Thursday, April 03, 2008

A brief tribute to Matt Stairs

My perception of Matt Stairs through the years? A fat guy who could hit a little. A better version of Morgan Burkhart. I doubt he'd take either of those comments as compliments.

But as I was poking around for some Blue Jays info a day or so ago, I happened upon his page and quickly came to this somewhat surprising realization: Stairs has had a remarkable and distinctive big league career. Judging my the numbers, he's much more accomplished than you - or at least I - ever realized.

Now, I suppose he's easily underestimated by dopes like me in part because he's ringer for the guy who took your recyclables this morning. He's built like a Heineken Keg Can and is probably familiar with the concept. He looks exactly like what you'd think a high school hockey coach in Bangor, Maine, would look like - which, coincidentally, is precisely what he happens to be in the offseason.

But he's much more impressive on the back of his baseball card than on the front. He's hit at least 10 homers every year since '96, and at least 16 nine times. He's tied with Jesse Barfield, Rick Monday, Alfonso Soriano, and Cecil Cooper for 200th place on the all-time home run list with 241. His lifetime OPS+ is 120, four points lower than Jeff Kent's and two lower than Derek Jeter's.

He's had a hell of a career by most any measure, and you have to wonder how much more impressive it would be if he'd caught a break sooner. Stairs debuted with 30 at-bats for the Expos in '92, bounced back and forth a few times, was a transient member of the Duquette Taxi Squad for the '95 Red Sox (he hit .261 in 88 at-bats), and has played for 10 teams along the way, even spending a game at second base for the '01 Cubs. I'm assuming he made Jeter look rangy.

His breakthrough came at age 29 when he hit 27 homers for the '97 A's. Two years later, he bashed 38 homers for that wild '99 Oakland club, and I'm guessing not even Billy Beane figured he'd outlast a certain 23-year-old teammate with a No. 1-pick pedigree who whacked 27 homers of his own that season. Where have you gone, Ben Grieve?

Stairs turned 40 in February, and he's signed through next season with the Jays, which means he has a great shot at spending at least a part of 17 seasons in the big leagues. Given that he hit 21 homers with a 138 OPS+ last season, hell, he may not be on his last contract.

I hope he lasts another five years, and I'll be following him with interest now that I recognize the truth: Still and always, late start and all, Matt Stairs is a supremely capable big league hitter. Even if some of us didn't always notice.