March 22, 2011
The latest news from Nats camp is that Matt Stairs appears set to crack the team's Opening Day roster, which comes as welcome news to those who prefer to take their players like they take their bench coaches: old, overweight, and rarely sighted outside of the dugout. Stairs played in 78 games for the Padres last season, coming to the plate just 111 times, predominantly in a pinch-hitting capacity; this made him the most sparingly used of any player to crack that many box scores. In four of those games, he earned his meal money merely by forcing a pitching change, giving way to another pinch-hitter and reclaiming his spot on the bench after being announced. So far this spring, he has characteristically received only 17 at-bats in his 12 games, but—also true to form—he has done quite a bit with his limited opportunities, recording six hits (three for extra bases) and adding two walks, enough to convince the Nats that the dedicated pinch-hitter is still worth carrying.
As Stairs prepares to enter his age-43 season (and his 19th in the majors), it's worth wondering whether we will (or should) see another player like him. The Canadian’s career has been improbable in a number of ways: for one thing, he didn’t play a full season in the majors until reaching the age of 30, the kind of late start that doesn’t often augur great longevity. For most of his career, “well-rounded” has been an accurate descriptor of Stairs' physique, but not his game. However, he began his professional baseball life in the Expos' system as an infielder, of all things, spending time at second, third, and short, something that—to those familiar with his play in later years—might come as a shock on par with the discovery that one's stodgy mom and dad dropped acid at Woodstock.
As a 23-year-old at Double-A Harrisburg in 1991, Stairs hit .333/.411/.509 in nearly 600 plate appearances, swiping 23 bases for good measure. (Granted, he was caught 11 times; the following season, he was again caught 11 times, but also succeeded 11 times, foreshadowing his future failings as a major-league larcenist.) On the strength of that ’91 outburst, he earned cups of coffee the following two seasons, but though his bat showed promise, the Expos didn’t feel comfortable sharing a continent with his execrable glove, instead selling Stairs to the Chunichi Dragons in mid-1993.
Stairs didn’t stick in Japan’s Central League, and he kicked around a bit more stateside before becoming a plodding, powerful, high-OBP slugger cut from Oakland’s classic Moneyball cloth; fittingly enough for a player of his beer-league build, legend has it that a hangover was what transformed him into something more than a disposable commodity. No lesser luminaries than Bill James and Joe Posnanski once speculated that Stairs could have earned a place in Cooperstown had his early career unfolded differently. As it was, even after establishing himself as an offensive force, Stairs rarely spent more than two seasons with any one organization; he changed uniforms three times in 2006, tying his career-worst 92 OPS+ in the process, and appeared to be nearing the end of his major-league shelf life. However, he reestablished his utility by coming up with a .289/.368/.549 line for Toronto in 2007, extending his lease on major-league life for a few more years.
Last season, Stairs got by by with fewer reps than ever before, managing to remain on the roster all season despite hearing his name announced less often than Kyle Blanks, who made his last pre-Tommy John plate appearance on May 17th. Stairs’ .232/.306/.475 line looks unimpressive, but consider PETCO’s suppressive effect on lefty power: on the road, he hit home runs like an early-aughts Barry Bonds, posting a .404 ISO (which isn’t to say that the Nats should expect more of the same this season).
This has all been quite the treat for both the squat slugger and members of his cultish following, but it’s fair to ask what Stairs has left to offer, especially to a National League team that can’t take advantage of his services at the plate without either suffering the indignity of his defense or immediately removing him from games following his cameos at the plate. Granted, Stairs is a bona fide clubhouse presence, not only in the sense that his limited role allows him to spend plenty of time there, but also in his capacity to play the veteran leader. But are a hundred at-bats, six months’ worth of mentoring, and a penchant for unfortunate word choices in post-game pressers really worth one of a team’s precious 25 roster spots (not to mention several hundred large in salary)?
My initial suspicion was that Stairs was something of an anachronism, a relic from a prior era of roster construction that time has passed by. Often when I find myself writing something of a vaguely historical nature, I consult Steven Goldman, since I find that asking him questions beats trying to cram a couple decades’ worth of reading and research into an evening of writing. Steve suggested that Stairs resembles a latter-day Smoky Burgess, an apt comparison that only reinforced my initial impression. The twilight of Burgess’s career much resembles Stairs’: from 1965-1967 (his age-38 through age-40 seasons), Burgess entered 236 games and stayed in them long enough to accumulate only 204 at-bats, appearing in the field only seven times despite his DH-less era. For the first two of those years, he was quite productive at the plate; that wasn’t the case in ’67, which prompted him to retire, though it’s difficult to say whether his bat was gone for good or just resting during the small sample that constituted his season.
It’s that final campaign, the least distantly removed from the game we know now, that caught my eye. The ’67 White Sox, it seemed to me, were willing and able to carry Burgess only because they practiced conservation of roster spots elsewhere, utilizing a four-man rotation, a “closer” who accounted for just under 125 innings, and only three dedicated relievers who pitched as many as 15 innings without making a start. Contrast that elegant arrangement to the many moving pieces composing last year’s Nationals, who rotated nine regular relievers on and off of their roster while relying on five men at any one time to fulfill their starting duties.
