Ken Griffey Junior returned to the Seattle Mariners, signing a free agent contract with his old team earlier this week. What’s surprising about this is that he didn’t sign with the Yankees – the Yankees have too many outfielders anyway, and there’s no reason anyone would have expected him to go to New York, unless they had spent this week thinking about a particular episode of The Simpsons.
Today is the 17th anniversary of the original airing of Simpsons episode 8F13 – “Homer at the Bat”, written by the great John Swartzwelder. Along with being one of the best Simpsons episodes ever, this was also an important event in hit-by-pitch history. If you haven’t seen it – well you’re probably wasting your time reading this if you haven’t seen it, but here’s a quick recap anyway: Homer joins the power plant’s company softball team, leading them to a string of victories behind the power of his home-made bat (“wonderbat”). The teams success leads Mr. Burns to make a million dollar bet on his team beating the rival Shelbyville power plant’s team in the championship game. To secure victory, Burns comes up with a plan to fill his team with baseball greats – featuring Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Brilliantly, he had come up with a whole team of hall-of-famers from the Burns Era, but since his top picks were all long dead, he gives the job of general manager to his trustee sidekick Waylon
Cashman Smithers. Smithers then brings in a murderers row of players who seemed really great in 1992 (none of them actually turned out to be murderers, as far as we know, but the team seems less packed with hall of fame greatness now than it did at the time). The team replaces the plant softball players, but 8 of the players encounter unlikely mishaps before the big game, leaving only Darryl Strawberry – meaning the regular plant employees get back in the starting lineup, all except Homer Simpson, who plays right field like Strawberry. But, in the bottom of the 9th, with 2 outs and the bases loaded, and the score tied at 43 runs each, Mr. Burns realizes that Darryl Strawberry is left handed, and so is the pitcher. Despite Strawberry’s 9 homeruns in the game, Burns take him out and sends in Homer as a pinchhitter – unlike the selfish glory-loving Darryl Strawberry who was just swinging for the fences, Homer steps in to the box and takes one for the team – a game winning walk-off plunk, proving to the world that even if you buy the most talented team in the league, the hero of the game still might just be the one fat guy willing to stay in the way of a pitch flying toward his head (or in Homer’s case, a fat guy who isn’t paying attention).
Of the 9 professional players Mr. Burns hired, and were all guest stars, voicing themselves in cartoon form, only Griffey is still playing, and if he can get hit by 5 pitches this season, he will win the Homer Simpson award for most HBPs recorded in the career of a guest star from Homer at the Bat. Griffey has been hit by 80 pitches, while Jose Canseco holds the record with 84. If Mr. Burns sent Homer in to that game specifically to get an HBP, he would probably have been the best choice on the team, even if the other pros were available and not in jail, hospitalized, sideburned, disappeared into an alternate dimension, or turned into a chicken. As a group, they only got hit by 327 pitches in their careers in 67,337 combined plate appearances. If Carlos Quentin could get that many plate appearances at his current rate of getting hit by pitches, he’d end up with a career total of 2,567 HBPs. Jose Canseco got hit a fairly respectable once every 96.8 plate appearances, but it really tells you something about this group when you see who’s number 2 on the list – Roger Clemens got hit by more pitches, per plate appearance, than the other 7 ringers on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. He only got hit twice though, and only had 213 career plate appearances, so he probably would have slowed down his pace after taking a few more, had he been in the batters box more often. At the bottom of the group is Wade Boggs – he only got hit 23 times in 10,740 plate appearances. Don Mattingly wasn’t much better.
The more important question is, were any of the major leaguers inspired by Homers performance, and did they improve their HBP rates after the game? As a group, they got hit by 172 pitches in 43,052 plate appearance before 1992 when Homer At The Bat aired, and the recorded 151 plunks in 24,285 plate appearances after the episode aired. That’s fewer total HBPs, but the increase in the rate of plunks is 52.1% from before the show to after the show. Unfortunately, most of that increase is due to Ken Griffey’s contribution. He collected nearly half of the groups post-show HBPs, and had nearly 37% of the plate appearances. Only the outfielders – Griffey, Canseco and Strawberry – got hit more frequently after the show than before it. Mike Sciocia, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax and Ozzie Smith all got hit less often, which probably means they never watched the show. Clemens never batted before 92, so it’s not clear if he learned anything from Homer and if he did, he probably would have mis-remembered it by now. He did do his own clucking in the episode though.
