The death of the lifelong Hometown Hero is frequently and roundly lamented by sports enthusiasts. Fans – most of whom are too young to have actually experienced the halcyon era they pine for – hearken back to the days of career one-teamers, players who come up with an organization, have long and productive careers for them, and then retire and take that uniform to the Hall. This is a career path carved half from reality and half from myth. When a star prospect takes to the field for the first time, fans don’t think “Gee, I hope we buy out a few years of free agency and then trade him when he gets older and really expensive.” They imagine a twenty-year tenure littered with World Series titles, a young-at-heart veteran who still hustles for the home crowd, a weathered face waving the team cap at a stadium of adoring fans.
To live out a long and prosperous baseball lifetime with one organization, you’ve got to be pretty good – good enough not only to stay in the game for that amount of time, but also good enough for your one team to not find it beneficial to trade you off to someone else. Hall of Fame immortals like Walter Johnson (Senators), Ted Williams (Red Sox), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Willie Stargell (Pirates), and Jim Palmer (Orioles) all played out their entire careers – from 19-21 years – with the same organization. This has afforded them a pristine valor: they are seen not only as baseball greats but as champions of honor, as we assume looking back that they must have made some sort of sacrifices to do the right thing and stay with the organizations that they came up with. So, too, will we venerate contemporary flukes like Craig Biggio, who retired in 2007 after spending his entire 20-season career with the Houston Astros.
What’s rarely discussed is the influence that the organizations have in the genesis of the One-Team Player. Contractual no-trade clauses aside, the team has the final say in whether or not any player stays or goes (or if he plays). Clubs have difficult decisions to make when faced with situations like these. Part of the problem is the dichotomy between dreams and reality. Popular opinion can be somewhat dualistic in nature: fans desire to see their favorite faces in uniform, but they also demand sensibility (and wins) from the management. Because multiple parties – management, ownership, agent and player – are involved in any negotiation, these two often-opposing desires cannot always be reconciled. To what should organizations defer to when the picture becomes cloudy? The answer – as it should be – is wins, the highest currency by which sporting greatness is measured. Teams should do what they can to win as many games as possible. Only when they cannot prove that wins will measure the worth of a move should they proceed under alternate guidelines (if you’re going to win 73 games this year, which right fielder would the fans rather see?).
Back to our most recent example, Craig Biggio. By most measures, he was actually one of the worst regulars in the majors for his final season, a season in which the Astros ran him and his .285 OBP up to the plate 555 times. Only three of those times was he granted one of his trademark HBPs; his K/BB ratio, on the other hand, was 112/23. At 41 years old, he’d also lost most of his range at 2B, THT listing him behind only the plodding Dan Uggla among qualified second basemen that year. From a Win-Loss perspective, Biggio was hurting the team, although he was the cause of great fanfare in his final season and was probably a boon to the organization. The team also lacked a clear-cut alternative, preferring to keep Mark Loretta in a utility role. The Astros finished 73-89. Was playing Biggio the right move?
This question sometimes forces itself before a player hits his forties. Heading into the 2008 season, Jason Varitek – the captain of the Boston Red Sox and de facto “heart” of the team – was a 36 year old catcher who was clearly suffering from a gradually waning offensive skillset. Rather than smoothly erode, though, his numbers took an unexpectedly sharp turn downward, finally landing at .220/.313/.359. During Varitek’s 12th season in the majors – and 12th with the Red Sox – those divebombing offensive skills were the subject of massive consternation amongst fans of the ballclub. No player can hide from the scrutiny of the analytic gunslingers whose homebrew calculations are gaining greater acceptance within the game as the “scouting generation” ages and is phased out. Long an upper-tier offensive catcher (he won the Silver Slugger in 2005), Varitek’s statistical profile was now more closely aligned with the Jason Kendalls and John Bucks of the world. Runners were also starting to pick on him more and more: never exceptional with his arm, he now had the fourth-worst CS% in the majors (though his WP+PB per 9 was second only to Kurt Suzuki). He wasn’t killed for it. This was, after all, The Captain, the stone-faced student of the game whose pitchers swore by him and who was the central figure in The Fight, what was arguably one of the most important moments in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry (and perhaps the ballclub itself). Instead, his decline was the proverbial elephant in the room, as many fans began to dream of a graceful phasing-out of the beloved catcher. It’s an easy career arc to believe in: it’s the most demanding of positions, and at 37 years old, maybe he just couldn’t do it so well anymore. We can’t all have Carlton Fisk’s longevity. There’d be no shame in his going out to pasture soon.
