Jason Varitek’s role with the Red Sox has been difficult to define for a few years now.
He was listed as a “special assistant to the president of baseball operations” in the 2019 media guide but ended up spending most of that season around the major league team, although he wasn’t officially a coach.
In 2020, he was “special assistant/catching coach” and was with the major league team for all 60 games, although again not officially as a coach.
Now he’s a member of the coaching staff as the game-planning coordinator, a new position for the Red Sox.
Throw the titles out. Varitek, 49, is doing what he did for 15 years as a player: supporting the manager by finding ways to win. For years that was Terry Francona. Now it’s Alex Cora.
“It’s great. I love it,” Varitek said during a recent interview while seated in the stands before a game. “As bad as things were last year, I enjoyed it. As tough as 2019 was, I was there for 120 games, and I enjoyed it.
“AC’s been great. He delegates a lot of responsibility, and he engages all his people. It’s a good group of kids, or I should say young men.”
Varitek’s main focus is distilling all the scouting and analytical information that’s available into a package that the catchers and pitchers can best use to their advantage in preparing for games.
As a player, Varitek kept binders of information in his locker with breakdowns of opposing hitters that he could refer to. Now that can all be done in seconds.
“It makes you appreciate the coaches we had — the Brian Butterfields and Gary Tucks — because they did it all with manual labor,” Varitek said.
“You still have to do manual labor to find some of it — nobody can watch videos for me. But it’s easier. The information has always been there since I’ve been playing. Now it comes from the analytics department. Add pro scouting and advance scouting and mix it together and you have one pretty strong circle.”
Christian Vázquez said Varitek works with him throughout the game, discussing pitch sequencing for the next inning and tendencies he has noticed.
Vázquez joked that Varitek has become like a second father.
“We’re always talking,” Vázquez said. “He’s still the captain, right? He’s somebody I trust because of how well he knows the game. He’s been great for us.”
Over the course of the season, Matt Barnes, Garrett Richards, and Garrett Whitlock are among the pitchers who have credited Varitek with a suggestion that made a difference during the game or helped them get over a rough patch.
Varitek also works with Vázquez and backup catcher Kevin Plawecki on their fundamentals. As an organization, the Sox are now teaching their catchers to set up with one knee down to improve their receiving.
That stance also allows catchers to be more fluid moving to block balls.
It was something Varitek worked with minor league catching instructor Chad Epperson to implement starting in spring training.
“I wish that had been around when I was catching,” Varitek said. “I had skepticism at first but there are a lot of advantages.”
Varitek said the stance doesn’t so much help steal strikes as it does keep pitches in the strike zone by not reaching for them. For catchers who have always used the traditional squat, their throwing mechanics have to be adjusted and that takes time.
Having one knee down also is easier on the body. In Vázquez’s case, it could get him more starts this season than he would have gotten otherwise.
“The traditional way is a lot of work,” Varitek said.
Because Varitek has two World Series rings, caught four no-hitters, and was the team’s last captain, his credibility with the players is instantaneous.
Where does this lead next? Bench coach Will Venable seems sure to be a managerial candidate after the season. Varitek is well-positioned to be moved up to bench coach.
Or perhaps he’ll pursue managing.
“That seems to be always the question,” Varitek said. “I love what I’m doing. I don’t know when that will be or if that will be. I enjoy what I’m doing. If that’s something that happens, I’ll be ready for it when that time comes.”
ON THE VERGE?
Jays will benefit being in Buffalo
Beware the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays.
After playing 21 home games at their windblown spring training park in Dunedin, Fla., the Jays relocate to their Triple A stadium in Buffalo on Tuesday.
The stability will be welcome.
Toronto entered the weekend only 5½ games out of first place despite having used 13 starting pitchers and getting only four games out of George Springer, their big offseason acquisition.
“I’m really proud of this team with everything we’ve gone through,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Everybody has done great at different times.”
The Jays have used the injured list 23 times for 22 players already this season with Cavan Biggio, Rafael Dolis, Robbie Ray, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Ross Stripling among those also missing time.
