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Saturday, February 28, 2004

Because the history of catchers' careers is so consistent, so clear, that even the most ignorant of baseball executives can't ignore what will probably happen to Rodriguez within the next two or three seasons.

Statistically, the three most similar players to Rodriguez through age 31 were Ted Simmons, Yogi Berra, and Gary Carter. Throw Johnny Bench and Bill Dickey into the mix, and the forecast is inescapable: great-hitting catchers generally don't remain great hitters once they're into their middle 30s.

Rob Neyer concludes that the nine greatest hitting catchers' performance dropped a cumulative 31% when comparing their numbers at age 28-31 and 32-35. Obviously, Rob Neyer is analyzing Pudge Rodriguez’s deal with the Tigers but it should be applied to Jason Varitek’s contract situation as well. V-Tek.com does not have the same track record as Pudge or his comparables in Neyer’s piece but the outcome is the same. Here is a list of Tek’s comparables with significant playing time and their AVG OPS+ from age 30-32 each year follows in brackets, then from 33-35:

Aaron Robinson – 135 (141/147/118) – 100 (95/119/87)
Sandy Alomar – 87 (74/127/59) – 86 (111/82/65)
Darrin Fletcher – 104 (115/91/107) – 76 (116/60/52)
Mike Macfarlane – 101 (107/86/111) – 77 (85/79/66)
Don Slaught – 114 (94/132/116) – 116 (146/112/90)
Roy Campanella – 117 (121/155/75) – 108 (153/89/81)

By just comparing the three year averages, two players did not decline, three dropped more than 25% and one, Roy Campanella, slipped at little. Campanella was included in Neyer’s article or the aforementioned 31%, so I’ll discontinue analyzing of the HOFer’s career. The three that dropped significantly are further of evidence of Neyer’s theory. The two others, Sandy Alomar and Don Slaught, need further discussion.

Slaught was never a full-time catcher. He was a backup with a good stick. Slaught’s lack of at-bats in both subsets eliminates him as a good comparable to Tek. As for Alomar, his age 33-35 seasons were cut short due to multi-injuries playing in only 207 games over the three years; not enough data. (Some of the comparables listed above did have fewer at-bats in the age 33-35 set. The lack of at-bats was, mostly, caused by their lack of production at the plate which is further proof of a big decline in performance for catcher as they age. Thus, the general small sample size issue should be ignored in this analysis.)

Jason Varitek can certainly buck the trend by putting up 100+ OPS+ seasons at age 33-35, but the Vegas odds are against him. Many media members report that Tek has tremendous value in the clubhouse and with the pitching staff. I do not doubt that, but it can’t be easily measured like homeruns and translated into dollars. Assuming Tek's intangibles do not diminish, it is still a big risk to sign him to a fair market extension - Javy Lopez's deal at $22.5 million and three years is likely the mark - with the history of catchers in their mid-30's.

Another year of data on Varitek will only assist in evaluating his future and more importantly, the potential of Kelly Shopach. Currently, it is too risky to investment $20+ million in a player hoping that he will be the outlier among his peers.


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