Jason Varitek: No, He Cannot Field

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2009

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 08:  Catcher Jason Varitek #33 of the Boston Red Sox fouls off a pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at City of Palms Park on March 8, 2009 in Fort Myers, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

As I work through the Fielding Bible, Vol. II (Defensive Runs, Defensive Misplays), I keep coming across nuggets of information that impact my beliefs surrounding defense of any given player.

Today, Jason Varitek is at the forefront of my thoughts.

As you might have deduced from the headline of this article, I've learned that Varitek can't field. Not only can he not field, he can't throw, either.

There are two newfangled statistics that bear this out: the Adjusted Earned Runs Saved and Stolen Bases Saved.


"Earned Runs Saved is a number that tells you how many earned runs the catcher saved for his pitcher," writes John Dewan, author of the Fielding Bible.

How it's calculated is basically by comparing a catcher's ERA with a specific pitcher to the pitcher's overall ERA. For example, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina had a 3.37 overall ERA, but 3.22 with Jose Molina behind the plate. This means that Molina saved three runs.

However, sample size is a huge issue in Earned Runs Saved, so Dewan came up with Adjusted Earned Runs Saved, which factors in credibility.

Dewan asked Bill James to run a simulation which proved that even if there is noise in the data (if the catchers have underlying skill differences, but the data only reflects those differences sometimes due to noise), the data is useful. The credibility factor Dewan would go on to use weighs "the number of innings caught by the catcher relative to a full-season of team innings."

Dewan also factored in park effects, which help negate effects of pitching in hitter and pitcher parks.

Enough about what the stat is. We just want the results, right?

Jason Kendall saved the most runs over the last six years with 23. Paul Lo Duca (18), Ivan Rodriguez (17, so much for reputation), Chris Snyder (12), and Gregg Zaun (12) round out the top four.

The bottom five are paced by Kenji Johjima (-19), Victor Martinez (-18), Jason Varitek (-17), Jorge Posada (-15), and Michael Barrett (-9).

When looking at just the last three years instead of six, Varitek isn't ranked at the top, and neither is he ranked at the bottom, which is good, I suppose he improved his effectiveness from 2006-8 while being a liability from 2003-5. Paul Lo Duca regressed to t-29th at -5, which helps explain his career progression being what it is.


Another important facet to being a catcher is controlling the running game. However, the running game is just as, if not more, dependent on the pitcher as it is on the catcher.

Dewan used the same technique as in Earned Runs Saved, but over his career. While a pitcher's performance fluctuates in terms of effectiveness over the course of a career, the pitcher's aptitude at holding runners remains consistent.

In 2008, Varitek doesn't rank on the leader boards for Stolen Bases Saved, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia does... at -6. Jason Kendall and Jose Molina both saved 11 stolen bases. (Bengie Molina saved 8, Yadier, 4. What's with those Molina brothers?)

Where we see Varitek is over the last six years: we've lost 20 stolen bases thanks to Varitek's (inferior) handling of holding and throwing out runners. Converting to runs saved means Varitek cost us 12.4 runs in the running game.

Varitek then, cost the Red Sox 29.4 total runs over the last six years.


So did Rafael Palmeiro in a year where he played 28 games at first. (It's true.)

Clearly, Varitek's value has taken a hit over the course of this article. If he can't hit or field, what are the Sox doing bringing him back and committing to him to four out of five starts? A few possible explanations:

  • The Red Sox think Varitek will improve his hitting.
  • The Red Sox would be more interested in the past three years' data, as opposed to the past six years. (Varitek did not register in the bottom of leader board of Adjusted Earned Runs Saved for the past three years.)
  • Varitek really is our very own Captain Intangibles.

We certainly don't know why the Red Sox felt that the team was better off with him behind the plate. We can guess, though, and the obvious guess is that he means so much to the pitchers and his game-calling is so fantastic, that it outweighs all his other deficiencies.

The Red Sox could have Miguel Montero or Jarrod Saltalamacchia in camp right now if they were willing to move one of their pitchers. Why didn't they? We'll tackle this Thursday, but for now:

What do you think is the overriding reason why, in the face of declining offensive and defensive skills, Jason Varitek is still a starting member of the Boston Red Sox?


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