There is an apparent paradox here. Fans generally look upon free agent money-hunting distastefully, and would prefer a reality in which players genuinely longed to establish themselves in a city and then retire there, wearing their lifelong uniform proudly, heroes of the local fans. At the same time, we cannot bear to allow these aging players to clog up the gears. Aside from mutually agreed-upon retirement, which is a ludicrous proposal in reality, this is a very difficult situation to solve. Ideally, they will always provide us with one last season of thrills even as they are imparting their sagely wisdom onto the next generation of ballplayers. This isn’t all that likely, of course, because such situations rarely make sense from a business scenario. Players are trying to secure as much money for themselves as they can, but no front office wants to spend money chasing the heroes of yore.
(There is no shortage of General Managers who overspend on bad veterans. But let’s assume away insanity for the time being.)
The economic downturn has given rise to a very weird offseason, in which teams who would normally play fast and loose with their cash have had to zip up their pockets and politely decline free agents at their doorsteps. This has created an awkward situation for Varitek and Boras. Complicating matters is the fact that the Red Sox offered Varitek salary arbitration for 2009. Varitek was a Type A Free Agent – essentially, he was deemed to be one of the top players in the game at his position, and the rules of baseball dictate that when a team signs a Type A Free Agent whose former team offered him arbitration and were rejected, the player’s new team must forfeit a first-round draft pick to the team that lost the Free Agent. Varitek declined Boston’s offer; in a severely tightened market, draft picks are an extremely valuable asset, and the prospect of handing one over to the Red Sox has in itself has soured most potential suitors (“If we sign [Varitek] and give up a draft pick,” said one NL executive said last month, “it would have to be over my dead body”). Varitek, it would seem, preferred the years to the money: he’d likely have received somewhere around $11m for the 2009 season had he accepted, but would not be guaranteed a thing in 2010. The arbitration deal was also non-guaranteed, but it’d have been unlikely that the Sox cut Varitek prior to the start of the season. The market quickly informed him that the reason he wasn’t guaranteed a contract in 2010 was because no one in baseball wanted to give him such a thing. And so, earlier this month, he found himself in a face-to-face meeting with John Henry, one that Varitek himself requested after the Sox were reluctant to deal with Boras, who currently has a very poor relationship with the team. Varitek’s line was probably something to the effect of “We both want this to happen, and I’m a good guy, so how about paying me something close to what I’d have made in arbitration, and we can all be happy?” Varitek and Boras have been the butt of many a joke for leaving the arbitration money on the table, and the club had little reason to re-offer it to him.
Weeks later, the team offered a compromise: $5m for 2009, and a dual option for $2010 ($5m team, $3m player), so he’d be guaranteed at least $8m for the next two seasons, a per-season pay cut of 56% for the veteran catcher. That’s about what Jason Kendall made last year, or what Mike Stanley made – adjusted for inflation – in his final year, as a 37 year old, playing for the Sox. Aside from being late-stage offensive miscreants themselves, Kendall and Stanley both were the “veteran leader” types, guys whose impacts arguably could not be fully captured in statistics. Varitek’s supporters attempted to put his decline in perspective by arguing that his influence over the pitching staff was so important that he should be judged almost solely by those factors, and that any offense he generated was effectively a bonus. This is a difficult case to make, as such qualities are by definition in short supply and cannot easily be assigned a market value. Offensive output, on the other hand, is so relatively easy to come by that it is now commonplace to assign exact dollar values to player performance based on those metrics. If a club decides that they want to pay a lot of money for those “intangibles,” one of two things is happening. One, the club is smarter than all the other clubs, in that they have identified an undervalued asset and, in securing it, given themselves an advantage over other teams who don’t have access to it anymore. Two, they’re victims of the Winner’s Curse, and have overpaid.
