The Jason Varitek Hall of Fame Case

 

Earlier this week, NESN asked a question that I can’t help but returning to again and again, is Jason Varitek a Hall of Famer?

Tek might just be my favorite player of all time. As a kid, I wanted to be a catcher and to this day I maintain a huge interest in the position. There is no doubt that Tek was an excellent player. He was 2005 silver slugger and gold glove winner at the catcher’s position and he has been a three time All-Star. He has been regarded as one of the best game callers in the sport and he received MVP votes in three seasons. In 2004, he became the first captain of the Boston Red Sox since Jim Rice, making official the leadership role he had been playing for years in the Boston clubhouse. Clearly, he has had a great career, but is he a Hall of Famer?

As you might expect, I looked to the numbers first. In this day and age the obvious starting point for Hall of Fame discussions is wins above replacement (WAR). There are thirteen Hall of Fame catchers (excluding the players honored for off-field contributions) and they range in WAR from Johnny Bench’s 71.3 to Al Lopez’s 13.5 with an average WAR of 46 and 2.84 WAR per season. Given this rough standard, Jason Varitek is below average on both accounts with a mere 23.8 WAR thus far and an average of 1.83 WAR per season. However, he does rank ahead of three current Hall of Famers, Rick Farrell, Ray Schalk and Al Lopez on both counts. Even so, he is miles below the next lowest WAR total, Roy Campanella’s 36.2.

Varitek’s case gets even weaker when compared against his contemporaries. From 1999 to this point, Jason Varitek has been the 7th most valuable catcher in baseball by total WAR and he is 10th by average WAR per season. His totals and averages are closer to Ramon Hernandez than any of his other contemporaries. His best seasons of 2004 and 2005 rank as the 37th and 40th best seasons by a catcher during his career.

Were he to retire after the 2011 season, he would likely fall on the ballot with three catchers with better career numbers, Jose Posada (yes, it hurts to write that), Ivan Rodriquez and Jason Kendall (yes, that Jason Kendall). Rodriquez may be the greatest defensive catcher of all time and he out hit Tek during his prime. The steroid allegations might affect his case, but on performance alone he is the most clear-cut Hall of Famer of the group. Varitek might lack the hitting statistics to top Posada or Kendall but he was clearly superior behind the plate. Posada is a near certain Hall of Famer with his five championships and the huge advantage Yankees’ players have in the voting. Jason Kendall seems like a HoF long shot, but he does have five seasons that top Varitek’s best season.

Most of the people on the NESN article’s comments thread who support Varitek for the Hall cite "intangibles" as the reason. Certainly few players have the history of leadership that Tek can claim. Additionally, he is probably the most well-regarded catcher in the game when it comes to handling a pitching staff. Pitchers as diverse as Derek Lowe, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Pedro Martinez have sung his praises. He has also caught four no-hitters in his career, tying him with Hall of Famer Ray Schalk for the most ever. He captained two World Series Championship teams and five playoff teams. Few players have as many intangible qualifications as he does and that certainly strengthens his case.

When everything is said and done, Jason Varitek’s whole case comes down to the value you place on things such as leadership and game calling. To put this into the context of WAR- did Tek’s handling of pitchers and his leadership add roughly one win per season beyond that of another catcher’s skills? In this context a full win is actually a very large amount. In 2010, one win was approximately the difference between Jed Lowrie and Mike Cameron. If his "intangibles" could be worth that much, Varitek would be a very viable Hall of Fame candidate, the third best catcher of his generation and in the range of the top twenty greatest ever.

Personally, I don’t think that is a reasonable value to give his unquantifiable skills. Jason Varitek had a fantastic career. He is easily the second best catcher ever to play for the Boston Red Sox, behind only Carlton Fisk. He was a top tier catcher for ten years and an incomparable team leader. However, he is not a Hall of Famer in my mind. His election would certainly not be a travesty or a perversion of the Halls standards, but it would not be a great choice.

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