My Vote for Jason Varitek: It's a Good Kind of Bias

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My Vote for Jason Varitek: It's a Good Kind of Bias

 “It’s good to have people love you all over the world, but it boils down to ‘Can you play?’” – Willie Mays

Offseason is here once more, with any number of moves the Sox might make, any number of questions awaiting answers. Yet, there is only one question of that burning variety, just one of the sort that demands more attention than Craig Sager’s suits: What will become of Jason Varitek?

It’s no easy question, I’m told. Ten years of accumulated memories have a gravity of their own, distorting the things around them. This is the Captain we’re talking about; and there’s no hiding that fact behind a pile of stats and scouting reports—you might as well hide Big Papi behind Dustin Pedroia.

Whether the Sox re-sign their leader or let him walk, it will not be just a catching question. And it won’t be easy.

That’s what they say, but to me, it should be easy.

Sure, I’ve been accused before now of bias where the veteran backstop is concerned, and my response is, “well, yes. Of course.” 

Most people are biased, one way or the other. (For a sample of bias turned the other way, try Chad Finn’s blog at the Globe, where Tek-bashing has long been practiced with quasi-religious determination; the snarkiness is awesome to behold.) 

Some preach the Mighty Intangible; some yell “Overrated!” to the skies. Either way, with Jason Varitek, "perspective" and "objectivism" just aren’t easy to keep.

If you ask me, though, that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe a little bias, a little opinionated banter the numbers can’t touch, is good for us in the baseball world. And maybe, sometimes, that view strikes nearer the truth.

(Stats addicts, put down the projectiles and edged weapons. I haven’t lost it. Hear me out.)

Mostly, when people talk about biased fans in baseball—certainly when they’ve said it to me—they mean that people value a particular player beyond what statistics justify, that other factors are slipping in. The mostly also mean the fans in question are fools unworthy to wear their team’s hat.

Nonsense, I say.

(continued p.2)

First off, everyone is biased. Merely spouting stats doesn’t change that: You’ve still got to choose which stats to spout. You’ve still got to work out which ones are important and what they mean, and if that were all hard science, the game would be a lot less fun. 

(In my own dear field of archaeology, they’ve been debating this for decades: People used to claim you could trade your tweed jacket for a lab coat, make some charts, write a few formulae, and leave your subjectivity behind you. More recent work using critical theory has responded, “Hogwash.”  There’s no escaping bias, so you may as well make the best of it.)

There’s more, though. A stats-only view is supposed to keep us from seeing what isn’t there, but what about when it keeps us from seeing what is? Stat-free “Intangibles,” etc., can be pure hype and PR, but they can also describe a reality as relevant as any average.

To be sure, some "other factors" that sway a fanbase may be utterly pointless come contract time.  The average “Marry Me, Jacoby!” shirt, say, is not inspired first and foremost by the rookie’s outstanding speed and perfect fielding percentage.   

On the other hand, a doctor I know became an Ellsbury devotee out of recognition of what he called, “Ellsbury’s pure athleticism.”  He was talking about something he sees in the way Jake plays the game, something that’s not quite definable, but which screams potential, and screams, “This kid is doing what he was born to do.  He will be great.” 

When it comes to showing the hard evidence, the doctor is no better positioned than the flock of would-be fiancés, but to his mind, (and mine too), it’s a real thing, and a valid reason for an extra ounce of faith in the kid.

So, back to the Captain. At the end of the day, what we want to know about any player is, “Can he play?” and, “What will he add to the team?” 

Usually, to find out, we take our stat-happy selves to the altar of all-knowing numbers and ask away. With Tek, the inside story is that that won’t work, not if we want the whole picture. 

Virtually everyone who comes into contact with this guy insists as much: teammates, coaches, managers, even many of the sportswriters...They all insist there’s more there. And they all insist that the "something more" is at least as important as the stats. 

(Continued p.3)

It may be impossible for us, outside the team looking in, to ever understand what Varitek’s teammates know. But ignoring what they say because it isn’t ‘hard fact’ is a risky move. After all, they just might know what they’re talking about.