But is Stairs really a holdout from a Golden Age of pinch-hitters, the unapologetic owner of a low-mileage roster spot in an age when few managers would be caught dead driving anything but a seven-man bullpen? I searched for player-seasons since 1954 meeting certain Stairs-like criteria: at least 75 plate appearances and a rate of PA per game of no greater than 1.5 (excluding games in which a player was announced but did not play), with at least half of those plate appearances coming as a pinch-hitter.
That query returned 114 low-effort player-seasons enjoyed by 92 players, including 2009 and 2010 appearances by Stairs and a ’65-’67 streak by Burgess. So has the incidence of these declined in the face of ever-expanding bullpens, crowded out by an insatiable need for middle relief? As it turns out, the answer is a convincing “no.” The following graph shows the rate of matches for the criteria above per team-season (to adjust for twentieth-century expansion, which increased the size of the major-league player pool):
The graph bounces around quite a bit as players pass in and out of the league: six players qualified in 1960, while none did from 1955-1957. However, the trendline reveals that players like Stairs aren’t an endangered species, at least no more so than at other times over the past fifty-plus years—and that’s despite the arrival of the DH nearly four decades ago, which reduced the demand for AL pinch-hitters. In fact, three of the four players to have qualified for Stairs status at least three times—John Vander Wal, Mark Sweeney, and Lenny Harris—were active within the last several years.
How can this be? Didn’t all of these teams employing Stairs-like hitters know there were mop-up men to be had? For the most part, teams are rational actors that know value when they see it, and they still don’t see much of it in lowly middle relievers. These pinch-hitters weren’t simply carrying the flame for a time-honored archetype, but adding value—the most successful among them, Gerald Perry, contributed 12.7 VORP to the 1993 Cardinals’ cause. Perry’s .337/.440/.510 line in 116 PA was immediately followed by two Vander Wal seasons, with two Burgess seasons in the top ten (where they were joined by campaigns by Rusty Staub and Chris Chambliss). Stairs’ 2010 came in 12th. The numbers involved may seem small, but we’re looking only at the most specialized of pinch-hitting seasons, which restricts the value ceiling. Still, these players weren’t taking the places of relief aces, but interchangeable no-names in the middle innings, and judged against that modest baseline, many of them succeeded in offering surplus value.
It’s worth mentioning that a context-neutral statistic might not completely capture the value of a player like Stairs, who’s often been called upon and succeeded in high-leverage situations (which is how great t-shirts are made). According to Win Probability Added (WPA), a metric that assesses the cumulative changes in win-expectancy effected by a player’s on-field contributions, Stairs has been worth 11.4 wins above average over the course of his career, compared to 9.4 when context isn’t considered. Those two extra wins originate largely from 444 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, in which he’s hit .263/.365/.509, better than his .264/.357/.481 overall career line (which would seem to make him an exception to the dreaded pinch-hit penalty that makes so many other superficially advisable substitutions unwise).
I did a quick survey of the proverbial “seventh men” in each bullpen last season: those who posted the lowest LEV scores of any reliever on their rosters with a minimum of 40 innings pitched and who didn’t spend significant time as a starter. The results weren’t pretty. Only a few managed to keep their performances at the WPA break-even point or above, while 21 fell below, in some cases by significant margins. Even though their (in many cases) sub-replacement innings would have to be absorbed by other members of the staff, jettisoning one of these decidedly disposable commodities if the right one-tool slugger comes along makes sense just often enough to keep the Stairs line going, especially for a team like last year’s Padres, which had more effective relievers than it knew what to do with (at least before dealing several of them from strength this offseason).
Stairs has a lot riding on Jim Riggleman's roster decisions as spring training draws to a close: if he manages to get into a game for the Nationals after the club heads north, he’ll add a 13th team to his resume and attain trivia immortality as the most-traveled of baseball’s journeymen. He already owns the career record for pinch-hit homers, with 23; a long ball for the Nats would not only add to that tally, but give him the record for homering for the most teams. Still, Stairs is hardly a novely act, and his employment is no sideshow. The Nats stand to extract more value from him than from, say, a reprise of the Miguel Batista Low-Leverage Experience of 2010, and if the early returns are positive, they could always dangle Stairs in front of a playoff-bound potential Team 14 for a prospect return, especially with this blow still fresh in the game’s collective consciousness.
None of this is to suggest that teams should start trading in arms for one-dimensional bench players. The problem, of course, is that players who fit the Stairs mold are few and far between. The ideal candidate has to be not only an above-average hitter—after all, a pinch-hitter is useful only if his manager would rather send him to the plate than someone already in the lineup—and a righty masher, but also someone content with a part-time role and small-time paychecks, and utterly unfazed by the prospect of pinch-hitting, a duty that reduces other men’s bats to kindling. Attempting to shoehorn a player without these qualities into the role can have unsightly results, but the right guy can do wonders on the margins, which explains why Stairs-like hitters are no rarer today than they were when Burgess roamed the White Sox roster. It’s comforting to consider that when Stairs passes from the major-league stage, his pinch-hitting legacy will likely be carried on by a team brave enough to buck the game’s prevailing roster trends in search of an edge.