They also gambled on the health of Kirby Yates, signing him to a $5.5 million contract despite concerns about his elbow. He was lost for the season in spring training.
“There’s been a lot of people hurt in the big leagues, but we’re one of the teams that has had more transactions than any other team,” Montoyo said. “To be where we are with this many guys getting hurt, it’s a big compliment to this club and the players we have.”
Rookie Alek Manoah threw six shutout innings at Yankee Stadium in his debut on Thursday. If the 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound righthander improves what has been a league-average rotation, the Jays will be a threat to the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is building a case for MVP and has been deft at first base after dropping 40 pounds. His turnaround has been dramatic.
Marcus Semien, who moved to second base to accommodate Bo Bichette, has been the team leader they hoped Springer would be.
“They put an emphasis on character, and he’s been terrific,” team broadcaster Buck Martinez said. “He and Bo have been together every day and they work well together on the field.”
Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, a helpful player earlier in his career, has an .899 OPS since the start of last season.
The core members of the team came up together and they’ve weathered being unable to play in Toronto. An older team probably wouldn’t have reacted as well. But the Jays are like a college team, they show up and play.
“No complaints,” Montoyo said.
The Jays need more from left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and the hope is Biggio’s worrisome neck injury will clear up while he’s on the injured list.
BACK TO TRIPLE A
Chavis still needs work
Michael Chavis’s effusive personality makes him a favorite among some Red Sox fans, so it’s understandable why his demotion this past week after 11 games and 33 plate appearances caused some consternation.
But it’s pretty simple. Chavis hit .264 with an .858 OPS and 28 RBIs over his first 38 major league games in 2019. He made a big impact.
His OPS plunged to .699 in the 57 games that followed that season as opposing teams got a look at him and went to a steady diet of high fastballs.
Since 2020, Chavis has hit .223 with a .658 OPS and stuck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances.
You want to see a 25-year-old player improve, not regress. The defensive versatility isn’t there, either. The Sox trust him only at first base and second base.
They tried left field last season and that went so poorly it wasn’t revisited in spring training. To be part of a three-man bench, a player needs more than two defensive options.
Manager Alex Cora has placed an emphasis on situational hitting this season. It’s a small sample size, but Chavis was hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position and struck out three times. He also hasn’t shown a good two-strike approach.
First-round picks always get plenty of chances to succeed. But Chavis was taken back in 2014 under Ben Cherington. The current administration isn’t tied to him.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Is it time to wonder if Chris Sale will pitch more than a few games this season?
“We believe that he’s going to contribute this year. And I know that he wants that, too,” Cora said on Wednesday.
The Sox have been sparing in their updates about Sale going back to when he was first injured in 2019. Part of that is Sale does not want information released. But there’s also not much to report.
He has started throwing off the mound but hasn’t faced hitters. It has been 14 months since Sale had surgery and nearly 22 months since he last appeared in a game.
If Sale is built up as would be typical for a pitcher during spring training — two rounds of live batting practice followed by five or six starts — that would take 35-40 days.
That could mean a late-July return. But given his earlier setbacks and how cautious the Sox are being, August could be more realistic.
▪ Jason Varitek on games now being played in front of bigger crowds: “I’m so glad I don’t hear the white noise anymore. The buzz of the crowd is a beautiful thing, and these guys are better for it. They appreciate it.”
▪ Since the start of the 2017 season, Franchy Cordero has played only 245 games counting the minor leagues. At 26, he’s still an inexperienced player because of all the injuries he’s had.
Now that he’s in Triple A, Cordero will get a chance to play every day and the Sox will see what they have in him.
It may not be much. Cordero has hit .222 with a .678 OPS in 129 major league games. He has size and speed but not much feel for what he’s doing. His swings are awkward and even when he makes a play in the outfield, his steps are unsure as he pursues the ball.
But the Worcester coaches could unlock his talent.
