Over 15 seasons, a ritual took place in a corner locker of the Red Sox clubhouse. Jason Varitek, highlighters in hand, would devour a three-ring binder of information in advance of a game.
While Varitek played on several boisterous Red Sox teams, with loud cross-talk among teammates, a cone of respectful silence surrounded his work. No one wanted to disturb the remarkable intensity he brought to an academic undertaking.
“I was afraid of Jason,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was a teammate of Varitek’s from 2005-08. “I never went to his corner. I have so much respect for him.”
Varitek was, in the words of Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush, “way ahead of his time.” He maintained nearly perfect recall of every pitch he’d ever called against an individual hitter, creating a rich database of information from which to draw.
On top of that, he engaged numerous members of the organization — coaches, teammates, advance scouts, video advance scouts, front office members — in search of more information. He would distill all of that information and sit down for a conversation with that day’s starter to establish a plan of attack.
That preparation inspired reverence. Pitchers rarely shook off Varitek.
“He would pretty much come up with and formulate his own game plan,” said Red Sox co-director of international scouting Todd Claus, who worked as an advance scout in 2007-08. “It was a pretty unique skill set.”
In many ways, this positioned Varitek perfectly for his role on the Red Sox coaching staff in 2021. Shortly after Cora’s return in November, Varitek was named the team’s game planning coordinator, officially becoming a full-time member of the big league staff after eight years as a special assistant to the general manager and catching coach.
Varitek’s appointment merely affirms how his day-to-day role with players has grown. He estimates that he spent about 110 games with the team in 2018 and 2019, then was with them for every game of the 2020 season. The role of game planning coordinator was a natural outgrowth of a combination of his skills, his role in recent years, and the explosion of information in the game.
The sheer volume of information, layered on top of video work to focus on tendencies, is immense — particularly if a pitching coach wants to work directly with pitchers on finding the right mechanics and shape for pitches.
“We’re looking at a lot of information — certainly more than what one person can do by themselves,” said Bush. “It’s more than what I can do my myself, for sure.”
The limiting factor of time, along with the value of having multiple perspectives, has resulted in an expanding circle when it comes to game planning. Within that circle, someone like Varitek — who has experience distilling massive amounts of statistical and scouting information and making it digestible for players — can make an enormous contribution.
“There’s more information, there’s different things to adapt to, but it still comes down to getting that in a usable form to get these players to be the best versions of themselves, the way they do it and the way they can comprehend it and utilize it,” said Varitek.
“Things have changed over time, from some of the human elements. But it still [comes down to] execution and ability to throw strikes and pitchers’ ability to use their stuff. A different flavor, but it’s baseball.
“It’s all combined together as one. The more those entities work together, the better the end product is.”
The number of contributors to a pitching game plan is far-reaching — from Cora to members of the analytics department to video advance scouts to coaches involved in defensive positioning.
“It’s one big collective team,” said Varitek, “but you have different spokes to hit different avenues and ultimately come up with the same thing: getting people out and winning baseball games.”
The final report on how to attack an opponent will be assembled by Bush, bullpen coach Kevin Walker, and Varitek. They are entrusted with communicating plans of attack to the pitchers and catchers, while emphasizing that those on the mound and behind the plate have the freedom to go off-script.
“It’s important that the players know that whatever information we have is not just being spit out by a computer and spreadsheets,” said Bush. “It’s been digested by a person, we understand it, we think it’s the right stuff, and we’re available to talk through it.
“We’re not scripting plays. We’re not telling them what they have to do. We’re giving them information we think can help them make good decisions.”
Bush and Walker are responsible for handling the communication with pitchers about the game plan, while Varitek will work chiefly with the catchers to discuss both the plan for individual hitters and adjustments necessitated by what’s happening.
Communication among the coaches is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of a strategy. Varitek will help validate and process the information developed by other members of the organization behind the scenes.
“I really couldn’t think of anybody better in today’s game to decipher the information and filter it,” said Claus.
“He’s still the captain,” said Cora. “He walks around and there’s a presence about him.”
That presence, the Sox hope, can help make a difference — much as it did during Varitek’s playing career. For his part, Varitek hopes to derive the same satisfaction in his coaching career that he did as a player — chiefly in helping other members of his team to thrive.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with A.C. again. It’s just a joy.
“I love watching these guys perform and do well, when the work they put in shows up on the field. It’s about them. It’s about the player. It’s not about me.
“If we all come together as a group to give them the best opportunity to be the best version of themselves, then we’ve done our job.”