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Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.



Posted by Jon on Tuesday, January 06, 2004



Stairs Climbing Toward Comeback?

Quick quiz for you: Who has the higher career on-base percentage, Scott Hatteberg or Matt Stairs?

Most of us (or at least Billy Beane) recognize Hatteberg as a guy who consistently reaches base. He has a career OBP of .352, which is not too shabby. But Matt Stairs – known for his ability to…um…let’s see…his ability to switch teams at a rapid rate? – has a career OBP noticeably higher, at .367. It probably sounds strange, but Matt Stairs has reached base more regularly than Scott Hatteberg. Lets look their OBPs for the last three seasons:

........................STAIRS...........HATTEBERG
2001...................358...................332
2002...................349...................374
2003...................389...................342


We read about Hatteberg in Moneyball and recognize him for his skills because oftentimes he hits early in Oakland’s lineup and he was recently resigned (and some might say overpaid). Stairs, though, is no superstar. He receives little notoriety, in part because he has lost plate appearances in recent years as he has been relegated to pinch-hitting and outfield platooning duties. But over his career as a regular in the majors, Stairs had some good, consistent seasons – at least in terms of OBP (back-to-back seasons of .370 and .366 in 1998 and 1999). In addition, his defense in the outfield is no detriment, and his throwing arm is above average.

You’re probably wondering why I care even the slightest about an aging role player on his fifth team in five years. Allow me to explain. I first became acquainted with Matthew Wade Stairs down on the farm, at Pawtucket in 1995 on my annual trip with the family, when he played on a team with such rising stars as “Pork Chop” Pough and Vaughn Eshelman. The promising Red Sox farmhand, a big, stocky, left-handed outfielder, was one of the best on the team, with a team-best OBP and home runs through. When he was called up by Boston, I was thrilled to see him, but he struggled in his second stint in the majors.

Stairs has had an interesting career. He prospered in Oakland for a few years, highlighted by his 38 home runs in 1999. But prior to his 2003 season, his batting average and OBP plummeted almost every year since 1997. Since then he has been a nomad, playing with the Cubs, the Brewers, the Pirates, and soon the Royals. This guy had trouble holding down a job! He could only manage one year contracts with bottom-of-the-barrel teams.

Recently the words “Stairs” and “underrated” have rarely been used in conjunction (I’m sure Rich Garces thinks they’re actually overrated…). But the Royals were on to something when they signed him to a one-year $1 million deal early in spring training. Check out the numbers he put up after an injury in late May:

..................HR............OBP............SLG............OPS............AVG
June............5..............491.............870............1.360..........413
July.............7..............481.............810............1.290..........365
August........3..............361.............519.............880............288
September...4..............403.............524.............926............270

That’s 19 home runs over those four months in only 224 AB (a very respectable 11.8 AB/HR ratio). Although his numbers declined in August and September, his monthly OBP splits were fantastic, leveling off at .403 in the last month of the season. The Royals jumped all over Stairs, signing him to a low-risk one year, small money contract.

While Stairs put up great numbers after his injury in 2003, I credit his success to a limited role in which he rarely saw any lefty pitching. This is no knock on Stairs. He is what he is: an aging (he’ll be 36 next year) hitter, who does a very good job against right-handed pitching. With his history of above-average seasonal OBP numbers and with the current swell of GMs looking at statistics (specifically OPS), I wonder why teams weren’t knocking at the door for what appears to be the perfect pinch-hitter and platooner in the outfield? Where were Theo and the gang? Mr. Beane? Yes, Stairs is from Canada, but that’s really no excuse. After all, Eric Gagne managed baseball success after a Canadian upbringing!

Don’t be surprised if you see Stairs continue to shine in obscurity in Kansas City. Hitting behind Beltran, Sweeney, and Juan Gone shouldn’t hurt. I’ll be checking on his performance – and the value of my Matt Stairs autographed PawSox baseball from 1995 – through the 2004 season.


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