Friday, December 30, 2016

Hall of Fame thoughts: Catchers (Jason Varitek)

Two posts on catchers on the Hall of Fame ballot; one on former Twins on the ballot. And now, one on a third catcher on the ballot who could -- should -- have been a Twin: Jason Varitek.

The Twins had back-to-back picks in the first round of the 1993 draft, picks number 20 and 21. With the first of the two picks -- which came from Cincinnati, which had signed free agent John Smiley -- the Twins selected Torii Hunter. We know how well that turned out.

With the second pick, the Twins chose Varitek, then a junior at Georgia Tech. Varitek was "advised" by Scott Boras, and he wound up returning to school for his senior year. The next year, Varitek was drafted by Seattle, which traded him to Boston three years later in one of those "what-were-they-thinking" trades that echo down the years: Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb. Either Varitek or Lowe for Slocumb would have been a steal; both was simply ridiculous.

Varitek made his major league debut later in 1997 (one at-bat); he shared the catching chores in 1998 with Scott Hatteberg and became Boston's No. 1 catcher the following season. He never played a major league game for any team other than the Red Sox, and it's not easy today to imagine him in any other uniform. But it could have been otherwise.

Another catcher broke in in 1998: A.J. Pierzynski. He didn't really emerge as the Twins No. 1 catcher until 2001, however. Imagine an alternative universe in which Varitek/Boras and the Twins agreed to a deal back in 1993 and that Varitek's timeline to the majors was unaltered. What, then, happens to Pierzynski's career? There's a story that at the end of the 2001 season Tom Kelly told Pierzynski that he had never believed that Pierzynski would be a major league catcher but that A.J. had proven him wrong. It's possible that, had Varitek signed with the Twins, Pierzynski would have been blocked from the career he wound up having.

And if that happens, the Twins and Giants never get to make their "what-were-they-thinking" trade of Pierzynski for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. (Or maybe it gets made with Varitek instead of Pierzynski. The Twins were bound to make room for Joe Mauer at that point.)

Baseball Reference credits Pierzynski and Varitek with pretty close to the same career WAR: 23.3 for Pierzynski, 24.3 for Varitek, with Pierzynski's totals being dragged down in recent season. Neither is to be found in the other's similiarity score list, however, and Pierzynski's comps are in fact more impressive than Varitek's, with two Hall of Fame catchers prominent (Ernie Lombardi and Gabby Hartnett). It's an interesting question in retrospect: Which catcher would you rather have, Varitek or Pierzynski?

Failing to sign a first-round pick is not a recommended strategy for team building. But failing to sign Varitek worked out OK for the Twins -- and, obviously, for Varitek. Varitek will be one-and-done on this ballot. But he had a fine career.

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