Hill adds chapter to his career
Rich Hill became the oldest player to appear in a game for the Tampa Bay Rays when he faced the Royals on Tuesday at 41 years, 75 days. That was two days older than Wade Boggs in 1999.
Hill went eight innings, allowed two runs on six hits, and struck out a career-best 13 without a walk. The lefthander threw 74 of 99 pitches for strikes, 25 of them swinging.
Hill joined Nolan Ryan (13 times), Randy Johnson, and Gaylord Perry as the only pitchers with 13 strikeouts at that age. Hill and Ryan (three times) were the only ones to do it without a walk.
Unfortunately for Hill, he took the loss as the Rays managed only one run.
“The strike-throwing was off the charts,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He had an electric fastball. I wish he had gotten the win.”
Typically, Hill credited his defense after the game and focused on the run-scoring single he allowed to Salvador Pérez in the sixth inning that decided the game.
“I have to make better pitches. That’s really what it comes down to in that situation,” Hill said. “This isn’t just to come out here and have a fun day at the ballpark. It’s to win baseball games.”
Since making his comeback to the majors in 2015, Hill is 46-24 with a 2.99 ERA over 105 games.
Hill is averaging 88.9 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball but throws it only 44 percent of the time. A curveball opposing hitters can’t barrel up remains his signature pitch.
Hill is the second-oldest player in the majors to Albert Pujols, who has him by 54 days.
“Come to the field and put in the work. Just put in the work every day,” Hill said. “The one thing I pride myself on is to make your lows minimal and stay the course during the season.”
The Indians lost Zach Plesac for at least 4-6 weeks with a broken right thumb, the result of what manager Terry Francona said was “aggressively ripping off his shirt” before a game. Plesac and Mike Clevinger were optioned to the alternate site last August after breaking COVID-19 protocols and lying to teammates about what they did. Clevinger was traded to San Diego later that month and you wonder at what point the Indians will decide they’ve had enough of Plesac … Mike Yastrzemski has an .871 OPS in three seasons with the Giants. His defense has been stellar, too. Yastrzemski has four Defensive Runs Saved, the most in the National League. “Fundamentally he’s very sound,” a scout said. “He knows what he can do and what he can’t do.” … Oakland manager Bob Melvin went into the weekend with 797 victories, two shy of moving past Tony La Russa for second in franchise history. There will be no catching Connie Mack, who had 3,582. But at least Melvin will have the most in Oakland until they leave, which is looking increasingly inevitable … The process of electing people to the Baseball Hall of Fame is not perfect, far from it. Some BBWAA members — like the three still-unidentified writers who didn’t vote for Ken Griffey Jr. — are out of touch and there’s still too much cronyism within the different versions of what used to be known as the Veterans Committee. But baseball is doing pretty well compared to basketball, which somehow has Chris Bosh and Ben Wallace in its next Hall class … For years, the White Sox had a small seating area near a concession stand at Guaranteed Rate Field named after Loretta Micele, who worked for the team for more than six decades selling beer and hotdogs before dying in 2014. But “Loretta’s Lounge” was changed to “La Russa’s Lounge” to honor La Russa, the current manager. La Russa is in the Hall of Fame, has won three World Series, and was voted Manager of the Year four times. Does he really need a seating area in a dingy ballpark named after him? What a terrible message to team employees, too … Simmons University recognized Yankees radio broadcaster Suzyn Waldman with an honorary Doctor of Journalism degree during its virtual commencement on Friday. Waldman, a Newton native, is a 1968 graduate of Simmons and a baseball trail blazer, having covered the Yankees since the 1990s … Happy birthday to Manny Ramirez, who is 49. He last played in the majors in 2011 but has since either played games or practiced with teams in Australia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Taiwan. Just this past week he was taking cuts at a field in Miami and at a complex north of Orlando. Ramirez is 15th all time with 555 home runs … Red Sox infielder Christian Arroyo is 26. The former first-round pick seems to have found a home after playing for the Giants, Rays, and Indians.