Thursday, January 29, 2009

Varitek and catcher defense

As the clock ticks down to the Jason Varitek deadline, I have a few comments, and a little bit of analysis.

  • Jason Varitek has been a good player for the Red Sox. He has not been a great player. I was convinced four and a half years ago that he'd be significantly overpaid in his next contract, and I believe that he was. I thought at the time that the 4 year/$40 million deal that the team gave him was too long, and for too much money, and there's no doubt in my mind that Scott Boras got him that deal by flat-out lying about additional offers. C'est la vie - it wasn't a disaster (until 2008), and they won another World Series which covers a multitude of sins. But it wasn't a great deal, either. Over the last three years of the contract, Varitek hit .238/.336/.393/.729, which was mediocre for a catcher. Over the same three year period, one (1) Major League catcher (Ivan Rodriguez) was paid more money than Jason Varitek.
    [UPDATE - Actually, two catchers were paid more. Posada didn't show up in my query because he didn't catch 50 games last year. I don't think that changes anything, but Varitek was the 3rd-highest paid catcher over the last three years, not the second-highest paid.]

  • Varitek screwed up - big-time - by refusing arbitration. I'm sure that he did so at the behest of his agent Scott Boras, but the final decision and responsibility is his. His agent badly misread the market, and he accepted that misread. Instead of looking at a guaranteed $10+ million dollars in arbitration, he's looking at taking only $5 million, and facing the prospect that a good year will result in being offered arbitration again next year, with a lower base salary. The decision to forgo arbitration cost Jason Varitek millions of dollars that he has no way of every recouping.

  • The comment was made on the radio the other day (I think by Lou Merloni) that it was unreasonable for the Red Sox to set a deadline because this was the "first offer." No, Lou, it wasn't. The first offer (that we know of) was the offer to let an arbitrator choose between two numbers that would have been at least twice what the current offer is for a one-year guaranteed contract. He wouldn't (in my opinion) have been worth it, but he felt that he could make more. He was wrong. That's life. If he had other offers and set a deadline for the Sox to match or exceed, would we get sob stories about unfairness? I rather think not. Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug. He's the bug right now. His fault, his problem, not the team's. As to the deadline, pitchers and catchers report in two weeks. They need to make decisions, and Varitek's presence or absence is a piece of information that they need to have.

  • There was some radio speculation this morning that Varitek would sit out rather than accept Boston's offer, and then either sign with someone after the June draft (when draft pick compensation would no longer be required) or sit out the entire year. This is a 37-year old catcher. He clearly gave up $5 million when he refused arbitration. Is he really prepared to give up another $5 million to salve his wounded pride? I don't know what his financial situation is, but again, this is money that isn't coming back. He's not getting $5 million for a year anywhere else, and he's not getting it ANYWHERE next year.

  • There have been occasional calls that the Red Sox should up their offer, because he's the captain, and he's been such a team leader and so important to the pitching staff, and out of loyalty, yada, yada, yada. It's all hogwash. They've overpayed him for the last three years (at least) because he had leverage during the 2004-2005 offseason. They have the leverage now, and it would be foolish of them to overpay him just because he screwed up.


All that said, the big claim of the Varitek defenders is that his defensive contributions vastly outweigh his offensive deficiencies. He "calls a great game." He's a "master of handling the pitching staff." He "makes the pitchers on the staff better." We've heard it for years.

But is it true? I've long been skeptical, but I don't know how you'd measure it. I know that the pitchers tend to rave about him, but they raved about Alex Gonzalez, too. I know that somehow, other teams have good pitchers and good pitching staffs without Jason Varitek. I know that the Red Sox have tremendous resources involved in advance scouting and game planning. And I know that, in the end, the pitch doesn't get thrown if it isn't what the pitcher wants to throw. So, as I say, I've long been a skeptic on the extent of Varitek's influence behind the plate.

