In team sports, many people think you have to be a starter to be a superstar. But just because your name isn’t first on the depth chart doesn’t mean you can’t fill up the stat sheet and have a huge impact on the outcome of the game. In fact, some players are beasts off the bench, making the most of every rep they get.
Here are seven players who put up big numbers despite limited playing time, proving that sometimes subs show up bigger than the starters they replace.
Chicharito Is Mr. Clutch
Spanish soccer goalie David De Gea needed only a few words to sum up what makes Javier Hernandez so good. “He plays a little but he scores a lot,” De Gea told a Spanish radio program. Hernandez, who goes by the nickname Chicharito, has built an incredible legacy of coming off the bench, usually after the 70th minute, and delivering late-game equalizers or go-ahead goals.
Now on loan to Real Madrid, Hernandez spent the last four seasons with Manchester United and rarely started. Instead, he made a habit of checking into games late and promptly scoring crucial goals. Chicharito averaged a goal every 130 minutes in Premier League action, which ranks fourth best all-time and puts him in the company of legends like Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry.
Chicharito has also found immense success with the Mexican national team, for whom he’s averaged a goal every 121.3 minutes.
De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon’s Insanely Efficient Secret Weapon
De’Anthony Thomas, a.k.a. the “Black Mamba,” is one of the best players in Oregon football history despite rarely starting. Thomas was a jack-of-all-trades, taking handoffs, catching passes and handling return duties for the Ducks.
Thomas’s freshman season was a prime example of how a sub can make every rep count. That year, Thomas only had 140 touches, but he tallied 2,283 all-purpose yards, good for an insane average of 16.3 yards per touch. He scored a touchdown every 7.77 touches. Oregon’s starting running back that year, LaMichael James, had nearly twice as many touches with 278, but gained fewer yards, with 2,175. In the 2012 Rose Bowl, Thomas posted 155 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns—on two carries.
In his three years at Oregon, Thomas never had more than 100 carries in a season, and he led the Ducks in receptions only once. But he left a lasting impression on the college football world. He is now doing his thing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Matt Stairs, The Clutch Crusher
Pinch hitting is one of the hardest things to do in baseball. You come in cold off the bench, usually in a crucial moment, and often have to face the opposing team’s fireball-tossing closer.
Matt Stairs made a career of proving it in the pinch. During nearly 20 years in the Majors, Stairs played for 12 teams; and although he was a starter at times, he made his reputation as the game’s greatest pinch hitter. In that role, he posted a .252 batting average and an .833 OPS percentage, hit a home run every 18 at-bats and knocked in a run every 4.78 at-bats.
To put that in perspective, pinch hitters this season are averaging .220. Young phenom Mike Trout currently has a career average of a home run every 19.39 at-bats, and surefire Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera averages an RBI every 4.96 at-bats.
Perhaps Stairs’ most memorable moment as a super sub came in Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series, when he came off the bench as a pinch-hitter and crushed a go-ahead bomb that helped the Phillies win the game on their way to the World Series.
Darren Sproles Dominates Despite the Depth Chart
According to pro-football-reference.com, Darren Sproles has only started 19 games out of a possible 94 since 2008. And despite being a running back, Sproles has never led his team in rushing attempts. Nevertheless, Sproles has never let coming off the bench hold him back. He has 5,610 yards from scrimmage and 38 receiving and rushing touchdowns in six years, in addition to a boatload of kick and punt return yardage. In fact, Sproles is currently ranked third among active players in all-purpose yards.
Now in Philly with the Eagles, Sproles sits behind LeSean McCoy on the depth chart. But just as he did in San Diego, where he split time with LaDainian Tomlinson, Sproles is still showing up big with 263 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in his first two games.
Patty Mills Propels the Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs cruised to the 2014 NBA Championship, solidifying their status as one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. And one of the biggest keys to their success was Patty Mills, who averaged just under 19 minutes last season and started only two games. Need proof? His 18.80 player efficiency rating last year was higher than NBA stars Damian Lillard and Zach Randolph. If you extrapolate his per-game stats over 48 minutes (the length of an NBA game), he would average 26 points, 4.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. That’s as many points per 48 minutes as Dwight Howard!
If you’re wondering whether this super sub could sustain that kind of awesome production over a full game, look no further than the 2012 Olympics, where he led all players in points per game with 21.2 for the Australian National Team.
Steve Tasker, Special Teams Sensation
Steve Tasker did not seem destined for stardom. He stood 5-foot-9, started his collegiate career at a community college, and was selected 226th overall in the 1985 NFL Draft. Add the fact that in the pros he was a receiver on a stacked Buffalo Bills team, which included the likes of Andre Reed and James Lofton, and Tasker appeared doomed for a life of bench-riding obscurity.
So how did he end up being selected to seven Pro Bowls? Tasker was a beast on special teams, where he routinely blew up returners, blocked punts, reeled off yardage as a return man and generally wreaked havoc. Perhaps best known for his work as a gunner, Tasker consistently flew down the field on kickoff and punt coverage to make crushing tackles or force fumbles.
Tasker is the only special teamer to be named Pro Bowl MVP, which he earned after making four tackles, blocking a field goal and forcing a fumble in the 1993 game. Tasker could end up becoming the first special teams player who isn’t a kicker or punter to be selected for the NFL Hall of Fame.
Brandon Boykin Balls Out Every Snap
Last season, Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin played on only 51.3 percent of defensive snaps. That’s significantly less than starting Philly corners Cary Williams (94.5 percent) and Bradley Fletcher (76.6 percent).
But despite his limited playing time, Boykin filled up the stat sheet, hauling in six interceptions (including a pick-six), forcing two fumbles and defending 16 passes. Williams managed only three picks and 12 passes defended, and Fletcher only two picks and 15 passes defended.
Playing primarily as a nickel back, Boykin may never be a starter due to his size (he measures 5-foot-9). But when you can dunk like this, does it really matter?
In Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season, Boykin was back at it again. Playing in only 23 defensive snaps, he made five tackles.