Comics, Seriously: The Avengers Go Moneyball
We talk with The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh about The Avengers questionable baseball decisions in West Coast Avengers Annual #2
In this edition of “Comics, Seriously,” my recurring column here on SKTCHD that takes weird moments from comic book history and looks at them in far too serious of a fashion, we’ll be looking at one of the earliest comics I can remember reading. You see, when I was a kid, I loved sports more than I loved comics. Sports always left an indelible impact on my brain thanks to iconic players like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Reggie Miller, whose heroism on the field or court loomed large in my life, while comics were mostly left to me excitedly engaging with The Transformers in a different way.
But what happened when the two met in the middle? What happened when comics featured sports? Magic, that’s what. That intersection is what we’re going to look at in this week’s column, as we’re going to dig into the first three pages from Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom’s West Coast Avengers Annual #2 from 1987, in which The Avengers and West Coast Avengers played a rather high scoring game of baseball against each other.
This was a momentous issue for me, as it told me everything I needed to know about these characters as a child. Thor was a powerhouse. So was Wonder Man, although he might be quitting the team. Hank Pym was a science guy. Silver Surfer hated roofs. Etc. etc. You know, the usual. It was a big deal for me, and an issue I loved for its fusion of baseball and superheroes.
However, given my childhood nostalgia for this issue, it’s one I’ve revisited many times over – not just because of the baseball game, but also because The Grandmaster has the two Avengers squads face off against each other in a Contest of Champions of sorts in this issue and The Avengers annual that follows 1 – and the more I reread it, the more I realized how completely absurd it was from a pure baseball standpoint. As good as these characters are at superheroics, were they maybe not the best at baseball and following the sport’s rules?
This week’s edition of Comics, Seriously will attempt to explore those questions with analysis of the sequence’s key plays and players. And the person helping us out in this endeavor is one of the best in the business: Ben Lindbergh, who writes about baseball 2 for The Ringer, co-hosts the baseball podcast Effectively Wild, and recently published a book he co-wrote with Travis Sawchik called The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, which explores how the player development side of the sport has been revolutionized. Lindbergh’s a brilliant writer and analyst of baseball, and today, he’ll be using those abilities to help me figure out the plusses and minuses of some of the bold strategies these two super teams employ, and maybe even who really would win this game in the end.
In modern baseball, shifting – or moving defensive players like the shortstop and/or second baseman into generally atypical defensive positions to take advantage of hitter’s tendencies – is a regular part of the game. It’s something we’ve come to expect, as poor hitters like Robinson Cano and Joey Gallo come up and have to cope with hitting what used to be seeing-eye singles 3 directly at the second baseman who is now playing defense in short right field. It’s something that’s popped up more and more in recent years, even if it first appeared in the game in 1920s.
Apparently it’s something The Avengers and West Coast Avengers utilized in the 80s, 4 because there is some insane positioning going on in this game, as Mockingbird is inexplicably standing in foul territory, Tigra is standing on second base and Hawkeye is mirroring the base runner on first in the Black Knight. It’s weird, weird stuff, even in this shift heavy era. I asked Lindbergh for his take on this defensive strategy, and he believes its problematic nature is reduced by both the field and personnel.
“I think some of the downsides are mitigated by the fact that this infield is narrow enough to fit on the cover of a comic book. You don’t have to have a whole lot of range when you can cover an appreciable portion of the space between bases by simply leaning over,” he said, before adding, “And you have to figure that if Thor makes contact, he’s going to, well, hammer it so hard that there won’t be time for the fielders to move much anyway.”
The boldest choice of all in terms of this defensive shift is the move to apparently not have outfielders at all, who tend to be pretty important in the sport of baseball. It is especially odd considering the West Coast team has both Moon Knight and La Espirita sitting in the stands watching, ostensibly because they’re inactive members at the time while Iron Man is in places unknown. Apparently they’re such intense gatekeepers you have to be an actual card carrying member of the team to play. 5 Is there a reason for that? Probably not, Lindbergh shared.
“Playing without outfielders is an even more dubious decision. Here’s my best explanation: Given the velocities involved, the team reasons that Thor will either whiff or hit a home run. Maybe Wonder Man is wild and walked the bases loaded, which would also help explain Hank Pym’s giant catcher’s mitt. In that case, the priority is holding the runners. There won’t be a ball in play anyway, so Wonder Man may as well call in his outfielders a la Satchel Paige.”
It’s a bold choice, but hey, if a literal god is at bat, I suppose traditional strategy is off the table. Of course, then there’s the flip side of all of this: Captain America’s positioning as a baserunner. Let’s look around the horn. She-Hulk is in a good spot at second. The Black Knight has a healthy lead off first. 6 But Captain America, more American than anything in the world besides the sport of baseball, is lined up as if he’s playing reverse baseball and about to steal second from third. Could there be method to his madness? Not likely.
