What was Terry Francona thinking in the 9th inning last night? Sending Mike Lowell -- a slow runner -- to second on a hit-and-run, with Jason Varitek -- a poor contact hitter -- at the plate, had disaster written all over it. And Lowell had already taken off on the previous pitch, which Varitek fouled off. So everyone at Tropicana Field knew what was up. The element of surprise was gone.
Instead of pulling magic out of his proverbial hat, Francona was left looking foolish. Lowell was out by about eight feet when Varitek missed the pitch. And when the captain proceeded to strike out in that same at-bat, the game, and the attempted rally, was over.
The Sox bullpen had given up the lead in a six-run seventh, and then the offense clawed their way back to within one run in the ninth. But then that truly ill-advised hit run was attempted, in which a guy who can't run was relying on a guy who can't hit; Varitek struck out three times in four plate appearances last night.
Undoubtedly, Jason Varitek is a leader. He calls a great game and his preparation is second to none. But hitting is no longer his forte. Varitek is now batting a meager .216, which is, sadly, less than his listed weight of 230 pounds. This should be a surprise to no one. Varitek hit a disappointing .255 last year, and that was a rebound from the pathetic .238 average he posted in 2006.
The most striking element of Varitek's decline at the plate this year is the fact that he is striking out 29% of the time, and is second on the team with 66 whiffs. The team leader in this ignominious category is Manny Ramirez, with 74. But Ramirez, though this hardly sounds much better, is fanning "just" 25% of the time.
Over the past few years, the drop-off in Varitek's power numbers is also glaring. The burly catcher hit just 12 homers in 2006, stroked 17 last season, and so far, more than midway through this season, has just seven. Only three times in his eleven-year career has Varitek hit at least 20 homers, the highest being 25 in 2003. At this point, it looks like his power days are long-since over. Varitek last knocked at least 20 dingers (22) in 2005, and at age 36 seems squarely in decline.
And it's not just the strike outs and home run drought that are of concern. Varitek hasn't been able to drive in more than 70 runs in three years, and with just 26 to date, he won't break 70 again this year. The truth is, Varitek has never had more than 85 RBI (2003), and his next best total was 76 (1999).
Varitek cannot be counted on for extra-base hits, and has never had more than 233 total bases in any season. In fact, he hasn't even cracked 200 in either of the past two seasons, and he won't reach 200 again this year. This has resulted in a slugging percentage of just .364 this year, and .443 lifetime.
The unfortunate truth is that Varitek has become a liability at the plate, and it was never more apparent than last night.
Catching is at an even higher premium than pitching these days. There is a dearth of quality catchers in the minors, in college, and even internationally. So much is required of the position; knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your pitchers and opposing hitters, as well as preventing passed balls, throwing out base runners, and hitting.
The Sox will take all of this into consideration during the offseason when they need to make a decision on whether to bring the captain back on a new contract. Since neither George Kottaras, Dusty Brown, or Mark Wagner seem prepared to make the jump from the minors to replace Varitek, odds are he'll be back. And, of course, he's a longtime fan favorite. Not re-signing him would present a PR problem.
But his anemic offensive performance is a concern, and will surely be taken into consideration when the Sox ultimately make their offer. In the meantime, we'll have to be thankful for his strengths, but his weaknesses can no longer be ignored.
Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.