Thursday, August 17, 2006

Catch As Catch Can Or Can't

Jason Varitek is a most praiseworthy ballplayer. The Red Sox catcher is a testimonial to the mental and physical demands of the one position in baseball that's actually hard work all the time. He was worth the $40 million contract the Sox gave him before the 2005 season. His captain's "C" is part schoolboy foolishness (baseball teams don't need capitains, the managers argues with the umpires himself), but mostly a recognition Varitek is a de facto member of Sox' management, the club's shop steward.

All the same, no one including Varitek himself has ever mistaken him for Johnny Bench or Roy Campenella. Varitek has the classic offensive stats of his trade, mediocre average combined with decent but unexceptional power. He went on the disabled list on August 1, but his absence cannot explain why Boston's gone 6-9 since then. Jason's valuable, but not that valuable. There must be other reasons.

Varitek is justly hailed for his ability to call a game and work as a seamless unit with pitchers. Grasping at straws, some fans and even commentators have suggested Varitek call the pitches from the dugout, thus curing whatever ails the Sox' pitching staff. This idea stems from an incomplete understand of the pitcher-catcher relationship, which is far more psychological than strategic.

Pitchers are a quirky, temperamental lot, as artists often are. Catchers are skilled artisans. "Handling pitchers", an inaccurate but common term, is not unlike a film director attempting to draw the best work from a bankable superstar like Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise. Telling the star what you want is the least of the process. In the end, they can tell you what they want to do, and that's the end of the discussion.

In short, Varitek's skill rests upon his knowledge of what, say, Curt Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon are like as pitchers and people more than upon knowing what Alex Rodriguez most looks for on a 2-1 count. It cannot be transposed from behind a surrogate catcher.

Varitek's ability behind the plate, however, shouldn't alter a pitcher's performance to the extent he can't retire the Kansas City Royals' lineup. Pitchers read the same reports as catchers. They know what to do, or should. No catcher can make Josh Beckett avoid the gopher ball.

Here's some partially informed speculation as to why the Sox have struggled so in August. It's their nature. Since 2003, the Sox have been built around the same formula-the slugging of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez plus a pair of stud or supposed-to-be stud starters. The formula works overall. Boston's made the playoffs the past three seasons and won a World Series. But inside this stellar macrohorsehide performance, all these Sox squads have been capable of prolonged strings of mediocre or worse play.

Even in the glory year of 2004, the Sox spent THREE MONTHS, one half of the season, playing .500 baseball. They were about .700 whenever Schilling or Pedro Martinez started, and .400 the rest of the time. For whatever reason, the worst parts of these mediocrity skeins have centered around two periods, interleague play in June, and late July and August.

Boston damn near ran the table in interleague play this season. Perhaps that made their current skid inevitable. My own suspicion is the skids stem from a consistent feature of these team's makeup. Each and every one had or has pitchers whom the manager was loath to use under any circumstances. Sometimes they were important pitchers, too, like the closer (Keith Foulke '05) or number three starter (Derek Lowe '04), or half the bullpen and a community audition for the back end of the rotation ('06) Playing 24 or less on 25 is bound to lead
to a few rough patches along the 162-game trail.

On the bright side, the Sox' blue periods have all ended in time for September drives to the post-season. Then again, if the '06 wallow in .500 doesn't end this very weekend, September might become a moot point.


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