Saturday, September 19, 2009

Martinez or Varitek: Game 1 catcher?

Many believed Red Sox manager Terry Francona wouldn't have the guts to make Jason Varitek his second-string catcher. It's not easy -- no matter how convincing the statistics might make the case -- to meet with your captain, your leader, your rock, your catcher on two World Series title teams, and tell him, in so many words, "We're a better team when you don't play."

Francona has always seen his players as more than run producers, as more than batting averages and on-base percentages and strikeout rates. He's always seen his job as manager as more than writing in the lineup card and putting on the hit and run. He's always believed the way he does what's best for his players is the only way to get his players to do what's best for the team.

Look at the way Francona handled the early-season slump of David Ortiz. While fans and writers and radio voices alike all screamed for Ortiz to ride the pine, Francona stuck with him and stuck with him and stuck with him.

"He’s going to get hot,” Francona said in late May. "How hot? I can’t wait to find out. But when he does, that’s why being patient is really the only thing to do. If I’m wrong, I take responsibility. I just think it’s the right thing for us to do."

It wasn't because Francona believed Ortiz was going to look once again like the hitter he'd been two or three years ago when he hit 45 or 50 home runs and OPS'ed well over 1.000. It was because Francona believed Ortiz was better than the hitter who was OPS'ing less than .600 into early June. It was because Francona believed he could get more out of Ortiz by sticking with him than by kicking him to the curb.

Ortiz still isn't the old Ortiz. But he's worked his OPS back up to .767 -- eight points above the average OPS in the American League -- and has hit 24 home runs, the same number as Matt Holliday and more than Victor Martinez, Brian McCann, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Michael Young. He might not be worthy of returning to his old spot at No. 3 in the Red Sox lineup, but he's rewarded the faith Francona showed him with a productive second half.

The difference between Ortiz and Varitek, of course, is the fact that the Red Sox have never had a viable alternative to Ortiz. The acquisition of Victor Martinez from Cleveland gave the Red Sox an immediate and impressive alternative to the rapidly fading Varitek.

The offensive numbers, of course, don't compare.

Career OPS
Martinez: .836
Varitek: .780

2005-08 OPS
Martinez: .841
Varitek: .764

2009 OPS
Martinez: .857
Varitek: .717

But Varitek always has been a serviceable hitter rather than a star. His work with Red Sox pitchers has always been his calling card. With Josh Beckett a Cy Young Award candidate and Jon Lester coming into his own, Francona had more than enough ammunition to tell critics that Varitek still would play an essential role in his team down the stretch.

It hasn't gone that way.

Martinez caught Clay Buchholz in Baltimore on Friday, as has become customary. But he caught Lester in Baltimore on Saturday, too -- and that means he's almost completely supplanted Varitek as the team's starting catcher.

The only pitchers who regularly throw to Varitek now are Josh Beckett (likely the team's Game 1 starter in the ALDS) and Paul Byrd (likely a spectactor for the ALCS). Francona has made the decision -- for good reason, it seems -- to push Varitek more and more into the background with Martinez more and more looking like a player who will catch 120 or so games next season.

This begs the question: Will Varitek catch Beckett in the playoffs -- or will Martinez?

"I know the numbers with (Varitek) are phenomenal and I believe in that," Francona told reporters in Baltimore when the subject came up. "I also think the night that Victor caught Beckett was a crazy night. Again, I’m very aware that when Victor catches our lineup is more potent. Also, our goal is to win that game, again that’s where we probably have to sit down at some point.

"I don’t know the answer. I certain don’t think it’s a bad question, but I don’t know what the answer is."

Presuming the Yankees choose the longer of the two ALDS schedules, the Red Sox will play the following schedule in the first round against the Angels (and throw their pitchers in the following order):

Game 1: Oct. 8 (Beckett)
Game 2: Oct. 9 (Lester)
Game 3: Oct. 11 (Buchholz)
Game 4: Oct. 12 (TBD, but likely Daisuke Matsuzaka)
Game 5: Oct. 14 (Beckett)

Martinez certainly can catch five games in seven days. He caught five games in eight days in early September, and that was while playing first base in between rather than having days off to lay around and relax and answer stupid questions from reporters like this one. He'll have the whole winter to recuperate: He's not going to get worn down catching all five games against the Angels in the ALDS.

But that doesn't mean that's what Francona will do.

For one thing, the first and only time Martinez caught Beckett this season, the Red Sox ace surrendered seven runs in 5 1/3 innings. No one really can know if there's any correlation: Beckett then spun off three more lousy starts before turning a corner, and Varitek was behind the plate for those three lousy starts as well as his three encouraging starts since.

Whether you believe something about Varitek makes Beckett pitch better or not, it's tough to deny one point: Francona isn't going to have Beckett pitch to Martinez in Game 1 of the ALDS without having him pitch to Martinez at some point before the season ends. It makes no sense. If Martinez is going to catch Beckett in the playoffs, he's going to have to get another couple of chances to catch him in the regular season.

That, though, gets tricky when the Red Sox are playing 20 straight games without a day off to close out the season.

Martinez needs to keep catching Buchholz and Lester -- and if he's going to be the primary catcher in the postseason, he probably needs to start catching Beckett and Matsuzaka, too. But Francona would be insane to ask Martinez to catch 16 or 17 of the final 20 games of the season and still to expect him to produce at a .900 OPS-type level when it counts the most.

The Red Sox are a better team when Martinez is behind the plate. That's clear. Francona, for all of his loyalty to the veterans who won him two World Series rings, has found a way to ease Varitek out of the Red Sox lineup on an everyday basis.

But he's also not going to risk losing Game 1 of the ALDS because Beckett isn't comfortable with his catcher. Varitek almost certainly is going to catch Beckett in the playoffs.

1 comment:

floydiansea said...

Sounds like using Varitek as the secondary, mainly to catch for Beckett, is the right way to go. Martinez is fantastic. Especially to get a shot at the World Series, using the players to their best is the only way to go. That means giving Beckett Varitek, but using Martinez for the rest.

Good info.