Here’s the list of the major leaguers from the show, and their HBP stats before and after the episode:
||Prior to “Homer At The Bat”
||After “Homer At The Bat”
||HBP per PA
||HBP per PA
||HBP per PA
While Homer’s softball HBP stats for that season are not known, we know from the show’s history that if someone is going to get hit with something, Homer is usually going to be the one to get hit.
The episode really leaves a number of unanswered questions, though, and going through all of them could take forever… but let’s try anyway. Feel free to go get a snack. The internet will still be here when you come back. Maybe.
Would Burns’ original team be better at getting hit by pitches?
When Mr. Burns comes up with the plan to get ringers for his softball team, he comes up with a roster of Cap Anson at 1st Base, Nap Lajoie at 2nd, Pie Traynor at 3rd, Honus Wagner at shortstop, Shoeless Joe Jackson in left field, Harry Hooper in center, Jim Creighton in right, Gabby Street at catcher and Mordecai “3-finger” Brown pitching. Smithers quickly points out that those players are all dead, and Jim Creighton actually died in 1862 – 25 years before the HBP became a stat and the rule was adopted to give players a free pass to first for a plunk. But Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner each got hit more times than the entire infield of the team Burns eventually put together, including the pitcher and catcher. Wagner, Lajoie and Shoeless Joe all had a higher HBP per plate appearance ratio than Jose Canseco. As a group, the team of deceased legens got hit by 474 pitches in 60,659 plate appearances (excluding Cap Anson’s 5,394 plate appearances in seasons before HBPs were tracked), which gives them a rate of plunks about 61% better than the modern era players.
Here are the plunk totals and rates for Burns’ all-deceased team:
||HBP per PA
*- Cap Anson played 15 seasons before HBPs were reliably tracked so these totals do not include his first 5,394 plate appearances
So, yes – the original selections of Mr. Burns would have been better at getting hit by pitches than the team put together by Smithers (in just 24 hours).
Did “Homer At The Bat” glorify the HBP to a new generation of baseball players?:
For the 17 seasons since “Homer At The Bat” aired, on February 20, 1992, batters have been hit about once every 115.7 plate appearances – for the 17 seasons prior to “Homer At The Bat”, batters got hit only once per 207.3 plate appearances. However, there was a general upward trend in the rate of hit batters that started in the late 80s, several years before the episode. League plunk rates increased steadily throughout the 90s and spiked in 2001, which saw a 22% increase over 2000. So while the upward trend began without the Simpsons help, this episode may still have accelerated it. It helps to consider who was likely to have been watching the Simpsons in 1992 when the episode aired, and in 1994 and later, when The Simpsons went into syndication, and started being played every night in that pre-primetime time slot on about every Fox affiliate in the country. For the sake of argument, lets suppose most Simpsons viewers in 1992 where fairly young. Remember at the time, the show was considered to be somewhat subversive, with George H.W. Bush even calling them out in his presidential campaign that year, saying he wanted American to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. It sounds even funnier now, considering the Simpsons have always been a two parent traditional family, and the only tv family who are regularly seen attending church on Sundays. So for the sake of argument, lets say that people born after 1970 are much more likely to have watched The Simpsons than people born before the ’70s. Players born in 1970 or later have been hit by pitches 56% more often than players born between 1950 and 1969. Now that may not have been just because they all watched The Simpsons before they came into the league, but among players who were born in 1970 or later, the ones born in the US or Canada (where they’re more likely to have seen The Simpsons), have been hit 15.9% more often than players born outside America and America Junior.
By 2001, when the major league plunk rate reached it’s peak, American and Canadian born players born after 1970 recorded 45.5% of major league plate appearances and 46.8% of the HBPs. In 2008, that group of players recorded 70.7% of plate appearances but 75.3% of plunks. I’ve argued in the past that this century’s 2nd golden age of HBPs was due largely to the influence of Craig Biggio’s HBP totals from the 90s, but Biggio’s first big HBP year was in 1995, the first full season after the Simpsons went into syndication. He’s a little older than the Simpson’s fan demographic, but he still might have caught that episode, or perhaps his pal Jeff Bagwell did, since Bagwell led the national league in HBPs before Biggio ever did.
Was “Homer At The Bat” a blue print for the Yankees front office to put together the championship teams of the late 90s?
