The moves that the Boston Red Sox made at last Friday’s trading deadline gives them flexibility to choose from an array of line-ups each night. As they are preparing for a four-game showdown with the New York Yankees this weekend, the playoff run is very clearly upon them.
Victor Martinez is listed on the Red Sox roster as a catcher, although he played at only five more games behind the plate than at first for the Cleveland Indians before being traded.
Pitchers often have difficulty adjusting to a new battery-mate after a trade, but a catcher has to learn an entire pitching staff’s strengths and weaknesses, a daunting task this late in the season.
That said, it is clear that the Sox’ best offensive line-up has Martinez at catcher, Kevin Youkilis at first base and Mike Lowell at third. In two of his three games with the Sox, however, Martinez has started at first, with Youkilis moving over to third, Jason Varitek doing the catching and Lowell playing left bench.
Varitek is the premier signal-caller in baseball. I say that without reserve, but not in reference to his hitting ability, or defensive signals, and certainly not his throwing arm. But rather that Varitek handles an entire pitching staff better than any other catcher in baseball, and calls a game with similar success.
Defensively, a catcher-first-third combination of Martinez-Youkilis-Lowell is roughly par with an assemblage of Varitek-Martinez-Youkilis. Varitek is no longer a Gold Glove catcher, and Lowell’s mobility and range is significantly reduced due to his offseason hip surgery.
Offensively, there is no debate that Martinez sports better numbers that Varitek. Martinez is an elite hitter at the position of catcher, and has hit in third in the Sox line-up.
The problem is that with Varitek tabbed as the team’s number one catcher, and any team wants their best starting line-up on the field in the playoffs, Varitek gets the starts during a playoff series. But that forces Youkilis over to third, which keeps Lowell out of the line-up.
Sox fans need no reminder that Lowell was the 2007 World Series MVP. But with his stint on the disabled list and constant talk of his off-season hip surgery, it may come as a bit of a surprise that Lowell is fourth on the team in batting average with an even .300. He has 11 home runs and 53 RBIs in 80 games this season.
That is a pretty solid bat to sit, especially for someone who has shown a lot of success in the playoffs (He racked up 15 RBI during the ’07 playoffs). Varitek, meanwhile, is headed toward another season batting average in the .220s.
Manager Terry Francona thus far has done a great job in managing the Sox’ line-up so that he rotates players in and out so that players with nagging injuries, like Varitek and Lowell, get the rest they need. In the playoffs, Lowell’s bat has to be in the line-up in place of Varitek at least half the time.
The implication that has for the Sox now is that Martinez needs to start catching the Sox front line starters, particularly Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Beckett and Lester would undoubtedly go 1-2 in a playoff series. To avoid having Lowell’s bat on the bench for two games in a row, Martinez needs to be familiar enough to handle them in a playoff series.
Many teams that have productive hitting catchers, like the Indians (before the trade) and the Yankees, often use their regular catchers at another position. That sometimes leaves the team vulnerable because it becomes more difficult to pinch hit or run for that player.
If the Sox open a playoff series with Martinez as their everyday catcher, and Varitek on the bench, it gives them their best shot at winning the series. I do not underestimate Varitek’s value to the pitching staff, but for a very experienced staff like the Red Sox, Beckett and Lester can be relied on to handle their start.
What Beckett and Lester cannot do, and nor can Varitek apparently, is hit their weight. The Sox traded for a productive hitter because they were struggling offensively. Varitek and pitching coach John Farrell can micromanage their starters from the dugout and not loose much from their pitching staff.
Lastly, I do not mean to keep Varitek out of the line-up completely. When Varitek does start, it gives the Sox two excellent pinch hitters in Lowell and Casey Kotchman. But the Sox are disadvantaging their team to have Varitek catch consecutive games at the expense of a much better offensive player like Martinez or Lowell.