He’s the only position player to have bookended the Red Sox’s history-altering decade. He was anointed team captain, an occurrence that does not happen often. He’s Jason Varitek, the All-Aughts catcher of the decade for Boston.
When Varitek retires, he’s going to be known for two things: what he meant to Boston as a leader out of the catcher’s position, and how he got to Boston in the first place.
You all remember the trade back in 1997. Red Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb was shipped to Seattle for a couple of minor league prospects named Varitek and Derek Lowe.
Varitek registered exactly one at-bat and one hit in 1997 before serving as Scott Hatteberg’s backup in ’98 before assuming the full-time job the following year and not surrendering it until the final months of the ’09 season (excepting injuries).
Jason Varitek opened up the millennium in 2000 by losing a ton of power; ‘Tek went from 20 home runs in ’99 to 10, although he flashed the plate discipline that would become a trademark of his career. After two full seasons and one part-time season under his belt, Varitek was poised to make The Leap in 2001 — and everyone knew it.A three-year, $14.5 million contract was signed, and the future looked bright.
One fateful day in June of that year, Jason Varitek chased a foul popup down, diving to make the play, smacking his left elbow into the on-deck circle cover, breaking it and bringing a fast end to a season shaping up to be one of his all-time best: .293/.371/.489.
Scott Hatteberg and a Texas Rangers catcher brought in to replace Varitek filled the season out. Hatteberg would depart to Oakland following the year while Doug Mirabelli would stick around for years to come.
‘Tek returned behind the dish for 2002, but threw up a very identical line from 2000. There was thought that the broken left elbow was going to derail what was otherwise a very fine career. Think again. Varitek kicked off a stretch from 2003-5 as one of the best catchers in the game. (Fire Brand archive: Tek the best catcher, 4/22/05.) In 1,596 at-bats, he cranked 65 home runs, 91 doubles and 228 RBI to go along with a line of .283/.369/.494. His OPS was good enough to tie for second place among all catchers from 2003-5, behind Javy Lopez and tied with Jorge Posada. (Third place belongs to Victor Martinez.)
You may recall that this three-year stretch involved three playoff appearances, two ALCS Game 7s and one World Series title. Varitek’s reputation by now had reached stratospheric heights, and followed it up with a massively disappointing 2006 season. So disappointing, in fact, he was considered worth less money than in either of 2008-9. What did he do? He turned in another 2000/2002: .238/.325/.400. (Fire Brand archive: The Captain’s Struggles, 7/7/06.)
Was ‘Tek kaput as a starting catcher? We know the answer to that: he had more left in the tank, but it was rapidly dwindling. He bounced back the following year with a .255/.367/.421 line, but the legitimate power would be forever gone. In fact, his “bounceback” was a bit misleading if you look at his month by month splits. The warning that Varitek’s body just couldn’t hold up over a full season was given in plenty of time for 2009. (Fire Brand archives: The end of the line for Varitek, 5/4/07; The Fall of Jason Varitek, 8/22/07.)
Pushing ahead, another ring entered the equation that season, then ‘Tek entered a two-year stretch in which he was considered among the worst offensive catchers in the game. Indeed, running the four-year stretch of 2006-9 for a OPS leaderboard at a minimum of 1,000 plate appearances (same parameters as the last) shows ‘Tek 18th out of 33 possible catchers. Throw out 2007, and he’s rubbing elbows with John Buck and Yorvit Torrealba.
While 2008 was damaging*, 2009 was even worse. Varitek lost his job (Fire Brand archive: Victor in, Varitek out, 8/22/09.) as his body just couldn’t handle the rigors of catching anymore.
You’ve seen the numbers repeatedly, but here they are one more time: after the 2009 All-Star Break, ‘Tek hit .157/.250/.239 in 134 at-bats. That’s absolutely godawful, and it erased what was otherwise a promising first half: .239/.348/.478 with 13 home runs. (Fire Brand archive: Jason Varitek is mashing, 5/30/09.) Take a second look at those first-half numbers. Aren’t they impressive? An .826 OPS would have been his highest since 2005, but he just couldn’t finish the season strong. (Fire Brand archive: Stick a fork in Jason Varitek, 9/26/09.)
What kept Varitek going was his leadership, game-preparation and defensive skills. Whether a sabermetrician, a Yankee fan or a Red Sox fan, it’s undeniable that Jason Varitek had leadership in spades.
There have been too many reports by too many people around the game to dismiss any such contention. Varitek has to be considered one of the top five leaders in baseball of the decade.
Then you turn to game-preparation, and being anointed the best catcher pitchers have ever thrown to by a similar staggering cadre of pitchers. Curt Schilling especially championed Varitek, and we’re in the midst of a brewing controversy with Josh Beckett because of this exact reason.
The numbers Beckett has racked up with Varitek and his fastball-happy repertoire (an emerging knock on his pitch selection) are certain to make ‘Tek the personal catcher for Beckett next year, thereby assuring V-Mart of adequate rest for a full season behind the plate.
In addition, defensively, Varitek has long been king of blocking bad pitches (even in his poor 2009, he ranked near the top in this statistic) and obstructing the runner’s path to home plate with his foot. Eric Byrnes is perhaps the best example of this, choosing to eschew scoring a run in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS and instead choosing to push Varitek and hop around in pain after being the victim of the Varitek Leg Block. (Varitek never corralled the ball and had to run it down to tag Byrnes out.) It should be mentioned that Varitek was never known for being able to gun down baserunners, but it reached comedic levels in 2009. (Fire Brand archives: No, Jason Varitek cannot field, 3/23/09.)
Oh, and did I mention that Varitek has been behind the dish for four — count ‘em, four — no-hitters? He’s come close to others: a second no-hitter with Hideo Nomo, and a perfect game with Curt Schilling. (Fire Brand archive: Best pitched games of ‘Tek’s career, 5/23/08.) The names of the no-hit pitchers: Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz.
Four no-hitters, two World Series titles… come on, is there any doubt how important Varitek was and is to this team?
Looking ahead, we all know Varitek has at least one more season left in him (and maybe a couple more), thanks to picking up the $3 million player option afforded him, He will serve as the backup catcher (and probable personal catcher for Beckett), and could see an uptick in performance now that he will be getting plentiful rest. There are concerns that Varitek could enmesh the team in controversy, but I don’t buy it. The controversy window was September and October of 2009, when Victor Martinez assumed starting duties. (Fire Brand archive: Breaking Jason Varitek’s psychological hold on the Red Sox, 2/2/09.)
This is a look back, though, so let’s take some time and appreciate Jason Varitek. (Fire Brand archive: A Tribute to Tek: The Captain’s Top 10, 10/22/08.) He’s meant so much to Boston and will go down in Red Sox lore as one of the two top catchers in team history. He’ll never crack the Hall of Fame, but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who was as valuable and meant as much to the BoSox as much as Varitek this past decade.
Players who played catcher for the Red Sox from 2000-9, sorted by last name: Josh Bard, Dusty Brown, Kevin Brown, Kevin Cash, Andy Dominique, Bill Haselman, Scott Hatteberg, Ken Huckaby, Marcus Jensen, George Kottaras, Javy Lopez, Sandy Martinez, Victor Martinez, Corky Miller, Doug Mirabelli, Joe Oliver, Dave Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Shawn Wooten