By Ross Benes
It's an annual tradition to speculate who will start on Opening Day. While Max Scherzer getting the nod over Stephen Strasburg to start the season means little in the context of a 162-game season, the discussion gives fans something fun to talk about while they desperately wait for the season to begin. Since the designation of an Opening Day starter isn't worth much in the long run, and since nearly everyone loves movies, we combined the two areas to see which fictional character would be the best bet to start on Opening Day.
To see which fictional pitchers were most dominant, we hand-calculated stats for the following movie characters: Henry Rowengartner (Rookie of the Year), Mel Clark (Angels in the Outfield), Billy Chapel (For Love of the Game), Steve Nebraska (The Scout) and Ricky Vaughn (Major League 1 & 2). Instead of relying on huge projections, we stuck to stats based on performances that were actually shown in the movie. So most montage clips weren't particularly useful. However, both pitchers in The Scout and For Love of the Game focus on one perfect game, so announcer comments could help us fill in precise stats in those cases.
We calculated standard pitching stats like ERA, WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings. And since the run environment varies throughout these movies (Ozzie Smith's 1994 slash line of .262, .326, .349 has announcers raving about his power hitting in The Scout) and each pitcher played in a different stadium with different park factors, we also included ERA+. And to get a vague measure on the defense backing up a pitcher and his luckiness, we also calculated Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).
Here's a sortable table of each pitcher's stats.
|Henry Rowengartner||Thomas Ian Nicholas||Cubs||1993||1.93||203||1.07||13.52||0.000|
|Mel Clark||Tony Danza||Angels||1994||3.18||149||1.06||4.77||0.200|
|Steve Nebraska||Brendan Fraser||Yankees||1994||0.00||n/a||0.00||27.00||0.000|
|Ricky Vaughn||Charlie Sheen||Indians||1989-94||28.97||14.7||3.43||17.40||0.556|
|Billy Chapel||Kevin Costner||Tigers||1999||0.00||n/a||0.00||9.00||0.000|
As seen in the table above, each pitcher aside from Vaughn was incredibly dominant in his movie. Neither Chapel (For Love of the Game) nor Nebraska (The Scout) give up a run or allow anyone on base. Nebraska actually strikes out every batter he faces. Chapel gets two-thirds of his outs with the help of his defense. In particular, his middle infielders make some clutch stops near the end of his perfect game.
The only pitcher with a lower strikeout rate than Chapel is Clark (Angels in the Outfield). Of course, Clark gets help from his defenders, posting a low BABIP since he actually has ... angels in his outfield.
Rowengartner (Rookie of the Year) never tests his defense. For the most part, he strikes everyone out. The only hits he gives up are home runs, so his BABIP is negligible. While Vaughn has atrocious overall numbers, he actually posts the second-highest strikeout rate. Nearly every Major League clip of Vaughn is of him either making someone whiff, or giving up extra-base hits and homeruns. Unlike the other movies, Major League spends a fair amount of time showing its star pitcher getting hammered.
Who Should Start?
Brendan Fraser's phenom Nebraska is obviously the best choice to start Opening Day. He might be the greatest player who ever lived. In his MLB debut, he strikes out every batter he faces. And he does this during the World Series. The movie implies he could also be the greatest hitter to ever play the game, for whatever that's worth. But he also has deep-seated psychological issues. (Albert Brooks spends a good 10-plus minutes convincing him to get off the roof of Yankee Stadium and to pitch the game he was contracted to pitch.)
Chapel also threw a perfect game. Based off those stats alone, he'd be next up. However, the perfect game is an anomaly for the aging pitcher struggling with his athletic mortality. Chapel, whose performance has declined over time, plans to retire after that game.
The kid in Rookie of the Year is a strikeout machine but has only worked in relief. He also loses the magic behind his freakish arm near the end of the movie and goes back to being a regular 12-year-old boy. Even when he was throwing darts, he probably didn't have the stamina to go more than three or four innings.
Tony Danza's Clark character had a hopeless career in front of him before angels began helping him out. He was injured and old, and appeared on his way out of baseball. While the angels helped revive his career, in the last game he pitches he actually throws a complete game without any divine assistance. But, as the angels tell a young faithful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (*spoiler alert*) Clark will die before his next season gets underway.
Vaughn doesn't have consistency and tends to give up a lot of home runs. But when he finds his groove, he is a strikeout machine. And his "Wild Thing" entrance lends itself to easy merchandise marketing, which could have perks when picking an Opening Day starter.
The point I'm making here is to not let the stats alone from the movie's small sample size of innings determine the best character to start the first game. However, don't ignore the stats either. Vaughn evokes the perception of a tough guy with a cannon that guns batters down and collects groupies like a 1980s hair-metal vocalist. But if you watch the movies closely, you'll see batters tee off on him and that if you started him in a big game, you'll likely get crushed. Nebraska is a caricature character in a cheesy forgettable movie and evokes no perception at all since there's nothing notable about his movie to recall. His ridiculous name (even as a Nebraskan, I insist that his name is silly) is enough alone for most people to leave him off a list of best baseball movie characters. But he is the best pitcher anyone could possibly script. So if you have to choose someone, go with Nebraska, as there's no one like him.
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Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.