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No catch: Put Martinez behind plate

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 19, 2009 06:36 PM

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In his eight-plus major league seasons, Beckett has six Game Scores over 80. Know how many Varitek has caught? Two. Beckett's best Game Score of his career -- an 89 -- came last month against the Royals, with Tek behind the plate.

But his previous best regular-season start in a Red Sox uniform came in 2006 -- with Doug Mirabelli catching. His other three best Game Scores have come while throwing to Paul LoDuca, Ramon Castro, and Matt Treanor.

As far as we know, none of the three catchers was Jason Varitek in disguise.

It should be obvious. When he's pitching well and his stuff is working it makes absolutely no difference who the masked man behind the plate is.

(Quick aside: Pedro, no last name required, had eight game scores above 80 in both 1999 and 2000. Just more statistical documentation of his transcendent dominance. I miss his prime more each year.)

It's probably a little late in the game here to emphasize this now, but the critique of Varitek is not meant to flippantly dismiss his value to the team. Too many accomplished pitchers, from Curt Schilling to Beckett to Jon Lester, swear by him. The true story of his ability to manage a game can be found in their trust.

If anything, I've come to appreciate him more this season than I did in his heyday, in part because this Mazz column detailed his preparation and value in a way that I hadn't read before. There is no doubt that he dedicates himself to the Red Sox pitching staff at the expense of his offense, that he tries to gain as much knowledge as possible to benefit the staff.

It's an admirable approach, and there is value in that. But that's the rub. At this point of his career, it is his only value. And it is not nearly worth what is sacrificed in order to keep him in the lineup.

Varitek has again become a severe hindrance to an inconsistent lineup that has struggled to score runs. He has no home runs, a .169 batting average, and a .506 OPS in 82 plate appearances since the All-Star break. I'll give you a second here to absorb those numbers. Having Dave Valle flashbacks yet?

Defensively, he has been no better, having thrown out 15 of 107 attempted basestealers, or 14 percent, which is 10 percent below his career average. You can blame Brad Penny for the eight stolen bases in Texas over the weekend, and you should, for the most part. Rarely does a pitcher so thoroughly humiliate his catcher.

But at this stage in his career, it's apparent that Varitek is a backup catcher, a more famous Gregg Zaun, nothing more. He shouldn't play more than once per week, maybe twice. Go ahead, make him Beckett's personal catcher if that eases the ace's mind. But three, four, five times per week, it is foolish to rely on an aging captain who still looks the part but can't play it. Give me someone who can produce.

The Red Sox already have that someone. Victor Martinez is a truly excellent offensive player (.920 OPS since coming to Boston) who happens to play a premium defensive position. There is tremendous value in that, and given their offensive woes, the Red Sox would be wise to start taking advantage of it.

I realize Martinez is no threat to Pudge Rodriguez's legacy as a defender -- he's thrown out just 15 percent of basestealers this season and 24 percent in his career. But Martinez isn't Mike Piazza behind the plate, either. He has decent hands, is reputed to call a good game, and has caught some extremely successful pitchers, including CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, the last two AL Cy Young Award winners. His attributes sound exactly like those of someone we already know, no?

If the Red Sox are going to find any semblance of offensive consistency during the last quarter of the season, Martinez and Youkilis must play every day. Mike Lowell has been excellent since the All-Star break (and hasn't hesitated to remind us so), and he's right: It's counterproductive to plunk him on the bench when he's swinging the bat so well.

And just as it appeared as though David Ortiz's bat was going back into its April freeze, he's started heating up again. He has three homers in the last four games and five extra-base hits in his last 11 at-bats. He is second in the AL in homers since June 6 with 17, trailing only the Angels' Kendry Morales. And his 47 RBIs over that span trail only the Angels' Bobby Abreu (55). Big Papi may not be back in full, but he sure appears to be a very dangerous streak hitter who could thrive in the No. 6 spot.

If it comes down to having Papi's bat the lineup or playing a catcher who is danger of being outhit this month by a 46-year-old lefthanded pitcher, well, there's really no choice at all, is there?

I'd like to believe even Josh Beckett wouldn't hesitate to choose run support over moral support.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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