Thursday, July 28, 2011

The (Possible) End of the Matt Stairs Era Leads to Reflections on the Dan Duquette Era

I was originally going to include Matt Stairs release as a line in the previous post, but starting to discuss Stairs brought back a whole rush of thoughts of Stairs' place in history as baseball changed around him, and then his position, in some ways, as a defining player of all the things Dan Duquette did both right and wrong as a GM. It's just as well - Stairs deserves his own post, rather than a paragraph. (Ok, you're right. Matt Stairs probably doesn't care if he gets a post on a blog devoted to him. Just go along with me, will you?)

First, the dirty mechanics. The 43-year old Stairs was released by the Nationals to make room for newly acquired Jonny Gomes on the 25 man roster and Friday's starter Chien-Ming Wang (yep, really) on the 40 man roster. This may represent the end of the road for Stairs, hitting .154/.257/.169 with no home runs in 74 plate appearances (though that batting line probably qualifies him to be the Seattle Mariner cleanup hitter). Stairs is still willing to take a walk, sure. But, since he can't play the field much anymore, if he's not hitting for power, he's just not a sensible use of a roster spot. Stairs has 265 career homers, despite not getting his first until age 27, and not being a regular until age 29. If Stairs had been born 10 years later, after the statistical revolution, there's no way he would have languished in the minor leagues for so long. He mashed in the Expos and Red Sox systems in his early to mid 20's, but he was chubby and couldn't play defense. What would he have done if he'd gotten his start 4 years earlier. 100 more career home runs seems likely, doesn't it? Taking it a step further, Bill James and Joe Posnanski, who are both a lot smarter than I am, think Stairs could have been a Hall of Famer if he'd been given an earlier shot. I'll link to Posnanski's fun 2007 column on could've-been-HOFers as a primer, but there's more online about it if you're interested.

The idea that Stairs could've been a Hall of Famer seems a little bit crazy, since he was a one-dimensional power hitter. He was also a one-dimensional power hitter who has a better career home run rate than Jim Rice, despite the fact his career lasted to (at least) his age-43 season, while Rice was done at 36. So who knows.

Signed to both the Expos and Red Sox by the much-maligned former GM Dan Duquette, Stairs represents both the best and worst about what Duquette was as a GM. He was often willing to give chances to castoffs and oddballs, and it worked out when players like Troy O'Leary, Jeff Shaw and Butch Henry helped his teams. He also traded for Pedro Martinez twice, which he deserves a LOT more credit for than he's ever gotten. However, he was a terrible communicator with his field managers, often demanding playing time for his projects rather than working with them, resulting in situations like the famous Izzy Alcantara rift between Duquette and Jimy Williams.

More harmfully, Duquette was often victim of small sample size mistakes. He was willing to sign an oddball like Stairs, but if he struggled in his first 25 at bats he'd immediately be back in the minors. In the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Red Sox cycled through 53 players - check out this roster. A lot of guys were cycled out because they weren't good enough. Matt Murray, Brian Loney, Brian Bark and a few others never played in the majors again. That, it seems, was part of the problem. Duquette would find something positive in too many players, but was unable to differentiate the ones would could be real contributors with the ones who should have been organizational filler.

From 1995 to 1997, Duquette signed and released Stairs, Tuffy Rhodes, Dwayne Hosey and Rudy Pemberton. Considering the outfield problems the Sox had in the late 90's which gave lots of at bats to Darren Lewis (who was, in fairness, a very good defensive CF), Damon Buford, Darren Bragg, and necessitated the disastrous acquisition of Carl Everett, not giving these guys an extended chance was a mistake.

First, the Matt Stairs story. He was signed as a SECOND BASEMAN (I can't stress how insane that seems - I couldn't even picture Stairs as a 2B on an over-40 softball team) as an amateur free agent in 1989, and had his breakout season with AA Harrisburg in 1991, going .333/.411/.509, walking 66 times and only striking out 47. Usually a 23 year old having a season like that at AA will get midseason, but Stairs spent the entire year in Harrisburg. The next year, in AAA, he was slightly less impressive at .267/.351/.426. That line might give some players a chance, but not unathletic poor fielders, and certainly not when the major league outfield for Montreal at the time consisted of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker. Stairs got a couple cups of coffee in 1992 and 1993, going homerless in 46 plate appearances before being sold to the Chunichi Dragons.

In February 1994, Dan Duquette was the new Red Sox GM. Upon seeing an OF with slightly less talent than the one he left in Montreal (a still-effective Mike Greenwell flanked by Billy Hatcher, Bob Zupcic, Carlos Quintana... you get the idea), he made Matt Stairs one of his first signings (Yay, Dan!), and... assigned him to AA New Britain (Dan... really??). Stairs, fortunately, had not forgotten how to abuse AA pitching, going .309/.407/.486, which, in cavernous Beehive Field, is nothing to sneeze at. Mo Vaughn went .278/.350/.437 as a BritSock, Jeff Bagwell .333/.422/.457 before the Larry Anderson trade. The silliness of allowed a 26 year old to hang out in AA with that production shows what the baseball world was like before the statistical revolution. Duquette was considered one one of the first proponents of statistical analysis. For that, of course, he was roundly mocked in the Boston Sports Pages. Remember the Mike Gimbel controversy?

