- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Quick: Where does Jason Varitek rank on the all-time list of catchers?
Top 50? Top 40? Top 20?
Varitek is apparently set to retire on Thursday, calling it quits after 15 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, 1,546 major league games, two World Series rings and one memorable brawl with Alex Rodriguez.
That Varitek ended up playing his entire career with the Boston is remarkable considering the early twists and turns of his career. An All-American at Georgia Tech, the Minnesota Twins drafted him in the first round in 1993 but he declined to sign and returned to college. The Seattle Mariners made him the 14th pick in 1994 (two picks after the Red Sox had selected Nomar Garciaparra, his Georgia Tech teammate). With agent Scott Boras negotiating, Varitek again held out and actually signed in January of 1995 with the independent St. Paul Saints. Boras argued this meant the Mariners no longer held Varitek's rights and that he wouldn't be subject to the draft again since he was no longer an amateur.
The ploy didn't work and Varitek never played with the Saints, eventually signing with Seattle in April. In the end, Boras may have gotten Varitek a couple extra hundred thousand for his signing bonus but he cost him millions in long-term dollars. Varitek's professional career should have began in June of 1993; instead it didn't begin until April of 1995. Varitek's first full season with the Red Sox came in 1998, when he was already 26. His first season as full-time starter didn't come until he was 27. If he'd signed in 1993, his big league clock probably would have started a couple years earlier and he would have hit free agency in the prime of his career instead of his early 30s. Nice job, Boras.
Of course, the Red Sox stole Varitek from the Mariners in one of the best deals (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) of the past 20 years. Desperate for relief help at the 1997 trade deadline, Mariners general manager Woody Woodward inquired about Red Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb, who at the time was stumbling along with a 5.79 ERA, 1.97 WHIP and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. Urban legend has it Red Sox GM Dan Duquette asked for Varitek or pitching prospect Derek Lowe. Woodward misheard and agreed to both as the clock struck midnight.
According to Baseball-Reference WAR, the Mariners received 0.4 wins above replacement from Slocumb. The Red Sox received 23.1 wins above replacement from Varitek and 18.4 from Lowe. Larceny of the most impressive degree.
Back to the original question. Varitek ranks 30th on the all-time list for games caught and finished with a career line of .256/.341/.435, with 1,307 hits, 193 home runs and 757 RBIs.
Among players since 1901 who spent at least 50 percent of their career games behind the plate, Baseball-Reference ranks Varitek 43rd in career WAR, alongside guys like Mike Scioscia, Rick Dempsey, Chris Hoiles and Ramon Hernandez.
I thought Varitek would rank a little higher and it's true that WAR doesn't account for Varitek's much-praised leadership abilities, if you want to give him bonus points for that. But it's also true that Varitek's window as a star player was pretty narrow. He was really an outstanding player for only three seasons, 2003 to 2005, when he hit .283/.369/.494 and averaged 22 home runs. He was very good again in 2007 when he posted a .367 OBP and had a few other solid-but-not-great seasons. But he wasn't much of a player the past four seasons, hitting just .218 with a .308 OBP, and his leadership skills certainly failed to help rise the sinking ship in 2011.
Red Sox fans will undoubtedly argue that Varitek was better than his numbers. That may be the case; until we know about catcher defense, for example, perhaps Varitek's game-calling skills or ability to work with pitchers is being underrated. Maybe his grit and toughness were essential keys to the Red Sox winning it all in 2004 and 2007. Sox fans will certainly tell you that, as they point with pride to the game he introduced A-Rod to the smell of his catcher's glove. That game, on July 24, 2004, is often cited as key to Boston's season. Trailing 9-4, they rallied to win 11-10 on Bill Mueller's two-run walk-off homer off Mariano Rivera. Varitek's refusal to back down did seem to ignite the team. The Red Sox went 45-20 the rest of the regular season, riding that momentum to a curse-ending dream, and cementing Varitek as one of the most popular players in Red Sox history.
I'm comfortable moving Varitek up a few spots, certainly ahead of Hoiles (who had a short career), Dempsey (never had 500 plate appearances in a season), Butch Wynegar and maybe a few others.
Top-35 all time? I can see that.
Not bad for a guy acquired as a throw-in at the trade deadline.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.