Is This the Captain's Last Hurrah? This Writer Doubts It.

FenWestCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2008

The season’s winding down, there’s a chill in the air, and the countdown of regular season games is at single digits.  

Even with October forefront in all our minds, it’s hard not to start wondering about the team’s more distant future.  The Red Sox are reportedly close to a deal extending Theo Epstein’s contract; Lowrie’s arrival as an error-free RBI addict has fans wondering about Lugo’s outlook; and now with so few days left in September, it seems everyone’s asking: is this the last we’ll see of Jason Varitek? 

It’s no small question.  It’s a veritable Bartolo Colon of questions.  The Captain will enter free agency once more after a season full of mind-numbing offensive woes, and his re-signing is no longer as obvious as it was just four months ago.   Suddenly there’s more attention on his age – 36 is old in catcher years – and on whether his recent struggles mean he’s finished as a first tier catcher.  Will he be back in Boston?  Negotiations will be handled by 'Tek's well known Agent of Death (AKA Scott Boras) who will certainly ask for more years and more millions than Boston will want to consider.  When this happens, Varitek may or may not chose to tell his agent to shove it.  'Til then, ‘Tek and the front office are standing mute, so it’s all free-wheeling speculation.  Some say the Sox won’t re-sign him because he’s on the decline.  Some say the Sox will re-sign him, because he’s on the decline.  (In this case, the argument goes that declining numbers will scare off the kinds of offers that make Boras drool, and leave Varitek firmly in Boston’s price range - a strong possibility).  But either option raises the question: is Jason Varitek on the decline? 

Offensively, Varitek has arguably been slipping for several seasons, his average having peaked at .296 in 2004.    This year’s precipitous drop was something special, though.  After a strong April and May, Varitek’s average went into free-fall, dropping from .295 to .215 in about six weeks.  Even after the parachute opened, it seemed all the stalwart backstop could manage was a steady state, hovering just over the Mendoza line.   Broken bones, or broken averages…  A fall from a height always leaves damage, and Tek’s average has yet to recover.  Even after rebounding to bat .264 in August, he could only pull his season average back to the .220s, and he’s running out of time to go much higher.

So is the Captain declining?

There’s another suggestion cropping up from several sources, that it isn’t only Varitek’s offense that’s showing wear.   They point to his caught stealing percentage, which is decidedly low at just .232.   The implication is presumably that after all these years, the phrase “a rock at the plate” is beginning to describe his speed more than his tenacity.  Odd, that.

Do a bit of checking.  A CS% of .232 is certainly on the low end, and ranks Varitek in the bottom third among qualified major league catchers, but this isn’t a new development.   It falls within the range of 1.5 percentage points where Tek has finished each of his last five seasons, including the year of his gold glove (.244) and the year he signed his current contract (.230).    Since CS% is also a statistic impacted by team pitching strategies as much as by a catcher’s arm, perhaps we should look elsewhere for signs that our backstop has lost his edge.  After all, Boston pitchers taken as a group tend to prefer to focus on getting the out at the plate, and let who will steal bases. 

In other fielding stats, Varitek remains consistently at the top.   Among all qualified AL catchers, he has second fewest errors (4) behind Mauer, and is tied with Mauer for fewest passed balls (4) and highest fielding percentage (.996).  He has the league's highest range factor (.820).  And his catcher’s earned run average is also best in the league, at .369.    Without going into the famous ‘intangibles’ so often mentioned alongside Jason Varitek’s name, these stats suggest that on defense, the man has lost nothing.  

It isn’t only that no other catcher will be available this off season to replace ‘Tek’s defensive skill.  It’s that if all hell broke loose and every AL catcher was available, defensively, he’d still be competing only with Joe Mauer. 

Asked about his mid-summer miseries, Varitek alluded to some mechanical changes he had tried to implement in his swing.  He has said also that he’d been over-thinking things, that he was “[his] own worst enemy at times.”   What he didn't say was that 2008 had already been brutal, on-field and off, with repeated illness and family difficulties coming on top of the team’s unusually tough schedule.  It may not be so remarkable that for two full months his bat touched little more than air.   What surely is remarkable is that even at his lowest ebb he remained in every sense Team Captain.  He remained the leader, the guy who’d give all his spare time to pre-game prep at the expense of extra hours with the batting coach.  He was still the force that held the pitching staff together.  He was still blocking the plate with everything he had, taking tumbles and knocks as needed for the good of the team.   He still knocked down wild pitches, still talked pitchers through jams, still stayed focused on the job at hand, and yes, he was still throwing guys out at second now and then.  He still called pitches mixed to leave the other teams’ batters looking as lost in the batter’s box as… well, looking as lost as he did, actually.  His own season might have been falling apart, but he wasn’t about to let his team lose its grip.

Is the Captain declining?

Not defensively.  Not even close.  Offensively?  There, we may well be seeing real decline, though not the sort his season stats suggest.  If June and July could be deleted from this season, he’d still be hitting above the average for the catching position.  Those months can’t be deleted.  But Jason Varitek was voted into the All-Star Game on the player’s ballot in spite of a .218 average, and it was not a mistake.  It was a recognition of what he means to his team, and of what a catcher’s job really is.   When it comes time for new negotiations, will Boston's front office recognize as much?

‘Tek’s been busy since he got here.  He ranks 15th on the all-time list for Red Sox career home runs.   One more will put him in a three-way tie with Carlton Fisk and Tony Conigliaro, and his most recent bomb on September 15th carried him past Fisk for home runs by a Red Sox catcher.  (In a quirky twist of baseball fate, ‘Tek earlier tied that record with a round tripper hit off the Fisk pole).   He is 25th all-time in runs scored for the Sox.  He’s 20th in hits, 17th in both walks and runs batted in, and 16th in total bases.  He’s tied for 11th in doubles.  (And yes, in team history, only Dwight Evans, Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski have struck out more!) 

In all Major League History, no one has caught more no hitters. 

He first came to Boston in 1997 in a trade now famous as one of the most lopsided in baseball history: Varitek and Derek Lowe to the Red Sox, and Heathcliff Slocumb to the Mariners.   Mariners fans have been known to shed tears over this deal even today.  But in 1997, Seattle didn’t know what they were giving up in Lowe and, especially, in this young catching prospect, any more than Boston knew what they were getting.  In 2004, Boston knew, and named him captain.

Today, only 10 men have played more games in the Red Sox uniform. 

After October, who knows what may happen?   But here’s hoping for many games more...  And maybe a few more no-hitters.