“He is definitely standing in a suboptimal position,” Lindbergh told me. “Maybe Mockingbird standing on the wrong side of third psyched him out. Although if we’re going with the idea that there probably wouldn’t be a ball in play here, Cap doesn’t really need to take a lead.” 7
I’ll tell you what: if I was a baserunner on third with Thor up to bat, I would do anything I can to make myself as small as possible. I would not want to be facing home plate when a screaming line drive comes off Mjölnir and nails me in the chest. Super Soldier Serum or not, that could be the end of my guy Cap.
The second page is where things get squarely into the fantastical, which is exactly what you want out of superheroes playing baseball. That said, it all gets back to the core questions of “would these efforts be effective and/or legit?” In regards to Hank Pym’s catcher’s mitt, that’s a major no on both accounts.
“I’m afraid this wouldn’t be allowed in a regulation game,” Lindbergh said. “Quoting from the 2019 MLB rulebook: ‘The catcher may wear a leather mitt not more than thirty-eight inches in circumference, nor more than fifteen and one-half inches from top to bottom.'”
While we don’t have any official measurements of Pym’s glove, I’m going to go ahead and agree with Lindbergh’s suggestion that it violates rule 3.04 of the MLB rulebook. Beyond that, I’m not entirely sure that a glove of that size is an altogether great idea, even beyond the fact that it would require Kawhi Leonard’s hands to close. I mean, look at that first panel. There’s no way Hank can see over the glove, so if a ball is in the dirt, he’s going to both not catch it and immensely regret his decision to use a glove the size of a couch cushion. As Lindbergh put it, “That seems dangerous, especially with a pitcher whose fastball bursts into flames.”
Speaking of that, we have to address the elephant in the room, and that’s Wonder Man’s “ultimate fastball” that’s “so fast it bursts into flame.” Normally if Wonder Man said something like that, I’d be like, “of course Wonder Man says that, he’s an idiot.” But he isn’t kidding: his fastball literally is set on fire by friction. I’m not a scientist by any means, but that would have to be a pretty fast fastball. As someone raised by superheroes, my mind immediately wonders about protecting people, so with that in mind, I asked Lindbergh who would struggle the most with this ball: the catcher who has to catch it or the hitter who has to hit it. Lindbergh had a clear preference.
“I’d much rather be the batter in this scenario. I wouldn’t hit the pitch, but at least I’d be less likely to be hit by it. I’m not sure a helmet and a chest protector—which Hank isn’t even wearing—would keep the catcher safe.” 8
Of course, a blazing fastball is important, but most pitchers need off speed pitches. If all Wonder Man has are varying incredibly hard fastballs – maxing out at one that’s so fast it will be set ablaze as it heads to home plate – would he need to develop a slider or changeup to keep hitters off balance? That’s what we always hear when less literal flame-throwing pitchers are on the mound. What about Wonder Man? Probably not!
“One often hears broadcasters say that pitchers need off-speed stuff because most big-league hitters can time a fastball, no matter how hard,” Lindbergh said. “But I don’t think that applies to pitches that are flying so fast they set themselves on fire. If you’ve got that kind of gas, bring the heat.”
There’s one other element on this page that’s from Englehart’s script that I had to address with Lindbergh. As noted before, Lindbergh’s an excellent writer, and he wrote a piece in 2017 for The Ringer about how the juiced baseball 9 was back. Increases in offense are a subject he knows a whole lot about. That said, Cap notes on this page that the current score of this game is 417 to 413. That’s a rather high score, especially considering the average of runs per game in the Major Leagues in 2019 is 9.51, a number slightly south of a combined score of 830. What was Lindbergh’s take on this? Would he suspect foul play, or would it be considered a “credit to the Great American Pastime” as Cap suggests?
“Honestly, I would probably suspect superheroes,” Lindbergh said. “Given that Commissioner Manfred—think Commissioner Gordon, but for baseball—is currently crusading to shorten game times, 417-413 slugfests would not be a welcome development. I think MLB would be happy if this happened once, for publicity purposes, but any more than that and it would cause a crisis.”
There’s a good reason for that. That average of 9.51 runs per game currently takes just over three hours to be scored, as that’s the average length of a nine inning baseball game this year. Based off that average, this game would have taken The Avengers and West Coast Avengers 266 plus hours to get to this point, or just over 11 days. Maybe that’s why the only people left in the stands are The Wasp, Moon Knight and La Espirita? That’s a rate of play nightmare, which would surely drive any paying audience away by that point. 10
By far my favorite part of this sequence – and the best decision by Englehart and Milgrom – was to have Thor not use a bat but Mjölnir itself as he hits. It is absolute perfection and you can never tell me otherwise. It’s a pantheon comic book moment. I love it so. But is it a good idea as a hitter given how short Mjölnir is, perhaps making it easy for pitchers to take advantage of him by throwing low and away in the strike zone?