Here’s where we get back to Ken Griffey. Of the 9 players brought in to play for Springfield, 1 was with the Yankees at the time, another had just been traded by the yanks, and another 4 of them were acquired by New York. Don Mattingly was a lifetime Yankee, and Steve Sax signed as a free agent for the 1989 season, only to be traded to the White Sox a month before the Simpsons episode aired. Wade Boggs signed with New York in December of ’92, and Strawberry signed with the Yankees on June 19th 1995. Strawberry mostly played DH for the Yankees, but on August 11, 1995, they Yankees started a team with Strawberry in Right, Boggs at 3rd and Mattingly at 1st, matching 33% of the planned roster for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant championship game against Shelbyville. I believe that was the closest anyone came to assembling the full team. Clemens was traded to the Yankees in 1999 (with Homer Bush going to Toronto, along with Homer Simpson impersonator, David Wells), and Jose Canseco was claimed off waivers by the Yankees in August of 2000. Mike Scioscia spent his whole career with the Dodgers and retired after the ’92 season. Ozzie Smith retired in ’96 as the face of the Cardinals franchise, and was never really available to the Yankees. So the Yankees never had a shot at those two, but it still seems like they would have made more of an effort to get Griffey at some point.
So, the Yankees never managed to get the whole Springfield team together, and they never managed to bring in 9 all-star ringers at the same time, but from 1992 to 2000 they acquired 11 different players who had been all-stars with other teams in the previous season. Danny Tartabull in ’92, Wade Boggs and Lee Smith in ’93, Terry Mulholland in ’94, David Cone and Ruben Sierra in ’95, Tino Martinez and Kenny Rogers in ’96, Chuck Knoblauch in ’98, Clemens in ’99 and Canseco in ‘2000. And while we’re on the subject, Jason Giambi in ’02; Kevin Brown, Estaban Loaiza, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield in ’04, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano and Matt Lawton in ’05,
and Bobby Abreau and Johnny Damon in ’06. And this years batch. But the point is, before Burns showed them the way, the Yankees only poached all-stars from other teams 5 times in the ’80s (Gaylord Perry, Dave Winfield, Ricky Henderson, Rick Rhoden and Jack Clark), and 6 times in the ’70s (Pat Dobson, Ed Herrmann, Catfish Hunter, Dave Kingman, Rich Gossage, Tommy John) and 3 times in the ’60s (Roger Maris, Bud Daley, Steve Barber). But that’s just the ones who were an all-star in the season right before joining the yankees – if you open it up to all prior all-stars, you can come up with another 106 names from 1960 to 2008, with the Yankees bringing in at least one former all-star from another team in every season from 1966 to 1990 and 1992 to 2009 (although in 2007, they only brought in former all-stars who had left the yankees and came back). But anyway, the connection between Mr. Burns ringers strategy and George Steinbrunner’s front office tactics are as clear as the sideburns on Don Mattingly’s face. (Yankees fans will always claim that the success of the 90s teams was due to the home-grown talent, like Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. No matter how many expensive free agents they purchase or all-stars they trade for, the fans never seem to put them in the same category as the Jeters, Mattinglys and Mantles. This could be said of most every teams fanbase, it’s just more pronounced with the Yankees given the number of all-star caliber players they bring in, who still fail to win the love and admiration of the fanbase. Lenny and Karl get the cheers, but Darryl Strawberry gets taunted by the home crowd in springfield.)
Can players actually give 110%?
At one point during the episode, Mr. Burns hires a hypnotist to boost the teams self confidence, leading to the following exchange:
Hypnotist: You are all very good players
Team: (in monotone unison) We are very good players
Hypnotist: You will beat Shelbyville
Team: We will beat Shelbyville
Hypnotist: You will give 110%
Team: That’s impossible – no one can give more the 100%, by definition that is the most anyone can give.
This may sound correct mathmatically, and if you are dealing with something tangible like apples, or widgets or baseball cards you certainly couldn’t give 110% of the ones you have to someone else. However, it is entirely possible for wall street to divide up your mortgage into collateralized securities and sell 110% of them on the world financial markets. But in the case of baseball players it IS possible to give 110% in a game, because humans have the ability to improve. If you can become a better baseball player during the course of the game you could produce 10% more during the game than your maximum production level at he beginning of the game assuming you haven’t already tapped into every possible ability a human body and mind could produce and achieved some sort of superhuman maximum potential status. However, if anyone actually did give 110%, improving their abilities by 10%, in each game of a major league season, they’d be over 5 million times better at the end of the season (1.1 to the 162 power), and that’s probably never happened. But for one game, it might be possible.
Did this episode predict the future?
