Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oh, Just Shut Up and Let the Damn Ball Roll to the Backstop

Yours truly has avoided comment on what, if one judges by volume of commentary, is the top issue of the Red Sox offseason. But the metaphorical pot of oatmeal that is Jason Varitek has boiled all over the hot stove league to a degree it has become impossible to ignore, especially since the catcher and Boston management are moving towards mutual recognition of their common plight-they're stuck with each other.

I haven't written about Varitek just because so many others have. Glenn Ordway will be blathering about "how he handles the pitching staff" and "what if this" and "suppose that" about Varitek at his own funeral, but a relentless focus on fruitless speculation is talk radio's game plan for everything.

I haven't written about Varitek because I write this blog for my own (and others' if possible) pleasure, and what I am about to write about the Sox catcher will give me none. I have always respected and admired Varitek as a ballplayer. He has been an important contributor
to what has been the greatest period in Red Sox history. Catchers are the only players in baseball who deal with pain on a daily basis. Other guys play ball. They go to work. Varitek has embodied that principle of honest craftsmanship.

Funny thing. After one is told by somebody else that YOU'RE done, it becomes harder to blithely state that athlete X is finished and should seek another career path. Life disruptions suck. Experiencing them, however, is a helpful reminder that sports commentary involves other people besides oneself.

But I ain't blind, he's already made many millions of dollars, and it is beyond obvious that Varitek IS done as a major league hitter, and more than half past done as an effective catcher. The infallible indicator of a batter in a slump is letting pitches go by he should swing at, followed immediately by swinging at a pitch a foot or more outside the strike zone. That has been Jason's M.O. at the plate for going on two seasons. A Varitek at-bat with men on has become a painful embarrassment for all concerned.

This leaves us with Varitek's "handling of the pitching staff," that nebulous concept which involves the catcher's status as the lowest rung of management, the team's shop foreman. Actually, since pitching is a creative endeavor, the catcher might more accurately be described as the staff's editor, attempting to shape the work of others into the best it can be.

The trend in baseball analysis is to scoff at what isn't readily quantifiable, but "handling the pitching staff" exists, just as any form of management exists even if you can't see it in action, and Varitek is good at it. Think of the days in 2004 when Varitek would, often in back-to-back games, work in close consultation with Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. There were two artists whose personalities could hardly be more different, but each was gifted, each was highly intelligent, and each, in his own way, could be an enormous pain in the ass. The skills needed to shape the work of such men are considerable. We shouldn't ignore them.

But, and this as big a but as it gets, these skills rank way below more tangible ones as throwing runners out and, most of all, hitting when we assess a catcher's value. Varitek hit 13 homers in 2008. If the Red Sox had a chance to obtain a catcher who could hit 33 homers in 2009, and the guy spoke only Farsi to his pitchers, and spoke to them less often than J.D. Salinger, every hurler on the Sox staff would be urging management to sign the new misanthrope. Pitchers may need understanding while they work, but not as much as they need runs.

Of course, the Red Sox don't have such a chance. Varitek hasn't been replaced already because there aren't any replacements who would be improvements. For reasons
requiring more research than I plan on doing, catchers are a cyclical commodity. There are times in baseball history when there's a bunch of unbelievable ones (1950s: Campanella, Berra, 1970s: Bench, Fisk, Munson, 1990s-early 2000s: Posada, Pudge Rodriguez, and yes, Jason) and then there are horrible fallow stretches in which the best teams can hope for is .245, 10-15, 60-70 lumbering semi-competence.

We are in such a fallow period. Quickly now, who were the catchers for the two teams in the 2008 World Series? I couldn't answer the question without looking it up, and I'm a Phillies fan (Top of my head, I knew his last name was Diaz, but that's it). There's Joe Mauer, and a bunch of Molinas, and well,..... Boston has had no qualms about promoting minor leaguers to starting jobs in the past few seasons. Since they haven't kissed Varitek goodbye, and in fact, have put as much or more work into resigning him than they did towards acquiring Mark Teixiera, we must conclude that option is not available here.

So Varitek will sign for much less money than he'd hoped (although it's still plenty of money, count me among the unworried that a capable player like Bobby Abreu must take a huge pay cut to a measley $8-9 million per annum). The Sox will suffer through a great many more killed rallies in 2009 than they had hoped. And the law of supply and demand will have chalked up another victory.

Despite the title of this post, you gotta have a catcher-whether you want the one you've got or not.


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