Career Profile: Jason Varitek
As you know by now, long-time Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek announced his retirement last week. Let's review his career, see what kind of prospect he was, and where he ranks in historical context.
A star catcher at Georgia Tech, Varitek was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Twins in 1993, 21st overall. However, they were unable to come to terms, and Varitek returned to school for his senior season. He was drafted in the first round again in '94, this time by the Mariners 14th overall. He didn't sign right away and signed a contract with the St. Paul Saints, but eventually Scott Boras and the Mariners came to an agreement.
Varitek made his pro debut for Double-A Port City in 1995 and was terrible, hitting just .224/.340/.361. He did hit 10 homers and draw 61 walks, but he struck out 126 times in 352 at-bats. He was unimpressive on defense as well, throwing out 27% of runners (worse than expected) while coughing up 21 passed balls in just 89 games behind the plate. Reports were pretty negative and he was generally considered a massive disappointment. He was supposed to be a future star, but his performance didn't match the expectations generated in college.
Varitek returned to Port City in 1996 and improved slightly, hitting .262/.350/.406 with 12 homers. He drew 66 walks and reduced his strikeout rate, whiffing 93 times in 503 at-bats, and he wasn't as bad with the glove, either, although his 29% caught rate was still not as good as anticipated. He was now 24 years old and had repeated the league without a massive upgrade in performance.
Moved up to Triple-A Tacoma for 1997, Varitek hit .254/.329/.443 with 15 homers, 34 walks, and 71 strikeouts in 307 at-bats. Late that summer he was traded from the Mariners to the Red Sox along with Derek Lowe in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb. He hit .197/.284/.318 in 20 games for Pawtucket after the trade. Reviews of his defense were improving and he looked a lot more like the player anticipated on defense, but his swing was perceived as too slow and long for him to be a major league star at that point. He looked like a Grade C prospect to me, and I wrote "while Varitek won't be a luminary in the Show, his combination of power and defense does have value, provided that expectations aren't too high."
Varitek played 86 games for the Red Sox in 1998 at age 26, hitting .253/.309/.407 with seven homers. He took over as the full-time regular in 1999 at age 27, hitting a more luminous .269/.330/.482 with 20 homers, beginning a decade-long run as the primary Red Sox catcher.
He had particularly good offensive seasons in 2001 (.293/.371/.489, OPS+123), 2005 (.281/.366/.489, OPS+122), and 2004 (.296/.390/.482, OPS+121). His peak season according to WAR was 2004 with a 4.3 mark. Overall, he hit .256/.341/.435 in a 1546-game major league career, with a 25.5 WAR. He was the first catcher in Red Sox history to catch 1,000 games. A three-time All-Star, he holds a major league record by catching four no-hitters.
Looking at history, Varitek's total WAR ranks 64th-all time among catchers, in the neighborhood with Joe Ferguson (26.0), Terry Kennedy (25.6), Jack Clements (25.4), and Johnny Kling (24.8), solid players though not Hall of Fame types. His most comparable players by Sim Score are Ramon Hernandez, Del Crandall, Terry Steinbach, Sherm Lollar, Bill Freehan, Darrell Porter, Walker Cooper, A.J. Pierzynski, Frankie Hayes, and Mike Lieberthal. Again, all solid players but short of elite.
Overall, Varitek was a very solid player who turned out better than his minor league numbers would lead you to expect. In his case, the scouting reports from college turned out to be better indicators than what he was doing in Double-A and Triple-A.