Anyway, I digress. In 1995, Stairs was promoted to Pawtucket, and got the call to the Bigs in late June. He was given 95 plate appearances, mostly as a pinch hitter, over 39 games for the rest of the season, hitting .261/.298/.398 with only 1 home run and 7 doubles. It's hard to fault Kevin Kennedy for not giving Stairs more of a chance. The Red Sox were in a pennant race, and corner outfielders Greenwell and O'Leary were having good years, as was DH Jose Canseco.

That December, Stairs was signed by Sandy Alderson, and it was in 1996 his career started to take off. In 158 plate appearances, Stairs hit .277/.367/.547, including 10 home runs, a performance that earned him additional playing time. From 1997 to 2000, Stairs raked to the tune of .268/.362/.506, with 112 home runs in 2188 plate appearances. The A's traded Stairs to the Cubs after the 2000 season, and Stairs never reached 500 plate appearances again, despite a .267/.359/.478 line from 2001 to 2007.

In 2008 though, the hitter-for-hire finally got his moment in the sun. In the 8th of the NLCS, Stairs homered off of the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton to give the Phillies a 7-5 lead. The Phillies went on to win the game to take a commanding three games to one lead in the series, and, of course, won the World Series.

Stairs was only one of the players that Duquette cycled through who would have made the final years of the previous ownership group more successul.

Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes is a Japanese baseball legend. Rhodes has 474 career home runs in NPB, including a league record 55 in 2001 (if I recall, another home run record was broken that year as well). He is one of the four non-Japanese players in their history to reach Free Agency status. It is possible that he wouldn't have achieved that success in the US, and that Japan was the best place for him. The Red Sox, who signed him in 1995, probably owed themselves more than 25 plate appearances to find out. Rhodes, who was originally drafted in 1986 by the Astros, compiled a .288/.368 /.463 batting line in 2039 AAA plate appearance, but never really put it together in the major leagues. Boston was his last stop in American pro baseball, and his career .224/.310/.349 line in 675 plate appearances (roughly a full season worth) might have been what he'd done continued to do here.

Less defensible was the short shrift given to Dwayne Hosey. Hosey, a minor league journeyman, went .338/.408/.618 and a perfect 6 for 6 in stolen base attempts, earning him the starting center fielder job in the ALDS and for the 1996. In 1996, it took 87 plate appearances of .218/.282/.333 to convince Duquette that 1995 had been an aberration. Was it though? His Red Sox career line was now at a very respectable.274/.342/.466, and was consistent with his .290/.373/.516 in over 1600 AAA plate appearances. He was replaced in 1996 by Lee Tinlsey (.245/.298/.333 in '96 for Boston, failed to get above a .270 OBP in stops in Philly and Seattle afterwards) and then traded Jamie Moyer to acquire Darren Bragg (.252/.357/.365 in '96, .256/.336/.380 from 1997 onward).

Most egregious, and most memorable to Red Sox fans, was Rudy Pemberton. In 1996, the Red Sox acquired Pemberton as the player to be named later for a pitcher named Bryan Eversgerd. Calling up Pemberton in September, he had one of the best month's in Red Sox history, compiling a .512/.556/.780 in 45 plate appearances. This gave Pemberton the starting RF job in 1997 (Troy O'Leary moved to LF that year). In 70 1997 plate appearances, he went .238/.314/.365, was demoted in May and released in June, never to be seen in the majors again.

Was there any reason to believe that the 1997 Pemberton was the real thing, and the 1996 one was the fluke? His career major league line ended after 147 plate appearances with a .336/.395/.515 line. This was supplemented by over 1600 AAA plate appearances, where he went .303/.359/.516 (Pemberton later starred in the Mexican League). Can you imagine a guy compliling a stat line like that, but being judged on 70 plate appearances and never getting another chance? He probably wasn't really a .336 hitter, but .285/.340/.500 seems completely reasonable. In his 1997 stint, two more singles. would have given him a .312 BABIP, in line with his minor league numbers and still well below his previous major league numbers. Those two singles would have given Pemberton a .270/.343/.397 line that year . Would they have sent that player to the minors? Are TWO SINGLES IN 1997 the difference between Pemberton being a Mexican League all star and a long time major league regular? I can't see that happening in today's game. General Managers are simply smarter than that today. In 2007, Dustin Pedroia was allowed to go .172/.294/.224 in his first 21 games (though maybe that's not true everywhere - there were certainly calls in the Boston media to bench Pedroia in favor of Alex Cora).

So, while we celebrate Matt Stairs' career and some mourn what he might have been given a greater chance, we at least acknowledge that Stairs got his time in the sun. That's something Rudy Pemberton, Russ Morman, Jeff Manto, Roberto Petagine and dozens of others who preceded him did not.

Statistics, as always, provided by Baseball-Reference.

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