Will Yoder: Stairs embraces niche to prolong productive career

Sticking out like a sore thumb on the youthful Washington Nationals is 43-year-old Matt Stairs, a former All-Star turned pinch-hitting specialist who gets woken up once every 18 innings to attempt to hit a home run. It’s a role he has come to embrace over the course of an incredible and arguably underappreciated 19-year-career.

One of the greatest minds in baseball history, Bill James, once wrote of Stairs:

“Look at it. Somebody decided he was a second baseman, he tears through the minor leagues, gets to Montreal, the Expos take one look at him and say, ‘He’s no second baseman, get real.’ He bounces around, goes to Japan, doesn’t really get to play until he’s almost 30, then hits 38 homers, slips into a part-time role and hits 15-20 homers every year for 10 years in about 250 at-bats a season. ... You put him in the right park, right position early in his career ... he’s going to hit a LOT of bombs.”

James has a point; Stairs has had one of the oddest, yet most successful-against-all-odds careers of all time.

At 5-foot-9 with just 19 major league games under his belt by the time he was 27, odds were that Stairs’ career was much more likely to go the way of Crash Davis than blossom into a 19-season major league veteran. People like him just aren’t designed to be successful in the modern baseball talent evaluation system. He’s considered too short to be a real power hitter, he was too slow to be an infielder and too small to be a corner outfielder. He just didn’t pass the sniff test which dominated scouting until the mid-1990s.

Stairs got lucky. There was a new general manager in Oakland who had a crazy idea of taking players who could walk a lot and hit a ton of home runs but were passed over because of their body type or low batting average. Billy Beane was changing the game, and Stairs was ready to become his first prototype.

In the course of his five-season career with Oakland, Stairs hit 122 home runs in a pitchers’ ballpark and carved out a career for himself. As James pointed out, after he left California at 33, Staris never got the full-time at bats he deserved, never registering over 500 plate appearances in a season again.

Yet, despite being put in an unfair situation, Stairs continued to capitalize on it the best he could. While he would only get between 300 and 400 plate appearances a year over the next five seasons, he would make them count as he averaged 17 home runs per year during that stretch. He became the ultimate platoon hitter who could be expected to produce in a limited role.

Stairs is now winding down yet another stage in his career where he has been asked to do one thing over the past five seasons, hit pinch-hit home runs. He’s been incredibly good at it and while he has yet to produce this year, odds are he comes on strong. Over the course of his career,he has produced an incredible rate of one home run per every 17 at bats, and is a great role model for the young Nationals players to see that if you are willing to work hard enough, you can carve out a spot for yourself in the majors for years to come.

Will Yoder blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog, and has offered his viewpoints this week as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. Next week, Drew Kinback of Nationals Inquisition joins the fray. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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