“I sort of see the wisdom in it. Facing Wonder Man’s flaming fastball, Thor is probably prioritizing bat control,” Lindbergh said. “He’s like a hitter choking up with two strikes to swing with less power but greater precision.
“The problem with this strategy is that it dramatically limits his reach. Pitchers would probably pitch him away, because he might not be able to hit a pitch on the outside corner. That said, the Marvel Encyclopedia lists Thor at 6-foot-6, so his long arms would still give him pretty good plate coverage.”
Not only that, but Lindbergh proposed something I hadn’t even considered, which is a substantial advantage Thor would have with Mjölnir as his bat.
“I don’t think there’s a rule in the MLB rulebook that prohibits a batter from throwing his bat at the pitch, as long as he’s still in the batter’s box. That means that in theory, Thor could throw his hammer at an outside pitch, and if he hit it, the ball would be in play.”
I can’t tell if Thor is crazy or crazy like a fox here, but the idea that there’s nothing preventing him from throwing his hammer at outside pitches dramatically improves his plate coverage, and let’s be honest: we know he can throw that thing pretty dang hard. It’s kind of his thing. I’d wager a fair amount of those 413 runs The Avengers have scored have come off oppo bombs that bounced off a flying Mjölnir. It’s a bold strategy, but Thor would be the Dave Kingman of The Avengers if he was anyone, so this adds up. 11
The last thing I wondered about this game, though, was what exactly would happen if Thor actually hit a ball through the roof? Someone in the game loudly announces this as a home run, but without having the ability to see where it landed, would that count as a home run? Incredibly, there is sort of historical precedent for this.
“In 1974, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit a speaker attached to the roof of the Astrodome, the very same stadium where this Avengers contest took place. The ball deflected downward and landed in center, and Schmidt had to settle for a single,” Lindbergh told me. “I don’t think the ground rules would have accounted for a ball hit through the roof, though.
“The closest comp I can think of is the ball Dave Kingman launched into a drainage hole in the roof of the Metrodome in 1984. It never came down, and the perplexed umpires awarded Kingman a double. Again, though, that ball didn’t leave the ballpark.”
Even more of a Thor to Dave Kingman connection! Incredible. But that doesn’t officially decide what this counts as. This is a huge moment in the game, as Thor’s Avengers squad was down four runs and he just hit a ball through the roof with the bases loaded. It being counted as a home run would be massive, tying the game after the grand salami by the God of Thunder. But if it only counted as a single like Schmidt or double like Kingman, maybe Wonder Man can use his Ultimate Fastball to strike out Dr. Druid to end the game. So what’s the verdict? Would the game be tied after this mammoth shot by Thor? Lindbergh said it would…if not for the presence of the Silver Surfer. That’s complicated by the question of “Does the catch count if the fielder started the play outside the stadium?” as Lindbergh wondered, but he’s counting it as an out.
“Assuming Silver Surfer was on the roster, I think this catch is OK: Rule 5.09 says that to make a legal catch, the fielder has to have one or both feet ‘on or over the playing surface.’ I don’t think there’s a limit on how high that airspace extends.”
While not an official member of the roster, given his presence on the squad on the cover and throughout the issue, I’m counting him as a temporary member and this as an official catch, per rule 5.09 of the MLB rulebook. So there you have it: after an eternity of baseball – and I really cannot stress how long this baseball game would be – the West Coast Avengers somehow win this game 12 despite playing no outfielders and employing some genuinely confounding defensive shifts. Good job by you to the West Coast squad, and better luck next time to the East Coast crew.
Which I honestly just realized I have never read! How weird is that?!↩
“A softly or moderately struck ground ball that goes between infielders for a base hit,” per MLB.com.↩
Maybe young Steve Rogers picked it up in the 1920s and brought it with him?↩
But you don’t need to be one when it comes to fighting Avengers team members in the Death Dimension later that issue, I guess!↩
I’d say the West Coast team should try and pick him off, but maybe Wonder Man is a real Jon Lester when it comes to that.↩
As Lindbergh noted to me, the likely reason is art based. But hey, swap Cap and Mockingbird and it makes way more sense!↩
Lindbergh also added, “On the plus side, at least this pitch isn’t traveling at relativistic speeds.” Given that this leads to an excellent xkcd comic about a highly relevant subject, I recommend reading that link after this one.↩
Also known as a ball that’s been altered to increase scoring.↩
After doing this math, I really wish Milgrom placed random people sleeping in the stands as a nod to the eternal nature of this game.↩
For the non-baseball fans out there, Dave Kingman was famous for doing two things – hitting homers and striking out – because he was selling out for power before it was cool.↩
Even if the game only ends because The Grandmaster “kills” The Avengers and abducts their spirits into the Death Dimension, which I’m calling a forfeit by the East Coast team anyways.↩