Monday, December 28, 2009

The upgrade of Victor over Varitek

The Red Sox need a bat, or so consensus has made clear. Even David Ortiz says so. Theo Epstein has swapped out Jason Bay and Alex Gonzalez for Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro -- and, in a vacuum, those two moves don't represent an upgrade for an offense that managed just 15 hits in three games and hit .158 in bowing out meekly in the American League Division Series.

Two points:
1. Using three games -- any three games -- to determine offseason priorities is a mistake. Players endure slumps all the time. Teams endure slumps all the time. Executives have to build teams based on 162 games. Panicking based on a three-game skid is a great way to make mistakes. Heck, in the first three games of the World Series, the Yankees managed to hit just .224. They just happened to win two of those three games -- and, thus, no one cared.
2. Don't forget about Victor Martinez.

Yes, Martinez was part of the group that came up so short against the Angels. Yes, Martinez was a member of the Red Sox for the final two months of the season.

It seems, though, that the impact of having Martinez -- whose on-base percentage last season (.381) was well ahead of every catcher in the major leagues not named Joe Mauer -- starting every day in place of Jason Varitek has been overlooked.

Varitek played catcher almost every day until Aug. 1, coming to the plate 321 times and compiling an OPS of .794. Martinez played catcher almost every day from Aug. 2 on, coming to the plate 237 times and compiling an OPS of .912.

If you prefer advanced metrics, Varitek compiled a WAR -- wins above replacement -- of 1.3 in his full season with the Red Sox. (FanGraphs doesn't break down WAR on a month-by-month level for players who play for the same team all season.) Martinez compiled a WAR of 2.1 in just his two months with the Red Sox -- and 4.9 for the entire season.

The list of catchers who have accumulated a WAR of better than 4.9 in either of the last two seasons is a short one:
1. Joe Mauer (twice)
2. Brian McCann

That's it.

If you prefer traditional statistics, the upgrade still is clear:
* Varitek hit .209 last season, a career low, but he still hasn't hit above .255 in the last four years.
* Martinez hit .303 last season and hasn't hit below .280 in his career.
* Varitek OBP'ed .313 both last season and the season before that.
* Martinez OBP'ed .381 last season and has OBP'ed .370 or better in four of his last five seasons.
* Varitek slugged. 390 last season and hasn't slugged better than .425 in the last four years.
* Martinez slugged .480 last season and has slugged .465 or better in five of his last six seasons.

Varitek has come to the plate an avearge of 460 times per season since 2006 and accumulated an OPS+ of 85 -- in other words, production well below average -- in that span.

Martinez, instead, will get most of those at-bats next season -- and Martinez has an OPS+ of 121 since 2006.

For the sake of comparison, Jason Bay over the last four seasons has an OPS+ of 125. Mike Cameron has an OPS+ of 112. The difference between Martinez and Varitek is almost three times the difference between Bay and Cameron.

The Red Sox still might acquire a hitter. The depressed economic climate might give them no choice but to go back after Bay and hit him in the middle of their lineup -- or the Padres might start feeling generous and shop their power-hitting first baseman before the season starts.

Having Victor Martinez -- arguably the second-best-hitting catcher in the major leagues --behind the plate for a full season should not be underestimated.

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