Aside from giving the Yankees the blueprint for their 90s mini-dynasty, this episode was eerily prescient. The most obvious example is Mr. Burns introducing Ken Griffey to Brain and Nerve tonic – a performance enhancing drug that had the side effect of causing Gigantism, hospitalizing him with an enormous head. This is a direct parallel to what actually happened, not to Griffey, but to Barry Bonds years later. Also, the Don Mattingly sideburns scenes were said to have been written and recorded before Mattingly got into an actual dispute with Yankees management about his haircut and facial hair. Mike Scioscia never actually ran a solid contiminate encapsulator or got radiation poisoning from working at a power plant, but when he delivered the line “can’t… lift… arms… or… speak… at… normal… rate…” it was an eerie foretelling of that line being repeated endlessly by certain blog authors for the span of several years in the late 90s. Also, during the batting practice scene, Homer faces Roger Clemens, only to have a high and inside fastball saw off his magic home-made bat, wonderbat. If Clemens was willing to buzz his own teammates in batting practice and ruin their favorite bats, it’s no wonder he went on to hit 159 major league batters in his career. He only hit 44 before the episode aired. Also, while Clemens was never actually turned into a chicken by hypnotists, it seems likely that Clemens hired a hypnotist to erase his memory of his years of steroid abuse. If you have a better explanation for his performance in his congressional hearings, I’d love to hear it. Then there’s the scene where Jose Canseco heroically saves a woman from a burning building – along with her cat, player piano, and washer/dryer combo. According to the DVD commentary for the episode, Canseco was originally supposed to get caught in a less heroic mishap, but asked for the script to be changed, because, you know, he’s heroic. That’s why he wrote his heroic books about steroid abuse in the majors and how it was wrong… or wasn’t wrong because everyone did it… or that everyone should have done it because he did it… actually what is Canseco’s point anyway? Let’s move on. The episode ends with Homer pinch-hitting for Strawberry and drawing a walk-off plunk. The only pinch-hit walk-off HBP in the majors since then was recorded by Reed Johnson in the 11th inning of a cubs-braves game on June 12, 2008. He didn’t pinch-hit for Darryl Strawberry, but I’m still going to say that the episode eerily predicted this event. Also, Strawberry was never lifted for a pinch-hitter named Homer, but Homer Bush pinch-ran for him on 6 occasions in 1997 and 1998. Finally, at the beginning of the closing credits, there is a scene showing the springfield stadium with a sign on the outfield wall that says “Springfield Savings – Safe from 1890-1986, 1988-“.
Still, none of that is nearly as retrospectively creepy as the 1999 episode “Brother’s little helper“, in which Mark McGwire guest stars and delivers the line “Do you want to know the horrible truth, or do you just want to see me hit a few dingers!?!”
Why did Homer get knocked out by a pitch, when he’s taken so many blows to the head in other episodes without going down?
The only explanations for this are either that baseballs are his kryptonite, or that he was really drunk. But…
Why were the Springfield Softball League beer rules abandoned for the finals?
The rules of the Springfield Softball League were clearly stated – you can’t leave first without chugging a beer, you chug a beer every time you score, chug a beer before all odd-numbered innings, and the fourth inning is the beer inning. But Burns tells the team they can’t drink beer anymore, only nerve tonic. This is the only major plot hole of this episode.
Was this the first (only) HBP in a prime-time television series?
Maybe. There was an episode of Cheers in which Coach challenges one of the other characters to “just try to miss” him. But, that plunk occurred off-screen with only a klunk and a shout of “I’m on my way to first!”.
Did Burns make the right call putting in Homer to face a lefty?
Well, Strawberry did have 9 homeruns in the game, but he was left handed and so was the pitcher. By substituting a right-handed batter, Burns was playing the percentages. Strawberry only hit .238 against lefties i
n his career, and more importantly he struck out in 24% of his plate appearances against lefties. And, he only got hit by 13 pitches against lefties. But, over the past 4 seasons in the major leagues, the lefthanded pitcher vs lefty batter has had the highest rate of HBPs of any combination. Lefty pitchers hit lefty batters once every 75.7 plate appearances, but lefty pitchers only hit right handed batters once every 133.4 plate appearance. On the other hand, the underhand softball throwing motion probably changes the equation entirely. And since we don’t have Homer’s HBP stats for the season, we can only assume that Burns secretly wanted Homer to get hit in the head as part of his lifetime secret campaign to cause Homer misery. He keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, you know.