Friday, November 13, 2009

He's got a lot of character

From what I've read, Mets fans should be ecstatic that Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek exercised his player option for next season. Blog posts and newspaper articles have breathlessly mentioned Varitek's shitty offensive numbers last season (.209/.313/.390) and have declared that it's a good thing Omar Minaya didn't have a chance to try to sign the 37-year-old catcher. This surprised me a little bit. Varitek has been the captain in Boston since 2005, and time and time again his "clubhouse presence" and "leadership qualities" have been celebrated. In the pre-Sabermetric age, wouldn't reporters be telling Mets fans Varitek would be beneficial for the team? That his "intangibles" would help "clubhouse chemistry"? Maybe even mention the '07 collapse and assume that if Tek was around he never would have let it happen? I think so. The purely numerical-based opinions being spewed by the media seem reflexive more than progressive, as if they are almost afraid of promoting a player because they'd be forced to result to using a trope. It's kind of funny. But kind of sad. Which is kind of why it's funny.

The trope I'm referring to is the notion of "clubhouse presence." Ever since I can remember, I've heard of specific players being great for their team, not because of their stats, but for how they bring levity to a 162-game season, say the exact right thing to motivate a newbie into a star player, and keep the peace behind the scenes.

Here's the thing: It's kind of bullshit. When you think about the classic examples of players who were brought in for the express purpose of doing those things, they were also really good on the field. It's great if you're not a jerk and you have a sense of humor with your teammates, but you have to perform too.

Remember Darren Daulton? Daulton was, as one unattributed but oft-repeated quote put it, “the greatest clubhouse leader the Phillies ever had.” Darren Daulton is also kind of a crazy person.* Apparently during a game he pulled a ball just inside of third base, which he would later claim to his wife was something he "did not do". The actual quote was: "It wasn't me who swung that bat! It wasn't me!" These are some things that Darren Daulton believes:

He can control the weather based on his mood.

He once traveled through time.

The Mayan calendar ending on December 12, 2012 means the world will in fact end on that date.

In other words, he will be at the midnight premiere of the movie 2012. Afterwards he will either write John Cusack a fawning letter of appreciation or call Art Bell and complain that it was "disaster porn" in the worst kind of way.

The guy was a character, clearly. But Darren was also a three-time all-star. According to Bill James he is the 25th greatest catcher to ever play the game. He and the '93 Phillies won the National League pennant. During the 1997 season Daulton was traded to the Marlins, who eventually won the World Series. "Dutch" actually hit .389 in that World Series, homering in Game 3, starting in all but one of the seven games. He then retired. The guy backed up the crazy.

* I say "kind of" a crazy person because he hasn't resorted to isolating himself in a cabin in the woods or anything like that. He still makes public appearances, including throwing out first pitches at Phillies games. However, it's 85 percent likely he is in fact cuckoo bananas, not because his weird theories are probably wrong, but because he never once started any sentence with "I know this sounds crazy, but..." That kind of disclaimer goes a long way. For more on his theories, click here. If you dare.

Ah yes, Lenny Harris. As a Met fan, I remember Lenny Harris. He was another player who was great for the clubhouse. Harris, however, tests my hypothesis a little bit. He was a bit of a choker in the postseason, going hitless in five at-bats in 2000 for the Mets against the Yankees, and in 2003 the Marlins left him off the World Series roster. (But got a ring for his troubles.) However, he IS the all-time leader in pinch-hits, so that's definitely something. You can't have such a good sense of humor that umpires will award you a spot on base 804 times.

Kevin Millar joined the Red Sox in 2003. During the season he began to utter the phrase "Cowboy Up!", which galvanized the team to...lose to the Yankees in the playoffs. However, in the following season, Millar got the Red Sox a little further, this time by insisting that he and his teammates were "idiots." When the Red Sox were on the verge of being eliminated again by the Yankees in the ALCS, Millar claimed that because they were "idiots" they were too dumb to understand that being down three games to none in a best-of-seven series was a bad thing. This despite the fact that a)they played seven games in a best-of-seven series one year before that, and b)all of them graduated from high school. It worked, and some fans will unconditionally love the jolly self-proclaimed moron forever.

Millar (mill-AH) couldn't have been that stupid. He drew the lead-off walk in the pivotal 9th inning in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. After that, he was pinch run for by Dave Roberts, who stole second, and scored on a Bill Mueller single, and something like ten days later there was world peace. Or something. And that walk was given up by Mariano Rivera, who is fairly decent. Millar is tied with Kevin Youkilis for the minor league record for most consecutive games reaching base (71). In 2007, he broke the Baltimore Orioles' consecutive games reaching base record. His lifetime .274 average is an indicator that he was a legitimate ballplayer on the field, and his attempt at portraying his teammates as dumbasses was only part of his contribution.

Jason Varitek wouldn't be of value to the Mets if he didn't perform offensively. He may have caught four no-hitters in his lifetime, and he may have leadership qualities, but you have to back it up with your bat. The thing is, there's a statistic that may indicate he would do better in 2010. Jason was actually the unluckiest person in baseball: his BABIP (batting average of balls hit in play) was .238. If he had played the minimum amount of games to qualify, that would have been the lowest BABIP in all of baseball. (The average BABIP "hovers around .300.") He also became unlucky in love: Varitek got divorced in July of 2008. It isn't inconceivable that a new city and a new team could have given a recently divorced man a fresh start, a better frame of mind, and a few extra hits in the gaps—giving him a higher average. A Varitek/Josh Thole catching duo, with Varitek playing the role of mentor, wouldn't have been unwelcome. And if it didn't work out on the field, we could end up with a hackneyed sitcom or dramedy about the guy.

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