Does Jason Varitek Have Anything Left to Offer?

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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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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tdotsports1
Guest
4 years 6 months ago

Yes, he does.

A giant, ridiculous C on his jersey.

TK
Guest
TK
4 years 6 months ago

SF Giants?

They have a need, a starting guy that should play a lot, and a history of bringing in old guys.

steve
Guest
steve
4 years 6 months ago

goodbye Captain snatchface, called a good game, blocked pitches, mediocre bat.

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.
4 years 6 months ago

Someone with an inexperienced catcher with a good arm/glove should sign Posada and Varitek, use them as pinch-hitters/DH’s/an occasional catching platoon, and switch to the better glove when they’re facing a team with a good running game or have a lead.

I’m not sure this is really a way to construct a winning team, but it would be fun to see a team try it.

Slartibartfast
Guest
Slartibartfast
4 years 6 months ago

He’s certainly worth a million or two to a team who needs a veteran backup catcher. No reason to think he’s any worse than .300 wOBA in limited platoon matchups next year.

Eric M. Van
Guest
4 years 6 months ago

Varitek has a reputation as an expert pitch-caller, and the only people I know that have tried to quantify catcher’s impact on ERA, the Fielding Bible folks, had him rated the best in MLB last time I looked. If he’s bad at pitch framing but still has a terrific impact on ERA, that’s really impressive pitch-calling, and in fact his last few Red Sox contracts make no sense unless they have some in-house metric that has said he had that skill (no, I’m not being disingenuous; I helped manage his strange day / night splits but never did any work on catcher’s ERA).

He’s an average-hitting backup catcher, a below average defender, a well-above average pitch-caller who apparently likes to teach that skill. I think someone will sign him for $2M and he’ll return as a coach to the Sox in a year or two.

shthar
Guest
shthar
4 years 6 months ago

As long as he only has to play against LH he’s good.

One of the long line pf 30+ bu ca.

The question is, will he do it for the money one pays for such a player.

Players like him used to hang on longer, but when you got millions in the bank, it’s pretty easy not to take a small contract.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
4 years 6 months ago

The claim that Varitek handles pitchers/calls pitchers well is based on “anecdotal” but by no means implausible evidence – pitchers have said so, and there are those no-hitters (and near no-hitters, notably Schilling’s). His great weakness has been throwing; Doug Mirabelli, for example, was there primarily to provide a better arm. Saltalamacchia/Varitek is a bad combo in this regard, whereas Shoppach, who throws well and has some power, is in the Mirabelli mold, and pairs much better with Salty. It’s a cheaper way to hold down an opponent’s running game than signing Crawford, that’s for sure.

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