That name should be burned into the hearts of Red Sox fans and the brains of Mariners fans. On July 31st, 1997 whomever was charged with dismantling the future of a Mariners franchise with no past traded Derek Lowe and a minor league catcher to the Boston Red Sox for for the shiny prize that was reliever Heathcliff Slocumb.
At the time of the deal, the Mariners were half a game up on the Angels in the AL West and the Red Sox were 17.5 games out in the East. In retrospect, it was a move the Mariners didn't have to make, as they finished ahead six games in the West. Slocumb wasn't much of a difference maker next season either. In total, he spent a miserable season and a half in Seattle, posting about a 5.00 ERA.
So, yes, the Mariners made a huge mistake. Derek Lowe went on to a fine career and that minor league catcher turned into one of the fifty greatest Red Sox players in the history of the franchise. With the news that that minor league catcher has decided to retire, we can now look back over the past decade and a half at Jason Varitek's career and see what he contributed to the only franchise for which he ever played.We'll start with some numbers. Over 1546 games, 1488 of them at catcher, Varitek hit .256/.341/.435 with 193 homers and drove in 757 runs. He played in the ninth most games of anyone in Red Sox history, just behind Rico Petrocelli and just ahead of Dom DiMaggio. It's also 468 more games than Carlton Fisk played for the Red Sox.
Before we go on though, let's dispel any ideas you may have as to Varitek's Hall of Fame worthiness. While Jason Varitek was an All Star, a two time World Series champion, a Gold Glover, and a Silver Slugger recipient, he doesn't sniff the Hall without a ticket. Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus keeps tabs on all things Hall through his Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS). JAWS, which you can read more about here, has the average Hall of Fame catcher accumulating a career total of 45.2 JAWS. Now, that's the average, so roughly half are above and half below, but Varitek's total falls far below that as Tek totaled 20.4 JAWS for his career.
The three different Hall of Fame tests listed on Baseball Reference agree with Mr. Jaffe. They also have Varitek's career at roughly half the value needed for enshrinement into the Hall. It should be stated however that none of the previous two paragraphs is intended to mean Jason Varitek wasn't a very good baseball player. Remember, Hall of Famers are the very best of the very best. There is no shame in not making the Hall.
So where does Varitek rank in the pantheon of all time Boston Red Sox? Of course there are many different ways to answer that. Baseball Reference's WAR stat (known as rWAR) says Varitek accumulated the 28th most career value of all Red Sox players. Indeed, he's one slot above Babe Ruth and one behind Mike Greenwell (this is only counting the time spent in Boston of course). If you are to only look at offense, Varitek ranks 23rd, because as Mr. Jaffe noted, Varitek's career value is hurt by his defense. His career FRAA (that's Fielding Runs Above Average) is a -23 and his arm wasn't much to write home about either, especially towards the end of his career. Mike Fast's research on catcher defense agrees, putting Varitek below average defensively.
At this point it should be stated that it's impossible to quantify the value of good preparation and game calling, both of which were said to be strength's of Varitek's game. So depending on how you feel about those things and their value, you can adjust Varitek's value as a player accordingly. For me, Varitek deserves extra credit for those aspects of his defensive game which may not show up in the defensive numbers.
We could argue about catcher defense all day, and what a fun day that would be, but why fight when we can instead agree that Varitek could hit. He places in the top 50 Red Sox of all time in terms of both slugging percentage (.435) and OPS (.776). He's hit the 11th most homers, scored the 16th most runs, had the 15th most hits, and has the 12th most total bases of anyone in a Red Sox uniform. His career OPS+ is 98 (100 is average), so he was a league average hitter at a position where most guys hit like they should have been in AAA. That's value right there, folks.
In his prime he was even better than that. In 2003, Varitek hit .273/.351/.512 with 25 home runs. In fact, during his peak which was 2003 through 2005, Varitek hit .283/.369/.494 with 65 homers. His OPS+ was 121. Again, that's from a catcher. He was a huge part of a team that won 288 games and a World Series over three seasons.
Maybe most importantly, Varitek was the starting catcher on two World Series champs, including the 2004 team that redefined comeback and set all of New England dancing on a rainy day in October. Had anyone put voice to such a thought in July of 1997 when some pitcher and a minor league catcher were on their way over from Seattle for valuable reliever Heathcliff Slocumb, heads would have exploded like fire crackers all over the region.
And yet that's exactly what happened.
Derek Lowe and an all time franchise great for Heathcliff Slocumb. Not a bad get at all.