Saturday, May 2, 2009

Putting Jason Varitek's April in perspective

April is in the books, and it's easy to point to Jason Varitek's power numbers as reasons why we should be optimistic about the Red Sox's veteran catcher:

* .250 batting average
* .348 on-base percentage
* .533 slugging percentage
* Five doubles
* Four home runs
* 10 RBI
* Seven walks
* Nine strikeouts

But let's compare that to Varitek's April a year ago:
* .273 batting average
* .324 on-base percentage
* .485 slugging percentage
* Five doubles
* Three home runs
* Seven RBI
* Four walks
* 13 strikeouts

(This excludes Varitek's two games in March in Japan; he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in each of those games. If you include those two games, his average falls to .243, his on-base percentage to .291 and his slugging percentage to .432.)

In May, Varitek hit even better: A .299 batting average with a .407 on-base percentage and a .506 slugging percentage. It wasn't until June (.122 batting average) and July (.197 batting average) that things really started to go downhill for the Red Sox catcher. His home run totals tumbled right along with his batting average:

* March/April: 3 home runs/.432 slugging
* May: 3 home runs/.506 slugging
* June: 1 home run/.176 slugging
* July: 1 home run/.288 slugging
* August: 3 home runs/.431 slugging
* September: 2 home runs/.300 slugging

OK, so the power numbers aren't exactly an indication of great things to come. Varitek had three home runs in April a year ago and six home runs on Memorial Day and still finished the year looking like he was throwing the hammer instead of swinging a bat.

But what about those walks and strikeouts?

Varitek drew seven walks in his first 16 games and struck out just nine times. It was the first time in two seasons his walk/strikeout numbers have been so close together; it was the first time since April of 2006 that he's struck out fewer than 10 times in a month.

Check out these monthly totals -- and the batting averages that went with them:

March/April: 7 walks/9 strikeouts (.250)

* March/April: 4 walks/19 strikeouts (.243)
* May: 12 walks/20 strikeouts (.299)
* June: 8 walks/22 strikeouts (.122)
* July: 9 walks/22 strikeouts (.197)
* August: 12 walks/21 strikeouts (.264)
* September: 7 walks/18 strikeouts (.183)

* March/April: 9 walks/15 strikeouts(.239)
* May: 12 walks/13 strikeouts (.311)
* June: 8 walks/26 strikeouts (.234)
* July: 12 walks/17 strikeouts (.294)
* August: 13 walks/23 strikeouts (.234)
* September: 17 walks/28 strikeouts (.222)

As is the case with any player, Varitek does hit better when he's walking more and striking out less. But the numbers still are striking: When he walked more than 10 times and struck out 20 or fewer times in 2007 and 2008, he hit .294, .299 and .311. When he walked fewer than 10 times and/or struck out more than 20 times, well, he didn't exactly hit .294.

No one is expecting Varitek to hit close to .300 in any month this season. But the way he's cut down his strikeouts -- his nine whiffs this April were fewer than half his total in any month last year -- while maintaining decent walk totals and OBP numbers shows he's not necessarily on the steep downward slope many of us thought he was on.

In fact, when you look at his batting average on balls in play -- .234, by far the lowest on the team -- he might actually be due for a hot streak sometime soon.

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