The truth of the Varitek situation lies somewhere in the middle. Valuation is not context-independent, especially for a catcher: part of Varitek’s value to the Red Sox comes from the fact that he is already extremely familiar with the team’s pitchers, who are very comfortable with him. While Varitek could apply these skills to another team’s pitching staff, the full impact would not be immediate, as he and his battery mates would need time to acclimate to one another. Unless Varitek’s new team could definitely use his intangibles to push them from hopeful to contender, he is worth some amount more to Boston than he would be to another organization. Ignoring offensive contributions, the “difference” between Varitek and another option was too steep for the Sox to ignore in a division that features strong New York and Tampa Bay ballclubs. While the Sox were obviously willing to pay considerably more than any other club (which was zero), it’s not enough to simply call this “overpaying.” They were not bidding against the other 29 teams, they were essentially bidding against Varitek’s desire to sit out (until after the draft at least) and then latch on with another ballclub.
Though it’s been speculated that Varitek is now “all but certain” to finish his career with the Red Sox, that’s not necessarily true. He and Boras were seeking a four-year deal prior to this offseason, and if Boston declines Varitek’s 2010 option, he could decline his player option and attempt to secure a two-year deal with another club if he feels the market is right. He’d have to post real improvements in his offensive numbers, though, and that’s rather unlikely. He should be at least a little bit better in 2009. He made remarkably poor contact with the ball last year: his staggeringly low 13.6% Line Drive Rate was the worst in the majors (min: 400 PA), and he no longer has the power necessary to make good on the type of high Fly Ball Rate (44.5%) that he posted last year, as just 9.7% of those fly balls made it over the fence. 13 home runs is a small sample size, but HitTracker classified 5 of them (38%) as having “Just Enough” distance to clear the fence; the league average is 27%, so we might have expected Varitek to have closer to 11 home runs. His high K% (28.8%) and low Contact Rate (76%) appear more decline than fluke, so Varitek probably won’t post a significantly higher Batting Average in 2009, even if he reverses course on his Line Drive Rate somewhat. His ceiling for this year is about .250; after his miserable 2008, reaching that mark would make Boston’s front office very happy.
With no other real suitors, Boston’s offer was good enough to compel Varitek to return to the team for at least one more season. Regardless of whether he leaves the game after 2010, this is almost certainly his Swan Song in a Boston uniform. He is taking a severe pay cut because he has to, and Boston can now begin to phase him out while taking the time to find his replacement. Hopefully Varitek himself will assist whoever is set to take his role while posting a slash line in the .250/.340/.400 range. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be given closer to 300 PA or closer to 500 PA. Barring a disastrous spring showing, he’ll probably be on the northern side of 80 games started, but performance could change that. As the deal indicates, it’s time to stop thinking of Varitek as an everyday catcher.
When a man can earn himself fame and fortune even in the twilight of his physical abilities, he can nary be asked to quit at his peak. He should also expect a salary commensurate not with his reputation, but with his measurable abilities. Such is the nature of the game these days, and though fans thirst for heroes, they don’t need that hero to be you; home runs count just the same off everyone’s bat. In rejecting salary arbitration, he lost his shot at a paycheck that would be decided by his last paycheck, which is considerably larger than he’ll ever again be receiving. It was an unfortunate gaffe, and while Varitek is probably not happy with the deal he wound up with, the truth isn’t always all that pleasant. All is not lost, of course. He can erase the negativity. He is not want to complain, and if the Red Sox fare favorably in the next two seasons, he will probably have been a positive contributor now that Francona can pick his spots and protect him from tough righties, the biggest offensive hole in his game (a switch-hitter, Tek eked out a .201/.293/.323 against RHP in 2008, with a 102/39 K/BB ratio). Whether its Josh Bard or George Kottaras or Miguel Montero or Taylor Teagarden, Varitek is in a position to school his successor in the finer points of catching a baseball, handling a staff, and leading a team. Fans have loved Varitek for a decade plus, and now desperately want him to accept his diminished role with honor and class, the hallmarks of his public persona throughout his time with the club, so that they may carry him on their shoulders into the pantheon of Red Sox Heroes. In Game 6 of the 2008 ALCS, Varitek hit the eventual game-winning home run in the top of the 6th against James Shields. His postseason average was .118, and his offensive woes overshadowed that brief moment of glory. His position with the ballclub tempered, fans will be expecting less now; ironically, they will be expecting pride, leadership, and virtue, the very things that no one was terribly willing to pay him for in the first place. Throw in some lukewarm batting lines, and you’ve got yourself the making of a happy ending, the genesis of a Big City Legend — if such a thing can still exist.