Jason Varitek

Olde Sox: Jason Varitek was a Defensive Superstar

With all the Powerball jackpot news in the media these days, it’s easy to forget just how hard it is to get a whole lot of something for very little investment. In 1997, the Red Sox dealt Heathcliff Slocumb to the Mariners for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek, proving that you don’t have to play the lottery in order to hit it big. Sometimes you just have to deal a middle reliever for two mid-tier prospects.

Lowe is worth an article himself (I’m sure I’ll get to him at some point), but today it’s time to celebrate Jason Varitek. Famous for being a stalwart Sox player through the entirety of the first decade of the millennium, Varitek was a critical piece of the team’s 2003 playoff run as well as the squad’s 2004 and 2007 World Series victories. The fourth team captain in the franchise’s long history, Varitek remains a beloved and respected figure for the team’s fans today.

At times, Varitek was also lauded as one of the greatest players in the league, or at least one of the game’s best catchers … an assertion that the numbers at the time never really backed up. Today’s goal is to explore Varitek’s overall value and answer a few questions with the new data at hand: was Varitek legendary, or more ordinary?

Instead of breaking down Tek’s value on a year-by-year basis, as I often do in Olde Sox, I’d like to break his performance down into offense and defense. Varitek had a reputation as a good-hitting catcher through most of his career with Boston, and I’d like to touch on his skills and performance in that arena before talking about his defense–an especially appropriate and exciting topic given the release of Baseball Prospectus’s new catching metrics.

So let’s get into it. A switch-hitter with power and on-base skills, Varitek at his best was everything one could want in an offensive catcher. His career True Average (TAv) of .261 posits him as a league-average hitter over his career, no mean feat for a catcher. Catchers typically hit closer to 10% below league-average during that timeframe, so Varitek obviously was a good hitter for a catcher.

A switch-hitter with power and on-base skills, Varitek at his best was everything one could want in an offensive catcher.

How’d he succeed? Varitek hit for a little power with 193 career homers and a .435 slugging percentage. Most of his damage was done in four seasons: 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005. During those years, he wasn’t just a good hitter for a catcher, he was a good hitter. In each of those seasons, his TAv was .277 or higher, which would be suitable for a hitter at nearly any position, not just the toughest one on the diamond.

Varitek was also skilled at reaching base despite a just-okay career batting average and little to no baserunning ability. Tek had a career walk rate of 10.5 percent, which helped him post a career .341 on-base percentage despite his middling .256 batting average. Though his bat earned him only three All-Star berths and a few down-ballot MVP votes, he was a good enough hitter to win a Silver Slugger in 2005.

Also, Varitek was able to succeed in the postseason … once. Truthfully, his overall postseason numbers aren’t that great, but Tek made an effort to power the Sox to the World Series during the 2003 failed bid for the AL pennant. During that run, he hit four homers and posted a .706 slugging percentage in 11 games. Unfortunately, the rest of his postseason career was nothing to write home about–even with those games as part of the calculation, his career postseason line includes a .292 OBP due to a drastically slashed walk rate during October contests.

His one true Achilles’ heel was, well, attached to his heels. In nearly each season of his long, storied career, Varitek cost the team a substantial amount of runs on the basepaths. Over his entire career, he cost the team 40 runs via BP’s BRR metric for baserunning, though other metrics like FanGraphs’ BsR are slightly more forgiving. That’s four or more wins over the life of his career, and often between two and five runs per season. While not a lot of cost individually, this certainly adds up over the course of his career … you could say this is like taking one of his better seasons (before accounting for BP’s new catcher defense stats) and wiping it from the ledger.

Overall, Varitek wasn’t truly a premier offensive catcher, though he did have a few very good seasons, and a host more where he was average or good, if not great. Without FRAA in the conversation, Varitek’s WARP runs 23.2 wins above a replacement player–that’s a good, but not great career total. But, as we know now, offense (and position adjustment) aren’t everything. Varitek had the reputation of a great defensive catcher, and that deserves its day in the sun as well.

Now, with the new catcher defense statistics debuting today as part of “Catchella,” we can break down Tek’s defense into its component parts, and paint an even clearer picture of his excellence. Now, catcher defense has been broken down into four primary metrics, and we can see where Varitek rates among the best backstops at each of them.

