Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Varitek Era is Seemingly Coming to an End

On Tuesday, as first reported by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, the Red Sox signed old friend and back-up catcher Kelly Shoppach. This gives the team four catchers on their 40-man roster, adding to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Lavarnway, and Luis Exposito. With the move, it seems Saltalamacchia will remain the starting catcher, with Shoppach backing him up and Lavarnway starting the year in Pawtucket to refine his less-than-stellar catching skills. The other consequence of this move is one that many Red Sox fans had been anticipating, but struggling to accept. Of course, I refer to the end of the Jason Varitek era in Boston.

The Captain was first brought to Boston in one of the best trades in team history, when they sent reliever Heat Slocumb to Seattle for Derek Lowe and Varitek in 1997. He got his first full-time gig in 1999 with the team, and from that time until 2007, he was one of the premier catchers in baseball. The thing everyone will always remember him for is how he handled the pitching staff, and rightfully so. Basically every pitcher that has come through Boston during his tenure has raved about how well he calls a game and his ability to calm a pitcher down. One tangible thing that can account for this is that he caught four no-hitters, a Major League record. Even more remarkably, each was thrown by a different pitcher (Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester). While his defensive numbers weren't always spectacular, his 23% caught stealing percentage, he will always be known as a great catcher.

He wasn't too shabby with the bat, either. The three time All-Star put up a wRC+ over 100 six times, peaking at 126 in 2004. He showed very good plate discipline over his peak, consistently putting up a walk-rate around 11%. While he struck out a bit too much, career 20.8% K-rate, his walks helped even him out and allow him to be one of the better bats behind the plate the league had to offer. Between 1999 and 2007, Varitek had a cumulative triple slash line of .268/.352/.449, good enough for a 104 OPS+. There's also the distinction of being the first Red Sox captain since Jim Rice in the late 80s. Varitek received that honor after being a key piece on the 2004 Red Sox team that broke the 86-year World Series drought.

Comparing Varitek to other catchers during his peak years is favorable for the fan-favorite. He places 5th in fWAR with 22.8 WAR, finishing behind Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Kendall and Mike Piazza. The only reason Kendall finished ahead of him is his superior baserunning. Looking strictly at offense, Varitek also finishes fifth in wRC+, 105, (Javy Lopez replaces Kendall in the top five of this list), and tied for fifth in wOBA, .346. Varitek also fell into the top-5 in both home runs and ISO, showing that he was no chump when it came to power. Looking at these numbers, and keeping in mind the tremendous impact he had on his pitching staff, it is clear that Varitek was one of the premiere catchers of his generation.

With all of this being said, Ben Cherington made the right decision, as hard as it may have been. Even though Varitek has given everything to this team, it was simply time for him to go. In the last two years, it has been made clear that he is nothing more than a slower-than-molasses backup catcher with little offensive upside who is nowhere near a threat to throw out potential base stealers. His only asset at this point is his power, as he has posted ISOs of at least .200 in each of the past two years, in limited action however. He still may be a fit somewhere in baseball, but it is not on this team, especially with Lavarnway waiting in the wings. That being said, he has been a huge part of this team ever since I began following them. I, as I'm sure the rest of Red Sox fans are, am eternally grateful for everything Jason Varitek has done for this team and city, and wish him nothing but luck in the future.

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