When the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez at the trade deadline Friday, they likely acquired their catcher of the future. At 30, Martinez is seven years younger than Jason Varitek. Both catchers are signed through this season with team options for 2010 – Martinez at $7.5 million, Varitek at $5 million (Varitek also holds a player’s option for $3 million).
Varitek, who said recently that he hasn’t felt good since the second day of spring training, is usually pretty banged up by this point in the season. The angry bruises accompanied by ice packs that cover him from head to toe after each game are a testament to the daily dings and dents he receives.
“We do want to be cognizant of the fact that he gets beat up during the year,” said manager Terry Francona before the acquisition of Martinez. “We need to at least recognize that and not run him into the ground. We talked about it even in spring training.
“He’s banged up. I don’t know that any catcher who catches as much as Tek has at this point is going to be [completely healthy] — between foul tips, you get banged up. If it hits your mask, your neck hurts. I don’t even think I want to know. I think, hopefully, we never take Tek for granted. I think we take for granted that he’s going to be beat up; you can’t not be at this point in the season. So rest is not only — it’s probably not welcome for him because he likes to play — but I think it’s needed and hopefully we’ll take advantage of it.”
Martinez will give Varitek a true backup, one who is able to spell him more behind the plate than Varitek has been accustomed to in recent seasons. As a switch-hitter, Martinez gives the Sox added flexibility — like Varitek, who can play other positions, .
“[Martinez] has the ability to catch, but not to do so every day — [that] just wears his legs down,” said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “[We want him to] spend enough time at first base and DH, stay fresh. That works for our club because Jason Varitek is, has been, and will continue to be a very important part of our club and [working with] the pitching staff.”
For Justin Masterson, who departed Friday in the trade for Martinez, Varitek helped ease the young pitcher’s transition to the big leagues.
“He knows how I am, a laid-back guy having a good ole time, of course serious on the mound, but he knows I like to have fun,” Masterson said. “And he came along those lines and was there just to make sure if anything didn’t go right, wherever there’s a time, a few struggles here and there, to make sure I’m keeping my head up, saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got the stuff.’ Just simple things like that, always in his mind saying, ‘Hey, let’s try this pitch here to this batter.’ Just talking through things, and that’s helped me be a better pitcher in general. And, whenever his career is over, I’ll have a better idea of who I am as a pitcher because of him.”
But there was a time this offseason when it appeared Varitek would be anywhere else but Boston this season. Negotiations between the team and Scott Boras, Varitek's agent, lagged before the sides finally reached a deal Jan. 31.
“Ludicrous,” said closer Jonathan Papelbon. “I thought it was ludicrous that they were thinking about not bringing him back.
“The biggest thing that he brings to our team and means to our team is leadership by example. And when I say that, I mean he shows everyone by his examples how to play, how to be a consistent player and he shows everyone how to play through pain, just everything that goes along with leading by example.”
Last season, Varitek was the target of much criticism for his offense. With a .220 average (.201 as a left-handed batter, .284 as a righty), 13 home runs, 43 RBIs, a .313 on-base percentage and .359 slugging percentage, it was Varitek’s most difficult season at the plate.
This season, batting .233 (.228 left-handed, .242 right-handed) with a .346 OBP and .448 slugging percentage, he has already surpassed his RBI total of last season with 44, and he has met his home run output.
But for Varitek, it’s never been about what he can do from the sides of the plate.
“His batting average is whatever his batting average is,” Francona said. “I don’t know that that’s the way we need to measure Tek, because I think what he does for this team, he’s always going to suffer offensively. He’s also hit some huge home runs and when he catches we feel like we’re going to win. That’s, to me, the best way to [measure him].”
Handling a pitching staff, helping young pitchers acclimate to the major leagues, knowing the opposition. For most catchers, those aspects will always be more important than offensive numbers.
“I think the most concise and most appropriate thing is that every guy who takes the mound has the utmost trust in his game-calling, and his pitch selection to execute a game plan,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “That’s because of the preparation that he puts in, his priority of getting the most out of the given pitcher that’s on the mound at the time.
“He’s got such a vast personal reference and history with a lot of guys, particularly with the constant rosters in New York, particularly in our division. There’s a lot of history there and a lot of understanding of what the thought process is of certain hitters on those rosters when they’re trying to attack a certain pitcher that we have on the mound at the time. So he’s able to factor all those things in and yet still have a very clear-cut plan for his own selection based on what’s working for the individual pitcher on a given night.”
And that carries over to the rest of the team.
“I think he’s such a stable force behind our pitching staff,” said Mike Lowell. “I think, in today’s game, we analyze things so much. I think there’s actually an added ‘oomph’ to guys that can handle a pitching staff. I was actually talking to [Orioles catcher] Gregg Zaun the other day. And I was like, ‘So, how’s it going? I see that you’ve been swinging the bat pretty good.’ He goes, ‘I’m just trying to do my best to call a good game, put the pitcher in a position to win, and if I hit, it’s icing on the cake.’
“It’s almost gotten to that point where if you have someone who can handle a staff so well, you can almost offset the offense. Well, that being said, no one wants to not hit. And I think [Varitek’s] got to be happy with his power numbers. His average I’m sure is lower than what he would want. But I think he’s shown that we can play a lot of winning baseball with him behind there. I think there would have been a lot more openings and question marks and inconsistencies if he wasn’t here this year.”