We’ll start with the thing that, for many years, was the hallmark of catcher defense: the running game. Varitek never received much in the way of kudos for his arm, and that bears out using a statistic called Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA). Among the thousands of catchers rated by SRAA, Varitek has the seventh-most runs to the negative in SRAA, having cost the Sox 16.5 runs more than an average catcher. That’s not great, and works out to a little more than a win and a half of value that he cost the team over his career. Funny enough, the guy Varitek unseated at catcher, Scott Hatteberg, has the third-worst SRAA in the existing sample, with -19.6 SRAA over his career.

There’s another, smaller factor in the running game that we can measure, and that’s Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA). This measures how good a catcher was not at throwing out runners, but rather preventing them from taking off at all in the first place: holding them on the bag, or using reputation to keep them from stealing. Over his entire body of work, Varitek was worth 0.5 TRAA, a very, very slight positive. Now, most catchers–even the greatest ones–never put up huge numbers in this category, and most registered within a run of average. Varitek’s mark is par for the course … another Sox legend is second all-time, as Carlton Fisk earned a (comparatively) enormous 7.6 TRAA over his career. Johnny Bench, by the way, has the greatest TRAA in history with 12.4 runs above average–a true outlier.

Those first two numbers paint Varitek in a bit of an unflattering light, but the next two redeem him, and then some. Errant Pitches Above Average is a measure of blocking ability the same way the other two measure control of the running game, and by this metric, Varitek is one of the greatest defensive catchers since 1950. Among all catchers, Tek ranks eighth all-time in overall blocking value, sandwiched on the leaderboard between Hall of Famers (and Mets) Mike Piazza and Gary Carter. His score of 10.9 EPAA undoes most of the trouble his arm caused the Sox, and underscores that blocking, while valuable, may only be worth a win or so even during a career as long as Varitek’s.

The real value for a catcher comes from pitch framing, and the BP statistic to judge that is Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA). This measure only dates back as far as 1988, but Varitek has amassed the 13th-most value by that metric over a career since that date. His CSAA of 85.6 tells us that he added more than eight wins to the Red Sox by getting extra called strikes and presenting pitches to the umpire in a favorable light. (This may have been one of the reasons why Varitek also caught a then-record four no-hitters in his career.)

It’s not surprising that Varitek also has the 13th-most overall catcher defense added overall in the history of the game, with a total of 80.5 runs added over his career.

With his CSAA stats so great, it’s not surprising that Varitek also has the 13th-most overall catcher defense added overall in the history of the game, with a total of 80.5 runs added over his career. That’s a huge amount compared to most catchers, and every drop of that value went to the Sox over his 14-year career.

When looking for a comparable to Varitek, it’s easy to bring up Blake Swihart, who also is a switch-hitting catcher with some solid offensive potential. It would take a couple of better-than-league-average offensive seasons for Swi to match up with Tek, but it’s a possibility. The trouble is this: in his 2015 rookie season, Swihart wasn’t nearly a Varitek on defense. In fact, he was nearly the opposite of the long-time vet’s defensive profile. The team’s rookie backstop cost the Sox six runs by framing, and 0.6 EPAA in terms of blocking. Swihart’s arm was fine, earning him no points by TRAA, and 0.3 runs by SRAA.

On the other hand, Christian Vazquez’s 2014 season was an elite framing year, earning him 13.4 CSAA, which is a number that is excellent … and in line with Tek’s best framing seasons. Varitek actually had five seasons in which he posted more CSAA than that, the best of which was a remarkable 25.8 CSAA in 2002. Now, CSAA tends to fluctuate a bit from year to year, so there’s certainly a chance that Swihart could develop his skills more behind the plate and come to approximate Varitek’s value, but right now it’s the other talented young receiver on the roster who looks more similar to Tek in the area that perhaps matters most.

The point of these Olde Sox columns is to help us understand Fenway’s greats just a little bit better through the use of more modern metrics. There’s literally no metric more modern than today’s release of the BP catching statistics, and those are very useful for helping us understand how much value a player like Varitek can earn by playing catcher at a high level for such a long run. His offensive stats, on the other hand, are a member of public record, and have been a mark in his favor for years … in sabermetric circles and otherwise.

Numbers don’t exactly peg Jason Varitek as a Hall-of-Fame player, but he was undeniably a huge part of some of the best and most important seasons in Red Sox history. Today, he’d be a sought-after commodity as teams look for catchers with defensive skills, and his bursts of slugging prowess and on-base ability would make him an asset to any club. But Varitek is also special for his durability and loyalty to the Red Sox, playing 1,546 games in Sox gear. He may not have been the greatest catcher in Red Sox history, but Jason Varitek has a substantial claim as one of the most talented and reliable players in the franchise’s storied existence.

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