The 2011 World Series featured two of the top catchers in baseball going against each other. On one side, there was Yadier Molina, the best defensive catcher the game has see since Ivan Rodriquez’s prime and on the other there was Mike Napoli, a guy with enough pop in his bat to play at first, but enough catching ability to hold his own behind the plate (as long as Mike Scoscia is not watching). It is hardly coincident that the two teams battling for the title had premiere catchers; finding elite production at baseball’s most physically and mentally demanding position is never easy, but for the few teams that manage to do it, it can be the force that elevates them beyond the rest of the league.
During his incredible peak from 2003 to 2007, Jason Varitek was that force for the Boston Red Sox, leading them to two World Series Championship. While Varitek was never the best player on those teams, he was an essential role player. However, he may have been the most difficult Red Sox player to replace during those peak years.
During that span he averaged a 112 wRC+, the third best mark for a catcher with over 2000 plate appearances during that five year span, trailing only Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez. During that span, just 39 catchers amassed even 1000 plate appearance. The average wRC+ for those 39 catchers is just 91, making Varitek 21% better than the average catcher offensively Varitek. However, made 2530 trips to the plate in that period, the seventh highest total in the game. Only five catchers made more than 2000 plate appearances and still hit above average by wRC+. For those five years, Jason Varitek was one of a handful of catchers in the game to play with such skill and such consistency. Add in his incredible ability to handle the pitching staff and you have a player that is almost impossible to replace.
Varitek’s peak coincided with the emergence for several other star players, including David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Combined with established stars like Manny Rameriz and Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox began one of the greatest periods in their storied history. Beyond just being an vital role player, Tek was the heart and soul of the team during that time. His unmatched game preparation, his work ethic, and his leadership set the tone for the Red Sox and transformed them from a franchise synonymous with heartbreak to World Champions.
While the 2003 season is primarily remembered for it’s terrible conclusion, that Boston Red Sox team featured one of the most productive offenses in modern history. Jason Varitek was one of the primary reasons why. To that point, Tek had been a below average offensive player. He had a good grasp of the strike zone and he occasionally flashed the big time power his barrel-chested 6’2 230 lb frame seemed built for, but he was dragged down by low batting averages on balls in play and was streaky in his home run abilities. 2003 was a breakthrough season for him. He hit 25 home runs in 521 plate appearances and had above average batting average and OBP numbers despite striking out at a higher rate than the league and sitting very close to average in BABIP. He began the season hitting 9th the majority of the time, but by September he was finding his way into the number seven spot regularly.
In 2004, Varitek was once again a huge part of the Red Sox killer offense. He did not hit for as much power as he did the previous season but he made up for it by getting on base much more. In 2004, Tek walked in 11.6% of his plate appearances, 3% more often than the average hitter. He also posted the highest batting average of his career, hitting .296 thanks to a fantastic .372 batting average on balls in play. Regularly featured at the fifth and sixth spots in the line up, Varitek drove in 73 runs for the Sox. While this season will always bring to mind the image of him shoving his glove down Alex Rodriquez’s throat, Red Sox fans also remember this as one of the greatest seasons any backstop has ever had in the Sox uniform.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his game that season was his 10 stole bases in 13 attempts. Despite being terribly slow, Varitek could take a base using his fantastic knowledge of the game and a terrific ability to read the pitcher and catcher. He was a master of the delayed steal and in 2004 he exploited that little used play brilliantly.
2005 may actually have been Varitek’s best offensive year. He did not have the same luck on balls in play as he did in 2004, but he walked at a similar rate and even cut down his strike out rate a bit. His power returned to it 2003 pinnicle and he managed 22 home runs on the year. It also marked the third consecutive year that he hit 30 or more doubles.
In 2006 Varitek passed Carlton Fisk as the catcher to play the most games in the Red Sox uniform, starting his 991 game on July 18. His season was cut short not long after that milestone, due to torn cartilage in his left knee. With all of the miles on his legs and an injury to his knee, it was possible to image that the end might be near for the captain.
Fortunately, Varitek had one more season of elite production left in him. The 2007 Red Sox may have been the best
Since 2007, Varitek has suffered the consequences of his franchise leading number of games at catcher. He has never again managed to be an above average hitter, though as a back up these past two years, he has been quite respectable for the position. As if to highlight just how important he was in his peak,Boston has been trying hard to replace the solid catching and plus hitting they could once take for granted. In 2009 the team traded for Victor Martinez, one of the few catchers whose bat could beat Tek's during his prime. His catching skills couldn't justify keeping him around, however and after the 2010 season the team tried Jarrod Saltalmachhia as their everyday backstop. Salty is still young and in some ways, his skills are reminiscent of a young Jason Varitek, but it is highly unlikely that he will be the force that Tek was when he was at his best. In 2012, Boston will try to use two players, Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach to get what one Jason Vartiek used to be. One player alone just can't replace Jason Varitek