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From Matt Stairs to Justin Bour, why NOT get a slugger?

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It’s a fun little parallel, one unique in its execution by two very different front offices.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees, Game 2 Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

In August 2008, the Phillies found themselves stricken with contention. This time, they were on the hunt for left-handed power off the bench. They found some on the Blue Jays roster, from which Pat Gillick plucked Matt Stairs to add to his talented young team. One month later, Gillick sent pitcher Fabio Castro to the Blue Jays as the player to be named later.

Castro had already thrown his last major league pitch. Stairs would go on to make a very clutch baseball-sized impact on the Dodger Stadium bleachers. The Phillies won that game, the NLCS, and the World Series. Pat Gillick knew how to win a trade.

Blink ahead ten years, and the Phillies are once again contending for the playoffs, in search of left-handed power off the bench. This time, they found it in Miami, in the form of Justin Bour, just after he had crushed their pitching in a four-game series a weekend ago.

Stairs, too, had visited Citizens Bank Park earlier in 2008 with Toronto, playing an entire game in right field. I have a distinct memory of being at one of these games, as a heckler, gifted in the art of wordplay, had repeatedly shouted “Hey Stairs, I will stare you down!” at the man’s back. Another glorious victory in the hallowed seats of a Philadelphia sports facility.

But unlike Bour, Stairs didn’t have a great series: No home runs. Five strikeouts in nine at-bats. The Blue Jays took two of three, including the rubber match in which Roy Halladay pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief. Nevertheless, Stairs was slashing .250/.342/.394 by the time the Phillies brought him on board on August 30; numbers that, beyond the inflated BA, could have been Bour’s when he was acquired around the same time in 2018: .227/.347/.412.

You can see what the Phillies have in Bour. His four-game audition only made him more appealing to an offense that seems pleased as punch to be fueled by walks and home runs and NOTHING ELSE, EVER, OR BE CAST INTO THE PIT. Here’s a Miami Sun-Sentinel headline claiming that Bour was “walking more than ever” in mid-May. In this, his age-30 season, Bour had 69 walks with the Marlins, easily having the team lead in both that statistic and home runs. As the Marlins’ sole deep threat, he was likely getting on base more because pitchers could throw around him and not get badly punished by anyone else in the lineup. Staying patient had allowed him to find the highest OBP of his career, which probably made Matt Klentak drop his phone in excitement by the time Bour’s third home run of the series at Citizens Bank Park had landed.

Narratively, the comparison is apt: Both Stairs and Bour were brought on to hit home runs. Both were acquired as part of an August stretch run. Both have monosyllabic last names that really sum up the blunt brutality with which they approach hitting baseballs. One Miami Herald writer called Bour a “lumbering, defensively awkward slugger,” which you could probably have labeled Stairs as in 2008 without much of a debate. The impetus for the Phillies trading for Stairs was also that Geoff Jenkins had gotten hurt, and the bench depth had taken a hit. The 2018 Phillies have suffered from a thin bench all season (though at the same time they seem to employ 60% of the players in the league).

But of course, we’re talking about two different scenarios. Stairs was ten years older than Bour when the Phillies acquired him. He also drew exactly one walk for them in 2008. The novelty t-shirt market has died down, making a Bour-equivalent to “In case of emergency, use Stairs,” less likely. And the front offices acquiring each slugger varied philosophically.

Gillick said this past spring, he relied on a balance between “analytics and visual observation,” never wanting to completely remove either practice from his toolkit. And while most front offices would claim the same, there are those who lean in one direction over another. The Phillies under Matt Klentak are obviously more invested in analytics, as that particular department has grown and the whole reason Klentak was brought in by Andy MacPhail was to introduce a more modern take on player evaluation.

It’s fascinating, then, given the very evident culture change in the ten years between these two deals, that such parallels occur. Gillick went for Stairs to restock his fire power, and Klentak went after Bour because he seems able to get on base, as well as supply power. Gillick, a Hall of Fame evaluator, brought in plenty of players he remembered from years in baseball, young talents cast aside elsewhere or guys who made impressions on him from organization to organization. Klentak is in his third full season as the GM, brought in by Andy MacPhail to modernize the Phillies operations. But despite the shifting of the game, past the statistics and through the narratives, we can find one gleeful, underlying truth among gut-trusters and number-crunchers alike: You can always use another dinger. And in both Matt Stairs and Justin Bour, you’re going get to them.

It’s a solid read of the situation by Klentak: the right guy, with the right numbers, for the right price. But narratively, which is of course how anyone will remember any of this, it all depends on how likely it is that Bour can rip one into the night.