Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Tek Calls it a Career

Less than a week after Tim Wakefield, the veteran knuckleballer who'd worn a Red Sox uniform since 1995, hung up his spikes, Jason Varitek followed him into retirement.  Nearly three months ago, I suggested that Boston's captain should do so, and I'm happy he was able to leave without creating the drama and negativity that Jorge Posada produced during his final season.  He was set to turn 40 in a month, hadn't been a productive player in half a decade, and was unlikely to see the field much with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnaway all jockeying for playing time. 

He probably should have walked away a few years ago (around the time the team traded for Victor Martinez), especially since all his clubhouse value, leadership ability and indispensable intangibles did little to keep his beer-drinking, fried-chicken-eating and videogame-playing pitchers  (please direct your attention to Jon Lester, John Lackey and Josh Beckett) who should have more respect for the catcher than anyone else.  I'm not saying the team's September collapse was Varitek's fault, but he  seemed to disappear into the background as the AL Wild Card slipped right through their fingers.  Why didn't he call anyone out, rally the troops, or call a team meeting?  He wasn't doing a whole lot to help the team on the field last year (with his 0.0 bWAR), so the least he could have done was try to hold it together off the field.

But I don't want that to be his lasting legacy.  After all, he spent his entire fifteen year major league career with the Olde Towne Team, where he was the rugged backstop of two championship squads and served as the franchise's best everyday catcher since Carlton Fisk.  Here's a look at some of the numbers, courtesy of

-He made the All-Star team in 2003, 2005, and 2008 despite batting .220/.313/.359 for a career low .672 OPS in that '08 campaign.
-He won his only Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in '05.
-Earned MVP consideration each year from 2003 through '05, his three year peak during which he averaged 22 homers, 76 RBI, and a rock solid .283/.369/.494 line.  Even so, he never finished higher than 21st and retired with just 0.02 career shares.
-He caught four no-hitters (in chronological order-Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester), an MLB record.
-Played in the Little League, College, and Major League World Series
-The switch-hitter was a natural righty, and it showed.  His career OPS was nearly 70 points higher from the right side, and during his final years many fans (myself included) thought he should bat strictly from the right side.
-Fenway definitely gave him a boost; he batted .273/.354/.454 in Boston, .240/.328/.418 everywhere else.
-Struck out nearly twice as much as he walked
-Drew an intentional walk in every season except for his first and last
-Like most catchers, 'Tek limped to the finish line every year.  His September numbers are easily the worst of his monthly splits, and his second half OPS trails his first half OPS by almost 50 points.
-Smacked 193 long balls, falling just short of 200.  Three times he swatted 20 or more and reached double digits in all but four of his big league seasons.  His solid power is better reflected by his double totals; he socked 306, eclipsing 30 five times.
-Served as the team's third captain since 1923 (you may remember that as the year the Yankees won their first of 27 World Series titles to christen Yankee Stadium), following Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice.  The team named him captain before the 2005 season, when he was just the third captain in the Show along with Paul Konerko and Derek Jeter
-Didn't even attempt a steal during his past three seasons.  Francona wouldn't have sent him with a tee-baller on the mound and Johnny Damon's noodle arm behind home plate.
-Helped lead the Sox to eight postseason appearances, and hit pretty well compared to his peer Posada.  Heading into 2008, he owned a .258/.310/495 line with two dozen extra base hits in 48 career playoff starts, but he crashed during that postseason (when the defending champs were upset by the Rays in a seven game ALCS) and didn't play at all in the following year's ALDS, when Jonathan Papelbon's Game 3 meltdown handed the series to the Angels on a silver platter.
-Retired with a 98 OPS+, meaning he rates as about an average offensive player given his environment.
-Was worth 23.1 bWAR for his career, with a single season high of 4.1 in 2004 (when he set career highs in hits, steals, batting average, OBP, OPS, HBP, and intentional walks)
-Earned a hair over $67 million in player salary.  By comparison Alex Rodriguez, whom Varitek infamously punched in the face as the defining moment of his career, has raked in almost as much over the past two seasons despite playing in only 236 games due to injuries.

A pretty successful career I'd say.  Not Hall-of-Fame worthy, by any means, but good enough to have the Sox retire his number 33 down the line.  Additionally, those numbers can't quantify the grit, hard work, and toughness he brought to the table everyday.  Varitek was one of those guys who always did a lot that didn't show up in the box score.  His preparation was superb, his game-calling skills were highly regarded, and he was an expert handler of pitching staffs.  He caught Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and all the rest, helping bring the best out of them even if he was almost incapable of throwing out any potential basestealers.  'Tek was a very smart, very valuable asset for a long time, a great complementary player for some special teams.

He would probably be an even better pitching coach or a manager some day.  Who knows? He could be the next Joe Torre...

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