” With this in mind, it’s important to look at the team through the second lens mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It is imperative to choose a team comprised of the players that would best fit what happened off the field in “Homer at the Bat” to potentially recreate the episode, rather than simply the championship team.


 

Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy

In the original story Mike Scioscia happens upon the worst luck at the worst times. In fairness to the other players, he is not the single victim of a tragedy before the final game. Instead, Scioscia begins the episode by shooting Waylon Smithers with a hunting rifle, mistaking him for a deer. He then contracts radiation poisoning after knocking over a wheelbarrow of radioactive waste. Scioscia has terrible luck with avoidable problems. This is why the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, who broke his hand having a suitcase fall on it while looking for a sock, is easily the catcher for the cultural team.

First Base: Mike Napoli

All throughout the episode Mr. Burns has consistent meltdowns about Don Mattingly’s “sideburns,” which do not exist. Burns is referencing Mattingly’s mustache, but Mattingly shaves his head in a straight line from where his sideburns would fall before being kicked off the team. Mattingly was kicked off the team for a mustache, Mike Napoli and his giant beard would be out the door as fast as he entered it.

Second Base: Daniel Murphy

Steve Sax is pulled over for the police for no visible infraction whatsoever. The dimwitted cops Eddie and Lou talk Sax into a circle and arrest him for every single unsolved murder in New York City despite being nothing but helpful to the officers. Given that Murphy is the longest tenured second baseman in New York right now, and like Sax has had his own issues with errors in the past, Murphy is sadly the most likely player to be arrested on an infinite count of murder charges.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons

Ozzie Smith was and still is regarded as the best defensive shortstop in baseball history. Andrelton Simmons is similarly lauded as the best with his glove at the position today. Smith ironically falls of the face of the Earth by making a rare error in judgment. Simmons fits Smith’s defensive role right into the Springfield Mystery Spot.

Third Base: Adrian Beltre

Not only is Beltre the modern day answer to Wade Boggs on the Statistical team, but the Cultural team as well. Barney Gumble knocks Boggs unconscious in Moe’s Tavern in a heated argument. Assumedly Barney would touch Adrian Beltre’s head, send the man into a blind rage, and Beltre would end up on the floor all the same. Similarly, with the head touching phobia of Beltre he is the heir apparent to Boggs’ designation as one of the weirdest men in baseball, given that Boggs had superstitions about everything from eating fried chicken before games to the time at which he would take batting practice every day.

Outfield: Jose Bautista

Darryl Strawberry played the villain to Homer in the original story 23 years ago. To fill his shoes it would take someone that could easily make fans root against him by walking on the field. Jose Bautista has recently made it clear how long he holds grudges for, getting in a verbal altercation with multiple Orioles stemming from a two-year-old incident. Bautista seems like a natural fit for the bad guy in the modern retelling of this tale.

Outfield: Mike Trout

Mike Trout and Ken Griffey Jr. were both really just kids at the time they’d be on these teams. They’re a bit clueless about how the world works and are willing to listen to their managers perhaps a bit too much. Griffey Jr. tries Mr. Burns’ Brain and Nerve Tonic and becomes addicted, eventually suffering from gigantism as a result. Trout, similar to Griffey Jr. in that they are both some of the greatest young players in baseball history, seems like he is just young enough to befall a similar fate.

Outfield: Giancarlo Stanton

Jose Canseco was approached by Waylon Smithers and offered $50,000 to play one game of softball. Conseco accepted after noting that he’d “be taking a pay cut.” Stanton recently inked a 13-year, $325 million dollar contract with the Miami Marlins to continue to be their home run monster, much like Canseco was to the Athletics in 1991. Additionally, Canseco is asked due to his massive size to help save almost every artifact of a woman’s burning home – cat, baby, player piano, dryer, etc. – which is a task the similarly large Stanton would seemingly be requested to follow.

Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw

When Mr. Burns wanted ringers for his team he wanted to win. What better way to ensure victory on the mound than to acquire one of the only men to ever win the Cy Young award and MVP in the same season in Roger Clemens? Mr. Burns would have yet another chance to do that with the reigning champion for both awards in the National League, Clayton Kershaw. Also, Kershaw simply seems like a man that could be hypnotized well enough that he believes he is a chicken or another farm animal like Clemens before him.


 

So what’s to be learned from all of this? On the largest scale, it is an exercise in how baseball is the sport most capable of recreation over time. To be able to take a team that took the fictional diamond more than two decades ago and create a credible recreation of it is a testament to the importance of statistics over time. They are and forever will be the way to appreciate the game over time.

Further, the episode shows how baseball can seamlessly permeate into culture. Baseball is America’s pastime. That’s the adage everyone grows up hearing. By allowing itself to have some fun, in this case guest starring in mass on an iconic television program it allows for a better interaction with the game for fans of all walks. This much is proved by the existence of this essay. “Homer at the Bat” is one half hour that is still praised by Rolling Stone, investigated by Jonah Keri, and appreciated here because it gives a new spin on the game itself.

The game and the culture around it will forever be a part of our world in the United States. Artifacts like “Homer at the Bat” stand to ensure the game is passed on in every medium possible. If anything, this essay shows that baseball will continue on for years to come. That’s the best recreation of all: none. There’s no need to recreate what is still happening. Baseball will never die, nor will The Simpsons, and “Homer at the Bat” is but a small example of such.