Victor Martinez takes over for Jason Varitek on a full-time basis. The transition began last summer after Martinez arrived from Cleveland at the trade deadline, but now there is no debate, no need to worry about offending a captain whose best days are behind him.
Martinez is the man behind the dish. He has big shoes to fill. Varitek’s ability to handle a pitching staff was one of his greatest strengths. He made it easy on pitchers. They trusted him, and he got the best out them. He helped the team win two World Series, and over the past three seasons, Varitek’s catcher’s ERA was 3.80 (2007), 3.66 (2008) and 3.87 (2009).
The Red Sox are counting on Martinez to achieve similar results. He made a good first impression last August, September and October — catching Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and even Tim Wakefield. This spring, Martinez can get to know every pitcher on the staff even better and learn what each one’s strengths and weaknesses are. Pitching is as much mental as physical, and having a comfort level with a catcher can provide a psychological edge.
After a pitcher, a catcher is the most important player on the diamond. He calls a game, sets the target, checks runners on base, frames pitches and knows how to handle every arm — and ego — on the staff. A good backstop is an extension of the manger on the field and studies the scouting reports on opposing hitters.
Catchers have to deal with a lot of stuff. They might wear the tools of ignorance, but often times, they have the highest baseball IQ on the diamond.
Varitek can help educate Martinez about Red Sox pitchers, just as he did at the end of last season. His knowledge is invaluable, and he plans to share his wisdom and do whatever he can to help the team win. Though Varitek will be on the field less this year, he still can make an impact from the bench, offering Martinez tips and guidance over the course of the season.
Catcher defense is tough to measure, but as long as Martinez doesn’t average a passed ball an inning, he will not be confused with Marc Sullivan anytime soon. Martinez has worked hard to improve behind the plate, is adept at blocking balls, has good hands and threw out 37 percent of opposing base stealers in 2008 with the Tribe. His career catcher’s ERA (4.41) isn’t that far off from Varitek’s career mark (4.11), either.
But the greatest difference between the two will be seen when Martinez has a bat in his hands. He is one of the best hitting catchers in the majors. Only Twins catcher and AL MVP Joe Mauer (.365/.444/1.031) had a better batting average, on-base percentage and OPS than Martinez (.303/.381/.861) in 2009. With Martinez likely to hit third in the lineup this year, the Red Sox should score lots of first-inning runs, so Boston starters will be pitching with lots of leads. That’s a quick way to become a pitcher’s best friend.
The Red Sox believe in the power of numbers. At the end of the season, the most important one is wins.
Victor Martinez will help the club get plenty of those.
NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day through Feb. 23.
Sunday, Feb. 7: Can Dustin Pedroia win another MVP?
Tuesday, Feb. 8: Who will be the No. 1 starter?