Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was an integral part of Boston’s championship teams of 2004 and 2007, but he's pretty clearly in the decline phase of his career. The Red Sox are aware of this, given their trade for catcher Victor Martinez in 2009. But believe it or not, Varitek isn’t entirely useless, and this isn’t because of any “intangibles,” the “C” on his uniform, or the time he took a swing at A-Rod while keeping his catcher’s facemask on. Strictly by the numbers, Jason Varitek still has something to offer as a player.
In 2009, Varitek hit .209/.313/.390. And over the last three seasons he hit .229/.322/.390. Those are pretty dreadful lines. However, slugging catchers like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann are far from the norm. Last year, the average catcher hit .254/.321/.396. That means that Varitek’s hitting line is pretty much average for a backstop.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is useful for cases just like this. Since average major league players have substantial value, WAR uses a different baseline, combining offense, defense, and a positional adjustment to see how many wins over a freely available Triple-A talent (a “replacement player”) each player contributes given his playing time. Over a full season, 2 WAR is about average. According to FanGraphs, Varitek was worth 1.2 WAR in 2008 and 1.3 in 2009. What is a replacement level catcher? In similar playing time, Rays catcherDioner Navarro was worth a -0.2 WAR in 2009. He “hit” .218/.261/.322 and ended up just barely below replacement level.
Varitek, who turned 38 years old in April, is best suited as a part-timer at this point, but he has a role to play for the Red Sox. Martinez hasn’t caught more than 100 games since 2007. It’s extremely rare for any team, even the Red Sox, to have an above-average player on the bench. And though Varitek is probably just a tick below average, that's still very good for a back-up catcher. Boston looks to be in another tight race this season, and on the days when Martinez isn’t catching, they could do much worse than Varitek, who is still a perfectly useful big league backstop.
Matt Klaasen is an author of FanGraphs