After spending more than 14 years donning the tools of ignorance, Jason Varitek is calling it a career. The veteran backstop will announce his retirement on Thursday according to The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham, and he’s expected to remain with the organization in some non-playing capacity.
Varitek, 39, was the homegrown Red Sox player that didn’t actually grow up in their farm system. He was originally drafted 14th overall by the Mariners in 1994 and spent more than two years in their minor league system before being traded to Boston along with Derek Lowe in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb at the 1997 trade deadline. That has to be one of the most lopsided deals of the last 25 years or so. Unlike Lowe, Varitek never played a game for the Mariners, instead topping out at Triple-A.
After making his big league debut later in the season, Varitek broke camp with the Sox in 1998 and served as Scott Hatteberg‘s platoon partner behind the dish. His .310 wOBA and 0.2 WAR didn’t get him any Rookie of the Year love, but it did get him the full-time catcher’s job the following season. Varitek produced a .346 wOBA and 2.3 WAR as a 27-year old in 1999, clubbing 20 homers and starting 130 games at catcher. He battled injury and performance issues from 2000-2002 (.328 wOBA and 5.7 WAR), but emerged as one of the game’s top backstops at age 31.
From 2003-2007, Varitek hit to a .354 wOBA and produced nearly 15 wins more than a replacement-level catcher, helping the Red Sox to two World Championships. He made three All-Star Game appearances and received MVP votes all five years. His best season was that historic 2004 campaign(as far as the team in concerned), when he hit .296/.390/.482 with 18 homers and ten steals (.377 wOBA and 4.3 WAR) while starting 121 games behind the plate.
Age-related decline started to set in during the 2008 season, when a then-36-year-old Varitek managed just a .299 wOBA and 0.7 WAR in 483 plate appearances. Right-handed pitchers held him to a .278 wOBA with a 27.4 K%. He rebounded to a .306 wOBA the following season, but the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez at the trade deadline and installed him as the everyday catcher down the stretch. Varitek’s days as the full-time catcher were over. He backed up Martinez in 2010 (when he wasn’t injured) and platooned with Jarrod Saltalamacchia last season.
Based on his performance in 2011, there was a little something left in the tank. Varitek put together a .308 wOBA with a .203 ISO overall in 250 plate appearances, hitting lefties better than righties (.333 vs. .310 wOBA) even though nine of his 11 homers came against northpaws. Defense had long been a problem however, as Varitek threw out just 12 of 85 attempted base stealers on the season (14.1%). From 2008-2011, he gunned down just 16.4% of attempted base stealers (53 of 324).
Varitek was a very rare breed. He is one of just seven switch-hitting catchers to rack up at least 3,000 career plate appearances during the expansion era — Jorge Posada, Todd Hundley, Alan Ashby, Gregg Zaun, Butch Wynegar, and Buck Rodgers are the others — and he actually produced from both sides of the plate:
Varitek ranks 40th among catchers with 24.8 WAR during the expansion era (276 qualifiers) and holds a much more prominent place in Red Sox history. He is in the franchise’s top ten in games played (1,546), plate appearances (5,839), doubles (306), and extra-base hits (513) while ranking 30th on the team’s all-time position player WAR list (1,327 players).
As a .256/.341/.435 career hitter with 193 homers, Varitek’s career falls well short of Hall of Fame caliber even when considering his position. He is certain to get some votes though, and will probably stick around on the ballot for an extra year or three because his defense and leadership skills were hyped ad nauseum. Varitek did have a long and very productive career however, one that made him one of the five best catchers of his generation.