Breaking Jason Varitek's Psychological Hold on the Red Sox

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Breaking Jason Varitek's Psychological Hold on the Red Sox

Yesterday, Pat discussed what the Jason Varitek signing means for the backup catcher position. Today, I look at the man himself, Jason Varitek.

What does the return of Varitek mean for the club? Does it mean "more of the same?" No, I don't think it does. The actions of management over the last year have shown that the club is intent on shaking the psychological hold that Varitek holds over the team.

Now, I don't mean this in a disrespectful way at all. Varitek is a great leader, The Captain, renowned for his hard work. But no one can defeat time, and if the Sox are to weather the transition from Varitek into another catcher, the team has to be weaned off 'Tek and how much he means to the club.

This started last year, but had nothing to do with Varitek.

STEP ONE - NO MORE 'DOUGIE GOES DEEP'

Step one occured in spring training of last year when the team sought to break the iron grip that Doug Mirabelli had on the backup catcher's position as Tim Wakefield's personal catcher. There's no question that Mirabelli could have easily served another year as the backup catcher and approximated Cash's production. So why the move?

The move was to show that the club doesn't need Mirabelli. It was a move that had failed earlier when Josh Bard was brought in to be Wakefield's caddy. The team tried again with Cash, who is an excellent receiver. As we all know, the transition went smoothly and now everyone knows that Mirabelli isn't the only person capable of catching Wakefield.

It's dangerous to rely on that one person and be helpless to do anything else. The club gave up Bard and Cla Meredith to get Mirabelli back, and had to fight the Yankees off to get Mirabelli, which actually made the psychological hold 'Belli had on the team that much worse. (The Yankees were trying to trade for Mirabelli at the same time the Sox re-obtained him; this was to prevent the Sox from getting him and put them in a tough position.)

Theo and Co. let Kevin Cash walk as a free agent, and he signed a minor league deal with (surprise) the Yankees. If Theo really wanted Cash back, he could have easily handed him a similar, perhaps even more lucrative, deal and Cash would have taken it, being guaranteed a full year of starting one out of five games. On the Yankees, he'll be in the minors unless Jorge Posada gets injured again or proves he can no longer catch.

Theo has essentially stated this offseason that the club is done with personal catchers for Wakefield -- they're not trying to force Wakefield out of a job, they're trying to position themselves to not be married to a particular player at a particular position. It's even been bandied about that Varitek could start catching Wakefield this year. Or Bard. Or Dusty Brown. Or George Kottaras. Who knows? But the days of a true knuckleball-receiving catcher is over.

The club signed Josh Bard to return to Boston after he showed enough offensive potential and the reputation of a "pitcher's catcher" in San Diego. He has a non-guaranteed contract, but I would be surprised if Brown or Kottaras beat him out for the position. This is as much a psychological move as it is a production move.

Everyone knows how badly Bard failed as Wake's catcher a few years ago. To field two catchers, one of who has barely caught Wakefield in ages and one who flamed out doing so, is a clear indication that the team is breaking the psychological hold Mirabelli and to some degree, Cash, had on the team.

STEP TWO - PHASING VARITEK OUT

This says it all - Samara Pearlstein



Now that the psychological hold of the backup catcher has been broken, it's time to transition Varitek out. There's no getting around how brutal of a hitter Varitek was last year. He was an offensive sinkhole and really depressed the offense.

And yet. And yet, he was still considered a valuable part of the team. And for good reason. Varitek's ability to communicate with the pitcher, his work ethic in attending pitcher's meetings (something other catchers rarely do) and his overall involvement with the catching aspect of the game has meant a lot to the team.

Again, however, everyone knows his time is drawing to a close... but the team can't just make a clean break with a player this influential on the pitching staff and team.

That's where we are right now. And that's why I believe that Varitek will find himself on the bench a lot more often as the season progresses, especially if Bard produces as expected.

In April, I see Varitek getting most of the playing time, with Bard catching Wakefield, which has been status quo for a while now, so nothing new there. Ah, but as the season wears on, you'll start seeing Varitek get more frequent days off here and there... and as the summer approaches, we'll be hearing how the club wants to keep 'Tek's legs and bat "fresh" for the "postseason run".

Suddenly, Bard will be catching two out of five starts, with no discernible pitcher-bias -- meaning that he won't be catching only Pitcher A and B, they'll be random, as so not to create a psychological effect on having a personal catcher.

That's what I expect to happen. Of course, things are always subject to change. If Varitek has a '07 Posada-like renaissance, this all goes out the window and he catches four out of five starts, if not more. If he hits .100/.200/.150, Bard will obviously become the new starting catcher. But assuming things proceed as they have (with a slight improvement in average, as 'Tek's xBABIP is higher than his actual), this season will mark a subtle shift towards not relying on Varitek to save the day.

As a former baseball player myself, I understand the power of psychology on a team. So do the Sox; they have a position dealing with baseball psychology and their actions with the catcher situation the last few years bear this out.

If the Sox are to transition to a "catcher of the future," they need to do so slowly. The catcher of the future needs to be integrated into the team, not suddenly thrown into the fire. If he is, you'll see pitchers openly pining for Varitek any time a start goes wrong, and the confidence level pitchers have of throwing to the new catcher will be lower than if they were throwing to 'Tek. Phase 'Tek out, and you'll hardly notice the transition to a new starting catcher.

I know a lot of fans were hoping Varitek would move on, but not I. I understand both the value Varitek brings to the team as a catcher and the psychological hold he has on the team. If we want to survive the immediate post-Varitek years intact as a playoff team, the solution is to slowly phase Varitek out. And that's what they're doing.

(NOTE: I'm not a psychologist. I'm just some Red Sox-obsessed fan who has way too much time on his hands and thinks about stuff like this.)

Originally published at Fire Brand of the American League.

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