Sunday, September 27, 2009
Varitek and the fallacy of game-calling
Game-calling is largely a junk "ability", and I think it should be consigned to the same category of dubious baseball beliefs that pitching and defense win championships, and that clutch hitters exist.
I say this largely in response to the idea on Boston talk radio that unless Jason Varitek catches Josh Beckett, the Red Sox will be screwed in the postseason, or that Varitek's game-calling ability somehow justifies his place on the roster. The talk was especially heated in the off-season, as the Red Sox and Varitek tried to hash out a contract in a year after he batted .220 / .313 / .359 in 2008. He was an all-star anyway, in what has to be one of the worst non-mandatory or fan selections of all-time.
The Red Sox re-signed him for (I'm guessing) two reasons: A lack of better alternatives on the market and in the system. Available in free agency were Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Toby Hall, Mike Redmond, Ivan Rogriguez, Javier Valentin and Gregg Zaun. Redmond has been a very good back-up for years, but the Twins had an option on him that they picked up, so he wasn't actually available. I also don't mind Gregg Zaun, especially since he seemingly kills the Sox every year, but the point is that nobody available was a clear upgrade over Varitek.
On the farm, the Red Sox's options coming into the year are written up pretty well right here. I basically agree with him, except that Brown is nothing more than a back-up at the Major League level. He proved it in Pawtucket this year, as he hit .264 / .345 / .329 in 86 games and 295 ABs. He is also 27, so this is probably his peak ability.
With the lack of alternatives, it was defensible for the Sox to sign Varitek to a low-risk contract and hope for a bounce back this season. In the first half of the season, the Sox looked like they made the right choice, as Varitek hit well enough at the plate to justify the one year, $5 million contract he signed.
Since then, he has tanked badly though. His overall line for the season is now .208 / .313 / .390. He's hitting for a bit more power this year, but that is mostly because of an early-season power surge - he only has one more HR this year than last. Because the Red Sox are a pretty smart team, they did acquire Victor Martinez from the Indians. Martinez was hitting .284 / .368 / .464 for Cleveland, but it has surged to .335 / .405 / .503 for the Red Sox.
However, some people in the Boston area still think that Varitek has a role on the team because of some shaman-like ability to handle the pitching staff. My issue with this is that there is absolutely no way to prove this.
Most of the "evidence" relies on two points: 1) Pitchers say they like working with Varitek, including an anecdotal statement from Curt Schilling saying that the only hit he gave up in a near-perfect game came when he shook off Varitek and 2) Citing dubious stats like catching ERA.
Tackling the first point, uh, first, it isn't surprising that pitchers say they're more comfortable working with Varitek. I'm guessing they said this because players very seldom say anything interesting or controversial, unless they are named Milton Bradley or Carl Everett. Players say they like Varitek's game-calling ability because the alternative is to say they don't, which will cause them to catch holy hell.
As far as the second point goes, some people like to use the catcher's ERA stat as "proof" that Varitek has a positive effect on the team's ERA. The issue with this is that Varitek catches everyone but Wakefield, so of course his ERA is going to be lower than whoever his backup is. He did miss significant time in 2001 and 2006, which you might be able to use to compare the issue a bit, except that the Red Sox finished a bit off their usual pace in both years.
Baseball Prospectus has looked at the issue multiple times, and if a catcher does have an impact on a pitcher's ERA, the effect is so small that it can't be measured. The most exhaustive study was done in January 2000 by Keith Woolner, and also appeared in Baseball Prospectus 1999, if you want to look at the methods and conclusions yourself.
This is the biggest reason why I think playing Varitek for his "ability" to call a good game is so silly. There are a lot of things in baseball that can be proved well by statistics, and the best of them all is hitting ability. There is a preponderance of tangible evidence to suggest that Varitek is done at the plate, as his replacement holds a 100-point edge in him in all three important hitting statistics. Given this, why even bother going down the twisted, contorted road of catching ERA to justify him starting a playoff game? Varitek is a backup (at best) at this point, and he shouldn't be starting unless Martinez needs a breather that day.
The pitcher of Heidi Watney is taken from The Boston Globe here.