Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jason Varitek Perspective

Jason Varitek is set to retire tomorrow from Major League Baseball and of course, such news always requires some sort of retrospective analysis. Was he a Hall of Fame player? Where does he rank among catchers of his generation? Yes, such news is always our cue to write something to sum up a career. Such retrospectives are complicated when such a retiring player played for a high profile team. And few teams have had a higher profile than the Boston Red Sox during Varitek's career. When that happens, it becomes hard to sort through the hype of it all. Thanks to the East Coast Bias, the Red Sox and Yankees were the greatest show on earth during the time Varitek played in Boston. How can any perspective be gained with that kind of side show?

What did we hear during all of that hype? Varitek was the captain of the Red Sox. He was the leader of the pitching staff. He was the heart of the Boston Red Sox. His pitchers loved working with him. Perspective on Jason Varitek is just as difficult as it was over a month ago when Jorge Posada retired. Back then, this space concluded that Posada did not have a Hall of Fame career. Well, if Posada is not a Hall of Fame catcher, than neither is Jason Varitek, whose statistical totals pale in comparison to Posada. In fact, Varitek's closest comparable as a catcher is Ramon Hernandez and nobody is going to promote Hernandez for the Hall of Fame.

This space has also promoted the fantastic work of Mike Fast on framing pitches (Varitek was not very good in that study) and Bojan Koprivia's study of blocking pitches in the dirt (Varitek was just above league average). lists Varitek as a catcher with a total negative value for his defense over his career. rated his defense even worse. Varitek's ability to throw out base runners was legendary in its awfulness. But in the end, does any of that matter? If not, than what does?

How about the fact that Jason Varitek caught Pedro Martinez 168 times. And in those games, Martinez had his highest strikeout to walk ratio and his lowest ERA of any catcher he ever threw to. That was magic. But was that Pedro's magic or was it a combination of Pedro and his catcher? Curt Schilling had three catchers that caught him more than 90 times. Of the three, Schilling had the highest strikeout to walk ratio with Varitek than the other two. Coincidence? Perhaps. Who knows. But it was fun to watch, wasn't it? Varitek was a part of the battery of the two best Red Sox pitchers of this recent generation.

For this observer, sometimes you have to get beyond the statistics that we all hang our hats on these days. Yes, Varitek had a career OPS+ of 98. Yes, when you add it all together, he wasn't that great defensively. No, he wasn't a Hall of Fame player. But during his time in Boston, the Red Sox won two World Series titles. Baseball is a team sport. It takes more than a great player for a team to win it all. It takes a team. Jason Varitek was a part of those teams. For generations of Red Sox fans, the team's heroics of 2004 and 2007 put an end to a long drought and a curse. Despite what the stats say or don't say, Jason Varitek was a part of that story. And this week a part of that story will fade away into history. Yaz might be in the Hall of Fame, but Jason Varitek will retire with two rings. That's the only perspective worth talking about.

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