Jason Varitek: No, he cannot field

As I work through the Fielding Bible, Vol II (Defensive Runs, Defensive Misplays) I keep coming across nuggets of information that impact my beliefs surrounding defense of any given player.

Today, Jason Varitek is at the forefront of my thoughts.

As you might have deduced from the headline to this article, I’ve learned that Varitek can’t field. Not only can he not field, he can’t throw either.

There are two newfangled statistics that bear this out — Adjusted Earned Runs Saved and Stolen Bases Saved.

ADJUSTED EARNED RUNS SAVED

“Earned Runs Saved is a number that tells you how many earned runs the catcher saved for his pitcher,” writes John Dewan, author of the Fielding Bible.

How it’s calculated is basically by comparing a catcher’s ERA with a specific pitcher to the pitcher’s overall ERA. For example, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina had a 3.37 overall ERA, but 3.22 with Jose Molina behind the plate. This means that Molina saved three runs.

However, sample size is a huge issue in Earned Runs Saved, so Dewan came up with Adjusted Earned Runs Saved, which factors in credibility.

Dewan asked Bill James to run a simulation which proved that even if there is noise in the data (if the catchers have underlying skill differences, but the data only reflects those differences sometimes due to noise), the data is useful. The credibility factor Dewan would go on to use is weighing “the number of innings caught by the catcher relative to a full-season of team innings.”

Dewan also factored in park effects, which help negate effects of pitching in hitter and pitcher parks.

Enough about what the stat is. We just want the results, right?

Jason Kendall saved the most runs over the last six years with 23. Paul Lo Duca (18), Ivan Rodriguez (17, so much for reputation), Chris Snyder (12) and Gregg Zaun (12) round out the top four.

The bottom five are paced by Kenji Johjima (-19), Victor Martinez (-18), Jason Varitek (-17), Jorge Posada (-15) and Michael Barrett (-9).

When looking at just the last three years instead of six, Varitek isn’t ranked at the top, neither the bottom. Which is good, I suppose — he improved his effectiveness from 2006-8 while being a liability from 2003-5. Paul Lo Duca regressed to t-29th at -5, which helps explain his career progression being what it is.

CATCHER STOLEN BASES SAVED

Another important facet to being a catcher is controlling the running game. However, the running game is just as, if not more, dependent on the pitcher as it is the catcher.

Dewan used the same technique as in Earned Runs Saved but over the career. While a pitcher’s performance fluctuates in terms of effectiveness over the course of a career, the pitcher’s apitude at holding runners remains consistent.

In 2008, Varitek doesn’t rank on the leaderboards for Stolen Bases Saved, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia does… at -6. Jason Kendall and Jose Molina both saved 11 stolen bases. (Bengie Molina saved 8, Yadier 4. What’s with those Molina brothers?)

Where we see Varitek is over the last six years: we’ve lost 20 stolen bases thanks to Varitek’s (inferior) handling of holding and throwing out runners. Converting to runs saved means Varitek cost us 12.4 runs in the running game.

Varitek then, cost the Red Sox 29.4 total runs over the last six years.

THE DUDE WON A GOLD GLOVE!

So did Rafael Palmeiro in a year where he played 28 games at first. (It’s true.)

Clearly, Varitek’s value has taken a hit over the course of this article. If he can’t hit or field, what are the Sox doing bringing him back and committing to him to four out of five starts? A few possible explanations:

  • The Red Sox think Varitek will improve his hitting.
  • The Red Sox would be more interested in the past three years data, as opposed to past six years. (Varitek did not register in the bottom of leaderboard of Adjusted Earned Runs Saved for the past three years.)
  • Varitek really is our very own Captain Intangibles.

We certainly don’t know why the Red Sox felt that the team was better off with him behind the plate. We can guess, though, and the obvious guess is that he means so much to the pitchers and his game-calling is so fantastic, that it outweighs all his other deficiencies.

The Red Sox could have Miguel Montero or Jarrod Saltalamacchia in camp right now if they were willing to move one of their pitchers. Why didn’t they? We’ll tackle this Thursday, but for now:

What do you think is the overriding reason why, in the face of declining offensive and defensive skills, Jason Varitek is still a starting member of the Boston Red Sox?

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