When the Boston Red Sox re-signed backstop Jason Varitek to a one-year, $5 million deal with a mutual 2010 option this past winter, questions were raised as to how much the move was motivated by emotion as opposed to empiricism. After all, ‘Tek (a Sox player since being acquired along with Derek Lowe in a July 1997 deadline deal for Heathcliff Slocumb) was entering his age-37 season, and was coming off a bleak 2008 campaign in which he posted a .299 wOBA (.220/.313/.359).
Granted, those who don the tools of ignorance generally don’t light up the scoreboard (the average catcher posted a .255/.324/.389 line in 2008), but Varitek accumulated just 1.2 Wins Above Replacement in ’08. Baseball Prospectus scribe Christina Kahrl called bringing the veteran switch-hitter back to Boston “spending money for its own sake because you didn’t spend it on things that actually help you.”
Flash forward to May 28th, as the Red Sox take on the Twins. A catcher dominates the game (well, before getting tossed, anyway). He clubs two homers, pushing his team to victory in a 3-1 affair. The backstop is shockingly in the double-digits in dingers already.
No, I’m not talking about Joe Mauer. With two solo shots yesterday afternoon, Boston’s purportedly cooked catcher now has 10 home runs on the season. Through 150 plate appearances, Varitek owns a .248/.320/.541 line, good for a .360 wOBA that ranks third among all qualified catchers. Only part-time first baseman Victor Martinez and part-time DH Mike Napoli best Varitek, so you could say that he’s the leader in the clubhouse among those who are consistently behind the dish (if you drop the PA threshold to 100 to include those bitten by the injury bug, he ranks 8th, which is still pretty impressive).
Nothing has drastically shifted in his batted ball profile or plate discipline stats, but Varitek is driving the ball as well as he ever has during the first two months of the season. His .293 ISO is leaps and bounds above any of his full-season totals; the last time he eclipsed .200 was 2005. To boot, he’s whiffing less so far, too: after K’ing a career-high 28.8% in 2008, Varitek has pared that number down to 22.6%. It’s hard to say that he’s getting lucky on balls put in play either: while his line drive percentage is low (14.3%), so is his BABIP (.247). He’s just banging plenty of extra-base hits.
Of course, it would be insane to expect this sort of performance to continue for the length of the season. However, Varitek is certainly looking like a worthy starter in deep leagues. ZiPS projects Varitek to post a .235/.326/.412 line the rest of the way. That’s not flashy, but one could do worse than giving Varitek a look. Let’s not write his baseball eulogy just yet.
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