There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The Most Overrated Position in Baseball That’s Actually a Position

I read an article this morning about the closer being the most overrated “position” in baseball. I would say that closer is not really a position. But anyway, a similar argument was made in the book Moneyball, which described how the Oakland A’s routinely exploited the overvaluation of the closer across the MLB to make lopsided trades.

Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Varitek

Then, driving home after work there was a discussion on sports radio about the struggling Jason Varitek. Varitek is a beloved sports icon in Boston – he’s a gritty, blue-collar type of player, and by all accounts a great clubhouse guy. There’s a reason why he wears the C on his jersey. And who can forget how he roughed up A-Rod with a mitt to the face a few years back. But I also think that since 2005 he has been the most overrated player on the Red Sox. He batted .122 in June, .197 in July, and he’s at .220 on the year with an OBP of .310. The last couple of years he has batted .238 and .255. I’ll stick up for him because he’s a veteran leader on this team and a class guy, but his offensive numbers are what they are – bad. But when he gets criticized for his offensive production, fans passionately defend him for what I believe are nonsensical reasons. The most common arguments I hear are “Oh, but look at the way he handles the pitching staff.” Or, “he calls a great game.”

How much is a pitcher really affected by the way he is “handled?” What happens if you take an average pitcher and put Jason Varitek behind the plate? Does this make him an above average pitcher? I don’t think so. I think if you substitute the real Varitek with a cardboard cutout, Red Sox pitchers would perform comparably (of course discounting the fielding plays that a real catcher would have to make). Maybe there’s some degree of pitchers being comfortable with their catcher, but I imagine they can get over that in 2-3 starts. Also, if Varitek is so badly needed to handle the pitching staff, is he to blame for Josh Beckett and Hideki Okajima’s lackluster performances this year? Are they the same pitchers as last year and Varitek is just not handling them as well?

As for the aspect of calling games, I’m sure Jason Varitek knows all the batters in the league and their strengths and weaknesses. But anyone can learn that information. In some crucial situations, pitches can called in by the coaching staff from the dugout anyway. It ultimately comes down to how good the pitcher is. Give me Johan Santana and the worst catcher in the minor leagues and I’ll take that combination over anyone on the Red Sox staff throwing to Jason Varitek right now.

Before I get a deluge of comments about my ignorance in regard to this matter, I admit, I have never played pro baseball. I have little idea of what it’s like to be a pitcher in pro baseball. I mostly rode the bench in high school. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I think that the intangible abilities of a catcher are overrated, much like they are with a closer. It seems like the biggest non-offensive contribution a catcher can make is throwing some guys out at 2nd base. So I’d like to see a study showing the effect of catchers on pitchers. What happens when pitchers move around the league and play with different catchers? What happens when a team’s regular catcher gets injured? How does that affect the team’s pitching staff? Bill James, if you’re reading this, I’d like to hear your take.


1 The only girl in pb { 08.06.08 at 11:22 pm }

wow, haven’t been here for a few days. It’s already so populated!!! From the perspective of a deep rooted sport dummy, I have to agree to rate summer Olympic the #1 sport event. I enjoy the international aspect of it very much. Also thanks for debunk the Kevin Bacon theory.

2 Chris { 08.28.08 at 8:00 pm }

Wow, I can’t believe I’m hearing this. People who have never tried to play catcher at a competitive level yet think the position is overrated are the reason that catcher actually the most uderrated position in baseball.

Learning how to play catcher well is the quickest way to get to the major leagues. You can survive in the bigs if you play a solid catcher and hit only .240 with limited power and speed. You can’t say that about any other position on the field.

Sure, catcher is where you stick your most uncoordinated plug in a slo-pitch game, but in baseball it’s a position that few guys can play at all, and still fewer can play at an elite level. Receiving and blocking balls alone are difficult arts. Throwing out major league runners is an extremely tough thing to do – the best of the best are right about 50%. The catcher is also the captain of the defence – he must be sure everyone is in the right spot, and he calls where the ball goes on cutoff plays to home.

You mentioned handling the pitcher – that aspect might be a bit overrated because the catcher has help from the manager there. But he absolutely has to stay positive and constructive at all times – he can’t even afford negative body language that might deflate the pitcher. Also, he has to maintain a relationship with the ump. And he has to do all of this while wearing an extra 10 pounds of gear, which takes a heck of a toll, especially on the hot days.

3 Manny { 12.24.08 at 1:35 am }

as a former college catcher this is the dumbest thing I have ever read with respect to catching… figures some geek who has never played catcher posts this shit.. while I believe in the freedom of speech.. this kind of stupidity makes me think differently…

4 msg { 12.24.08 at 8:28 am }

I’ll just dismiss that comment as Manny being Manny.

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