MLB’s new designated-hitter rule could phase out what Matt Stairs did best

PHILADELPHIA—Matt Stairs sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Dodger Stadium for seven innings, a red jacket covering his Phillies uniform top. He knew that night — yes, that night in October of 2008 — that his chance would come in the eighth or ninth inning with the game on the line against the opponent’s best relief pitcher. So he watched and waited.

A decade earlier, he hit 38 home runs. Five years earlier, his OPS was 42 per cent better than the league average. But Stairs, the New Brunswick native who had arrived in Philadelphia from Toronto, was 40 years old, and the Phillies’ World Series run was his 16th season in the big leagues. He was no longer an everyday player. Stairs was a pinch-hitter.

Coming off the bench late in the game against a hard-throwing reliever can be a thankless job. Last season, pinch-hitters hit just .222. But Stairs did it better than most. He had 23 pinch-hit home runs in his career, a major-league record, and he is one of just 18 hitters to collect 100 career pinch-hits.

Stairs extended his career by succeeding in one of baseball’s hardest roles, moving from team to team as a slugging pinch-hitter — he played for 12 franchises. But now that niche could be fading away. The National League will use a designated hitter this season as Major League Baseball implements a DH in both the American and National Leagues.

Since 2015, the DH-less National League has totalled nearly three times as many pinch-hit attempts than its DH-using counterparts in the American League. Last season, AL teams averaged 77 pinch-hit at-bats for the season while NL teams averaged 252. The universal designated-hitter rule will likely extend past this season. Pinch-hitting won’t become extinct, but it will be much less prevalent.

“My job, my role, my pay was to be that hitter off the bench. That was my job,” Stairs said. “To me, it’s very important to have a guy who can come off the bench. I don’t care if it was 100 years ago or if it’s in 2020. Having a pinch-hitter to me is very important, knowing that this guy can step in and help out to win a ball game.”

With a DH in the lineup, National League managers will no longer have to pinch-hit for their pitchers. Pinch-hitting will now be strictly based on matchups — perhaps pulling a lefty hitter against a left-handed reliever or subbing a weak hitter late in the game. The pinch-hitting chances will also be limited as the go-to pinch-hitter could already be in the lineup as the DH.

The DH should increase offence and pitchers will no longer have to attempt to hit. But it will also bid farewell to some of baseball’s beloved strategy like Charlie Manuel saving Stairs on the bench that night until the score was tied in the eighth inning.

“It’s been so many years since it happened and I can honestly remember walking up the steps, walking to the on-deck circle, seeing him run in through the gate and just remember not hearing anything,” Stairs said of his iconic pinch-hit homer off Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS. “I didn’t hear a word. I didn’t hear music. I didn’t hear boos. I didn’t hear people call me a fat a-. I didn’t hear people call for Broxton. It was a cool moment.”

Pinch-hitting is an art, mastered by hitters like Stairs who can sit on the bench for the majority of the game and then block out the pressure when they are suddenly thrown into the game’s biggest spots. Del Unser and Greg Gross thrived at it for the Phillies in the 1970s and 1980s, Ricky Jordan did it best in 1993, and Greg Dobbs made a career of it alongside Stairs.

Their success was grounded in their approach. Stairs did not watch video of pitchers he might face or take batting practice during the game. He simply skimmed scouting reports, relied on past experience against that pitcher, and watched the game. He knew his strengths — crushing inside fastballs — and knew the pitcher knew too.

While playing for Pittsburgh, Stairs was told by Reggie Sanders that the only thing a batter can control in the batter’s box is your approach and game plan. Nothing else. At the plate, Stairs said he wanted to be “lazy as a hitter,” meaning he wanted to stay relaxed. When the pressure mounted, he did.

“Hitting is easy, getting hits is hard,” Stairs said. “That’s the mindset that you have to have. If I got a hit, it was a bonus. If I got a home run, it was a huge bonus. I just wanted to control what I did in the batter’s box. What really helped me out was that I never expected to get a hit when I pinch hit. I wasn’t thinking negatively. Like I wasn’t thinking ‘I have no chance.’ I knew it was such a hard job, you’re facing the best closers in the game or the best setup guys in the game. I wasn’t saying that I had no chance to get a hit, but I didn’t expect to get a hit. What I wanted to do was I wanted to stay with my game plan.”

In Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS, the Phillies tied the game in the eighth inning against the Dodgers on a two-run home run by Shane Victorino. Then it was Stairs’ turn. He lifted his red jacket over his head, walked to the on-deck circle, watched Broxton warm up, and took a couple light swings.

Stairs watched Broxton’s first pitch — a 96-mph fastball — zip past for strike one. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion as Stairs remained “lazy.” He knew Broxton would try to fool him with a back-foot slider, a pitch that spins like a fastball before breaking sharply. Stairs didn’t bite.

“I was like ‘ahh, that’s pretty good,’” Stairs said.

The next two pitches — both fastballs — missed outside for balls. Stairs, without swinging, was ahead, 3-1. Stairs knew that Broxton had not allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter since May 31. His approach told him that a fastball, likely another one outside to avoid Stairs’ strength, was coming.

“Closers don’t want to get beat by a secondary pitch. They can’t get beat on secondary pitches,” Stairs said. “If he doesn’t pull the fastball inside, who knows what happens. I might have rolled over on it, I might not have swung at it. Who knows? He just happened to pull the fastball inside instead of keeping it over the plate and the rest was history.”

Stairs ripped the inside fastball into the night, circled the bases, and was mobbed by the Phillies as he reached the dugout steps.

A few minutes later, Stairs pulled his red jacket over his head retook his place on the bench like a mercenary whose task was finished. His work — about three minutes in a game that lasted three hours, 44 minutes — was complete. It was another master class in pinch-hitting. And it’s an art that could be beginning to fade away.

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“Sometimes, you sit there and wonder what would have happened if I would’ve struck out? What would’ve happened? Would have I ever get a broadcasting job? Would have I ever had been a hitting coach?,” said Stairs said, who is out of baseball now and back in New Brunswick.

“It’s a what-if sometime. Or what if I was an everyday player and hit the home run? Was it a bigger home run because I was a pinch-hitter? For me, that was my job. My job was to go up there and have big shoulders. If I sucked at the time and struck out, I struck out. I hit a home run, luckily it was at the right time.

“People text me all the time through Facebook and people who have my number, ‘Hey we saw the home run again last night.’ It’s awesome. Honestly, it is. You knew you were helping to change the momentum of the series and getting to the World Series and going on to win the World Series.”