Jason Varitek: The Boston Red Sox's .218-Hitting All Star

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Jason Varitek: The Boston Red Sox's .218-Hitting All Star

There is a healthy flow of Boston-sports haters out there that have made clear their vitriol about the number of Red Sox representatives at this year’s All-Star Game.   

That’s what winning two of the last four World Series, in addition to three Super Bowls for the Patriots, and an NBA championship for the Celtics, in the last seven years will do.   

Luckily, the fans inside Boston love the situation as much as the throngs of fans south of Connecticut are unhappy about it.   

Given this situation, the last two weeks have seen a plethora of ire over the Red Sox's catcher, and team captain, Jason Varitek's selection to the All-Star game as a reserve for the American League team.

Everyone is rolling over his abysmal .218 batting average…which is the lowest average out of any starter on the Red Sox, never mind where it ranks in the AL.   

What disappoints me with the current commentary from mainstream media and bloggers on this topic is that the All-Star selection for catchers should be such a different conversation than that for any other fielder in the game.   

What also amazes me is Varitek’s selection by his peers is being written off as purely a “popularity contest.”  So a selection from among hundreds of his peers stretched across dozens of other teams in other cities can be attributed to popularity?  

I think this argument really disenfranchises the pride and respect that baseball players and other pro athletes have for their profession and for themselves as a group.   

I believe the players of Major League Baseball collectively understand the game and the value a player brings to it more than the homers who sit on their computer and vote 25,000 times for the guy on their team that they have a man crush on and want to see on the All-Star team.   

I believe the AL players got it right. Let’s look at what I believe led the majority of them to conclude that Varitek was one of the best catchers in the AL this season.    

Yes, Jason Varitek is going to the All-Star Game batting .218—the third lowest batting average for a catcher of all AL teams, ahead of only Kenji Johjima and Jeff Mathis. I will concede that Varitek's offensive performance this season has been less than stellar…definitely less than All-Star caliber.    

Besides his low average (his career average is only .264), you could also look at Varitek's caught stealing numbers and other fielding stats, which put him middle of the pack in the AL among catchers.   

So is his selection an inappropriate collision of reality and fantasy?

If the game was called the All-Offensive-Star Game then yes, it would be. But the catcher touches the ball every pitch for nine innings, when his team is on the field—and he is a director of that action—calling the pitches and coaching his pitchers through pitch-by-pitch scenarios as they arise.   

The catcher by far has more impact on the fielding-half of his team’s performance every game than any other player on the roster. Recent evidence reminds us that Varitek is in a "League of His Own" in being able to run that operation better than anyone.

And here's where many of you may pull the fire alarm. Because of this evidence, Varitek may be one of the best catchers ever. You read that right. Ever.   

What evidence?

Well out of the hundreds of starting pitchers who have stepped on the rubber since the last All-Star Game, there have been three pitchers to throw no-hitters in that span.   

Two of those three no-hitters have been not only at the hand of Boston Red Sox pitchers—but both have been thrown by mere kids: Clay Buchholtz last September and Jon Lester this May.   

It is reasonable to say that in a given baseball game, the catcher has probably a 20 to 40 percent effect on the outcome of the pitching performance. The guy on the mound still has to throw the pitches, he is the star actor, but the catcher is the director, the battle captain, the guy the team expects to know every batter: his tendencies, weaknesses, situational hitting tendencies, etc.   

That guy has to prepare like no other player prepares. More importantly, he has to be able to teach and translate that knowledge to a diverse group of pitchers and turn that communal knowledge into a pitching plan. That's what they pay catchers for...not for hitting.  

But Varitek called every pitch for two youngsters (both with undeniably great individual stuff) who went nine innings and did the unimaginable as far as baseball is concerned.  

Are Buchholtz and Lester’s no hitter’s isolated incidences of great pitching performances for the Red Sox?   

Last year, Curt Schilling had his first no hitter almost locked up—ninth inning, two outs, and Shannon Stewart strutting up to bat for the last out...and Schilling shook off Varitek's call and blew it.

Schilling threw a fastball when Varitek knew that Stewart was swinging at a first pitch fastball...because that’s what Schilling threw to the previous two batters.  

Schilling said, "I was sure he was taking...Tek was sure he was swinging. I was wrong...and I get a big 'What if?' for the rest of my life."  

Varitek deserved that no-hitter. Schill blew it.     

Let's go back a bit further.

Remember Pedro Martinez, that guy who grew up as a pitcher in Fenway Park? Pedro Martinez also shook off Varitek in 2000 against the Rays and broke up his no hitter in the ninth.  

Varitek’s other no hitters: Hideo Nomo’s April 2001 debut performance for the BoSox and Derek Lowe in 2002. See the pattern?  

So translate the two latest no hitters, and apply Varitek’s work to Boston's outstanding pitching success this season and last October's postseason...anyone remember last October and the unbeatable Rockies?    

Varitek's recent dominance and mastery behind the plate is so hard to overlook you have to be derelict to do so.     

Bottom line: Managers and owners look for a catcher who can catch and call games pitch by pitch, every day against every team. So shouldn't that factor into All-Star criteria for catchers before BA comes into the argument?  

Catchers don't hit. Most teams have their catchers near the bottom of the batting order because they typically are the weakest guy with the bat in the lineup. See the AL+NL Batting orders for the upcoming All-Star game where the catchers are batting eighth (Mauer .322) and 9th (Soto .288) respectively.    

So why aren't more people applying that criteria when they debate catcher selections for the All-Star Game? Is it ignorance or just laziness?

That, my friends, is a separate column, but I think we can dispense with convicting Varitek as an imposter at the All-Star Game, based solely on his embarrassing batting average.     

Jason Varitek has done, behind the plate, what no other catcher in the league has come close to doing since the last All-Star Game. And as succinctly noted by the NY Times on May 21, “Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek has caught four no-hitters, more than anyone in baseball history.”    

You may not like this rationale, but it is the very reason why even if Varitek doesn't climb out of his season-long slump—the Red Sox will still most likely sign him to a two-year contract in the offseason and pay him another $8-10 million to bat an ugly .235 for them.    

An ugly .235 that may include one or two more no hitters to add to Varitek's Cooperstown résumé.  I will not argue that right now, when Varitek is beside the plate, he is not nearly as proficient as when he is crouched behind it. But Varitek is in no way playing in the Midsummer Classic because of his bat, and all of the players that voted for him know that.  

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