Yes, that’s a tough idea to take for a lot of the stat frat. Some reject the whole idea as heresy, rebel, and wind up as prominent members of the Tek-Bashing Brigade. (Yes, Chad Finn, I’m talking to you.)  Some just try to ignore it. And some, meanwhile, accept it and give three cheers that for once they can take a good look at a player without peering from behind their pocket calculators. 

It comes down to this: to say, “re-sign Tek because everybody likes him,” is nonsense, yes. You might as well say, “Re-sign Tek because I like spaghetti.” But to say, “We should re-sign Tek because what he brings to the team is unique and irreplaceable,” well...That’s something else again.

If false, it would still be irrelevant nonsense, but if true, it’s anything but. If true, it’s vital.

So is it true? 

Is Jason Varitek’s leadership irreplaceable? Do his preparation and work ethic really give the whole team extra confidence and an ideal role model? Are his game-calling skills really as unparalleled as his pitchers all say? Maybe. (Given the whole "four no-hitters" thing, I’m inclined to believe the pitchers.)

Maybe the off-field trauma in Tek’s personal life, plus a pair of nasty viral illnesses and contract-year stress combined to wreak havoc on his offensive season. (Or maybe he’s just getting old, and the .220 average says it all. But I doubt that.)

 

“Hard facts” have nothing to say on those matters, but in my happily "biased" state, I’m free to chuck my pile of box scores in the corner for a moment and try taking Tek’s colleagues at their word:

From Coco Crisp: “when you have the captain back there you have a good chance of winning." 

From Dustin Pedroia: “Everyone looks to him for advice and looks up to him. That’s why he’s the captain of our team. He sets the tone." 

From bullpen coach Gary Tuck: “Tek is like a pilot. We're flying along, and we run into a storm, and he takes it up a few thousand miles, brings it back down. He gets you through it."

From pitching coach John Farrell: “He's the most valuable member of our pitching staff." 

The pitchers seem to agree with Farrell, and we "biased" folk get to enjoy that fully, too. Beckett, Papelbon, Lester, Buchholz, Matsuzaka, Paul Byrd, Derek Lowe...They’ve all gone on about it. Quotes from Curt Schilling on this subject could literally go on for pages

(Continued p.4)

 

There have beenplenty of testimonials of that sort, all with the "inside perspective."  (There’s a great collection here, in the right-hand column.) But one quote in particular sticks out to me:

Following the World Series victory in 2007, Terry Francona said, "When we were on the field after the [clinching] game the other night, he put his head on my shoulder and cried like a baby. He had willed everybody to be so good. I think that's why I'm so calm. I know he's in charge. It's his team.

What can objectivity possibly add to that? 

Somewhere along the way, the hard line between "objective" and "subjective" becomes hazy. Somewhere, one starts to wonder whether sticking to the cold hard facts is a good idea after all.

The game is played by humans, and humans impact one another in ways no formula will ever capture.   Are all those teammates “biased?” Probably. But I find I find their biased claim that "intangibles" matter a lot more convincing than an outsider’s biased claim that they don’t.

Maybe it’s that archaeological training—my inner anthropologist at work—but I will always see statistics as a tool. An extraordinary, sophisticated tool, but still just a tool. Stats are description, not interpretation. Stats get us started, but they aren’t the stopping point. 

From stats alone—if that perspective were possible—I think I’d still want Varitek back on the team in ‘09. He really is the best defensive catcher available. He’s the only one we could get that I’d trust with Boston’s pitching staff. He's the only option that doesn’t leave me good and scared, in fact. 

But, when it comes down to it, I want Varitek back on the team not because there’s such a paucity of good catching out there, or because he can be signed without giving up promising young pitchers, or even because the next best options are young and raw and unready. I want him back because, when he’s on the roster, I feel better about the Red Sox chances, even about who they are as a team.

I have no numbers to show you why, no objective proof.

It’s a feeling based on something else, something...intangible.     

And you know what?  I’m ok with that.

Hey, Theo: just re-sign the guy, ok?  

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