By signing Kelly Shoppach the Boston Red Sox seem to be indicating that the Jason Varitek Era is at an end. Varitek was already a part-time player in Boston, mostly serving as the lesser half of a catcher platoon with fellow switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2011. Saltalamacchia is sticking around, and Shoppach is also the right-handed half of a platoon. It appears that there is not really a reason for Varitek, who will turn 40 in April, to come back to Boston as a catcher (although apparently there is still some ambiguity about that), even if Ryan Lavarnway was not in waiting. Even a .300 wOBA hitter can be a useful catcher. Assuming Varitek still wants to play somewhere, does he have anything to offer any team at this point?
The last time Varitek hit well over a full season was also the last time the Red Sox won the World Series — in 2007. The catcher position has been of concern in Boston ever since then, as Varitek never really came back. He really bottomed out in 2008 and 2009, putting up a 75 and 76 wRC+, respectively. His wRC+ recovered in 2010 and 2011 (95 and 93, respectively, are pretty good for a catcher), but those were in small samples of 123 and 250 plate appearances, and he was being heavily platooned with Victor Martinez and Saltalamacchia.
The switch-hitting Varitek has always hit left-handed pitchers far better than right-handed pitchers, which makes him more useful in one sense, but also means he is the lesser half of any platoon. Oliver projects Varitek to for a .285 wOBA (.209/.283/.367) in 2011, which would actually make him about an average player given the positional adjustment for catchers and the 2011 run environment. It really is difficult to underestimate how much of a bat it takes to be a decent player at catcher. However, that projection is also colored by Varitek getting favorable platoon treatment the last couple of seasons. Even if one assumes that Varitek could hit for a .300 wOBA by facing only left-handed pitching, if he received one-third of a team’s plate appearances for catchers (a generous estimate for the right-handed portion of a platoon), he would still barely be a one-win player, assuming he is a league-average defender.
One win above replacement is actually a pretty nice figure for a bench player or right-handed half of a platoon. However, keep in mind the qualification made above: “assuming he is a league-average defender.” Catcher defense is still a developing field, and encompasses a few different aspects (fielding balls, controlling the running game, blocking pitches, and the nebulous “pitcher handling”), all of which have their own difficulties when it comes to measuring them. One very basic measure (focusing primarily on throwing out runners and pitch blocking) had Varitek as slightly above average overall in 2010, but pretty bad in 2011. That measure reflects what most watchers and the catcher base running metric here confirms — that base runners have their way with Varitek.
That measure also shows Varitek to somewhat mitigate that problem by being good a blocking pitches, which is confirmed by this recent, impressive study by Bojan Koprivica. Still, it is fair to say that Varitek is probably below-average overall when it pitch blocking and throwing out base runners are considered together. Some teams like to have a veteran catcher around because they are good at “handling” pitchers. That is more difficult to quantify, but some of this might cover “pitch framing.” Unfortunately for Varitek, Mike Fast’s path-breaking work has Varitek as considerably below average in this respect.
Varitek has had a “leader’s aura” for a while, although given what is purported to have gone on in the Red Sox clubhouse this season, that aura seems recently to have only manifested itself in his hockey player’s “C.” Varitek’s bat might play at catcher, but given his age, a full season at catcher is unlikely, and his recent numbers are inflated by being platooned. He might still have some usefulness given his big split if he were willing to take a significant pay cut, but his inability to throw out base runners and poor pitch framing seriously cut into that value, as well. Varitek would be useful in a part-time tole to some team out there, but he probably would have to accept a very low salary ($2 million if a team has money to burn) to be worth having around. Given the money being thrown at utility players this off-season, nothing would surprise me at this point, but this is probably the end of the road for Varitek.
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