In order to try to get some kind of feel for it, I tried to pull some data. It's a difficult thing to do, but I came up with a approach that seems to make sense, and can be done without too much difficulty. Using the marvelous day-by-day database at David Pinto's Baseball Musings, I downloaded Jason Varitek's game-by-game stats as a member of the Red Sox, and the Red Sox starting pitcher numbers for the same period. I then broke the pitching stats into two sets of numbers - those for when Varitek started at catcher and those for when someone else started at catcher. If Varitek really is an "elite game caller," AND if the catcher has a significant impact on the pitching performance, then we should be able to see it in the numbers.

At the first breakdown, there does seem to be a difference. Over the last 11 years, Red Sox starting pitchers have put up a 4.19 ERA in 1182 Varitek starts, compared with a 4.38 ERA in 624 starts by other Red Sox catchers. That's a difference of about 30 runs over the course of a season, or about 3 wins. Which is pretty significant.

It doesn't take much consideration, though, to recognize that this isn't an acceptable answer. The catchers haven't caught all of the same pitchers. Varitek caught 57 of Bronson Arroyo's 61 Red Sox starts, but only 2 of David Cone's 25. He caught all 16 of Wade Miller's starts, but only one of David Pauley's five.

So the next thing I did was winnow the data a little bit, and look at just those pitchers who made at least five starts with Varitek and at least five starts with other Red Sox catchers. That gives us a data set of 23 pitchers. 11 compiled lower ERAs with Varitek behind the plate. 12 compiled lower ERAs with other catchers behind the plate. Despite that, looking at the cumulative numbers Varitek looks even better, putting up a 4.02 catcher's ERA vs. 4.31 for his backups.

(If you're emotionally committed to the theory of Varitek as indispensible behind the plate, this is probably a good time to clap your hands together and leave...)

We still don't have a good data set, though. As we all know, Varitek has caught Tim Wakefield very little over the years, with most of Wakefield's starts going to the backup catchers. The Red Sox have also had some of the best pitchers in baseball, and the starts of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett have been predominantly caught by Jason Varitek. So there's a little more to be done. Let's face it - any catcher who caught a lot of Pedro Martinez starts in 1999 and 2000, as Varitek did, is going to look fantastic in a catcher's ERA comparison. Catching Tim Wakefield doesn't have the same advantage.

So what I did next was normalize everyone's statistics, multiplying or dividing to produce a stat line for 50 innings pitched. That is, both Varitek and the backups are credited with 50 innings of Wakefield, 50 innings of Pedro, etc.

And now the numbers look a little bit different.



Red Sox "Catcher ERA" - 1998-2008
ERAWHIP

Varitek4.771.4

Other Catchers4.661.41


Let's make one more tweak to the data. Including Tim Wakefield would tend to mitigate against Varitek's presumed game-calling skill. So I pulled him out of the data.



Red Sox "Catcher ERA" - 1998-2008 (Starters w/out Tim Wakefield)
ERAWHIP

Varitek4.81.41

Other Catchers4.631.4


All of a sudden that "makes the pitchers better" doesn't look like a very compelling argument.


I don't want to pretend that this "proves" that Varitek's game-calling is worse than anyone else's. I don't know. There's a ton of noise in this data set, no matter how you parse it. I will say this - I've long felt that Varitek's importance behind the plate was over-stated and over-rated, and this data seems to support that position.

Is there an obvious flaw in this analysis? Beyond the noise, I don't see one. This is what the pitchers who have started at least five games in Red Sox uniforms with Varitek starting behind the plate, and at least five games in Red Sox uniforms with some other catcher starting behind the plate have done during Varitek's Red Sox career, normalized for innings pitched. I'm open to any and all methodology criticisms (though I'm not going to wade through box scores and do relievers and catching replacements without signficant monetary inducement.)

Bottom line? The Red Sox should have a good-to-excellent pitching staff in 2009, and there's no compelling evidence to suggest that Jason Varitek's presence is required for that to be the case.

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