This morning I was scrolling through some of Dan Szymborski’s projections over at Baseball Think Factory, and I noticed that he had run a projection for Matt Stairs. I had not heard any news about the guy we all know now as a pinch-hitter. As I scoured the internets (read: typed “Matt Stairs” into Google) I quickly realized that Stairs had retired, though since he will be a studio analyst for NESN this year, all is not lost. Still, it will be disappointing to not see him on the field any longer.
Few pinch hitters struck fear in my heart the way Matt Stairs did. When Stairs came to the plate against a team for which I was rooting, I always sure that something bad was about to happen. Even still, I couldn’t hate him. A portly slugger with a great sense of humor — I will always remember Will Carroll forwarding the Baseball Prospectus email group an email from Stairs with a picture of his flexed calf muscle and promptly doubling over in laughter — Stairs was exceedingly easy to root for, and in the latter, pinch-hitting days of his career he became somewhat of a nerdy folk hero.
Of course, Stairs wasn’t a pinch hitter his entire career, but that’s what he will be remembered for best, especially after his star turn on the 2009 Phillies. He bashed five pinch-hit homers for the Phightin’s that season, and in his lone postseason start he drove in Philadelphia’s only run in a Game 2 World Series loss to A.J. Burnett and the Yankees.
Stairs made his mark with his patience. Of the 228 players who compiled 4,000 or more plate appearances from 1996-2011, Stairs’ BB% of 12.0% tied for 42nd with Ken Griffey Jr. He combined that patience with prodigious power — of the 41 players on the list ahead of him in walk rate, Stairs had a better ISO than 14 of them. That combination of patience and power will seemingly play forever, but for Stairs forever lasted only until he was 43.
Last season, playing for the Nationals — his 13th different team in a 19-season big league career — the bottom fell out. In 74 plate appearances from the start of the season until the trading deadline, Stairs rapped out zero homers and just one extra-base hit — a double on May 21st against Koji Uehara, which sounds impressive until you realize it was the ninth inning and the Nats were down by six runs. When Washington traded for Jonny Gomes, Stairs was given his walking papers, and decided quickly to retire (which I somehow missed at the time).
By retiring, Stairs won’t have the chance to put his name up in faded lights with Julio Franco, Sam Rice, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Rickey Henderson, Carlton Fisk and Jack Quinn as the only players to homer in a Major League game at the age of 44 or older. Bill James and Joe Posnanski once theorized that if Stairs had been given a shot earlier in his career that he would have hit even more homers before he turned 43, and it’s hard to argue the point. When he finally did get some run, from 1997-99, his numbers weren’t nearly as shiny as some of the others during the peak of what would become known as the Steroid Era — his 91 homers in that timespan only tied him for 27th in the game with a young Vladimir Guerrero — so big-time notoriety still evaded him.
Instead, Stairs will have to settle for a number of smaller accolades. He is the only player to ever play for 13 different Major League teams (though Edwin Jackson has this one marked on his to-do list). He is one of just three Canadian-born players to surpass 200 homers (though Justin Morneau and Joey Votto may make it a quintet before long),and is the all-time record holder for pinch-hit home runs. And he is the only player to become the assistant ice hockey coach at Bangor High School right after retiring (probably).
And while he may have gone out on a down note, he still might not have been the worst player around had he made one last go of it in 2012. In perusing the ZiPS projections this morning, I couldn’t help but notice that Stairs still had a better OPS+ projection than a number of guys. On the Nationals, Stairs had an OPS+ projection of 73, which certainly isn’t very good. But here is a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of players who he projects better than this season:
The list is filled mostly with backup catchers and utility infielders — some of whom may not actually have Major League jobs — but hey, it’s something. And for a man who almost never had a career at all, to be projected better than so many players in what would have been his age-44 season when he would have been coming off a season with an OPS+ of 21 and a wRC+ of 24 last season, that’s something not too shabby at all.