Jon Lester’s no hitter this week has been plenty of fodder for bloggers everywhere. I’ll be no exception as this post was in part inspired by the performance of the young lefty on Monday night.
In this week’s episode of the Fireside Chats Red Sox podcast here on MVN, Paul lead off the show by using his ceremonial first pitch to honor the man behind the mask as the man behind Lester’s outing, Jason Varitek. Catching Lester’s no hitter must have felt like old hat to the Captain. The man’s caught more no hitters than any other catcher in the history of baseball; Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester.
Paul made the point, a point that has echoed around the Hub for a few years now, that Jason Varitek’s value calling games and leading a pitching staff is unparalleled. While his bat, although hot recently (.353/.452/.597 in the last 18 games), isn’t what it once was, Tek’s grizzled leadership is palpable in the heart beat of this team.
While Paul and I lauded Varitek’s four no-hitters, we also thought about the games that he caught that might have been better pitched than any of those. The two that came immediately to mind were Pedro Martinez’s 17k, perfect if not for Chili Davis’ 2nd inning solo shot, outing against the Yankees in 1999 and Curt Schilling’s 8 2/3 of no hit ball in Oakland last year.
Thinking more about this in the days since the podcast, I got more and more curious. What was the best game that Jason Varitek has ever caught and where does Jon Lester’s no-hitter rank in that list?
Whenever I am in a bind I always know there is one place I can turn too to find the answers that haunt the recesses of my mind; Baseball Reference.
I have always liked Bill James’ game score statistic for measuring single game pitching performances. The only place I think it falls short is the lack of understanding of quality of the opponent’s lineup or context of the situation. Clearly a late season battle against the Yankees that yields eight innings of shut out ball is a better pitched game than a Tuesday night in April against the Orioles with the same line. We’ll hold onto that thought for later for now.
Aside from those minor shortcomings, game score does the job it was meant to more than adequately. For those not familiar with the statistic, game score is defined by Baseball Reference’s glossary as follows;
“Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.”
Essentially anything over 80 is a great start, over 90 is dominant, and over 100 is out of control.
Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I looked at the top 50 game scores by Red Sox pitchers in the time Jason Varitek has been the Red Sox catcher (1998-present). Normally I would share the link to that list here…but where’s the drama in that? I think it’s time for an old fashioned count down!
Before we get to the list, a few housekeeping items;
- Jason Varitek has caught the 27 best Red Sox pitching performances as measured by game score since he took the mask in 1998. It wasn’t until an “86” by Pedro Martinez in 1998 caught by Scott Hatteberg in the #28 spot on the list that I found a game not caught by Tek.
- Pedro Martinez owns three of the top five, five of the top ten, sixteen of the top twenty-five, and twenty-nine of the top fifty game scores on the list. How’s that for dominant.
- All four no-hitters are in the top ten, but none in the top four. Go figure.
- Only one of the top twenty-five pitching performances ended in a loss and it was a game I was at in Fenway Park on 5/6/2000 that witnessed Steve Traschel out duel Pedro Martinez 1-0 despite 17 K’s by the master on (photo below by me is submitted as evidence #1).
Without further ado, let’s get to the top ten game score of Jason Varitek’s career (also the top ten pitching performances by a Red Sox pitcher in the past ten years).
10. 9/21/1999 – Pedro Martinez (GmSc 91) Boston defeats Toronto 3-0. Pedro throws a complete game shut out throwing 120 pitches allowing three hits and two walks while striking out twelve Blue Jays.
9. 4/27/2002 – Derek Lowe (GmSc 92) How does a 97 pitch no-hitter with only one walk between Lowe and a perfect game only rank number nine on this list? Lowe and the Red Sox beat down the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays 10-0, but only six strike outs take a few points away from Lowe compared to the rest of the pitchers on this list. I’ll amend my previous statement about game score to now include, favors strike out pitchers. We all know that a dominant Lowe isn’t getting K’s he’s getting ground balls.
7. (tie) 4/11/1998 – Pedro Martinez (GmSc 93) The Fenway Park faithful are treated to another gem by Petey as he goes the distance giving up two hits and two walks while striking out twelve Mariners in a 5-0 win over Seattle. Then Mariner Alex Rodriguez was 1-4 with two K’s that day.
7. (tie) 9/1/2007 – Clay Buchholz (GmSc 93) No-hitter number two goes off the board early. Only three walks for the rookie blemished his outing against Baltimore and in game score terms, it was enough to knock off the points of three of his nine strike outs.
6. 5/19/2008 – Jon Lester (GmSc 94) What else can we say about Lester’s outing? Nine strike outs, two walks, no hits…
5. 4/4/2001 – Hideo Nomo (GmSc 95) Nomo-mania made it’s debut in Boston in a big way. In the second game of the season, Nomo’s first with Jason Varitek behind the plate, Nomo struck out eleven Orioles against three walks starting his Boston career with a no-hitter and a bullet.
2. (tie) 9/10/1999 – Pedro Martinez (GmSc 98) Pedro Martinez may own twenty-nine of the top fifty starts on the list of best Red Sox starts over the past ten years, and he owns the three games tied at the number two spot with a game score of 98, but the masterful Dominican doesn’t own the top spot. Of his three “98s”, this one was possibly the most dramatic and is often referenced as one of the most dominant starts of all time. The Red Sox sat 6 1/2 back of the Yankees facing their rivals in Yankee Stadium in September. Pedro Martinez would give up a second inning home run to Chili Davis (costing him 4 game score points) and then toss the most dominant start I have ever seen. Seventeen strike outs and zero baserunners later, the Red Sox walked away with a 3-1 win.
2. (tie) 5/12/2000 – Pedro Martinez (GmSc 98) The Baltimore Orioles didn’t stand a chance this day as Pedro had his best stuff allowing only two hits, one to Albert Belle and one to Jeff Conine. Those would be the only two batters that would reach base as Pedro wring up fifteen strike outs as the Red Sox cruised to a 9-0 win in Camden Yards.
2. (tie) 8/29/2000 – Pedro Martinez (GmSv 98) In a start that epitomized the Pedro Martinez era, Petey opened up the game by hitting Gerald Williams with a pitch exacerbating the bad blood then brewing between the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and the Sox. He wouldn’t allow another baserunner until a John Flaherty single to lead off the ninth ruined his no hit bid. Ho-hum, another complete game shut out with double digit strike outs (13 Ks).
1. 5/25/2001 – Hideo Nomo (GmSc 99) OK…if this were one of of Evan’s trivia questions, I never would have guessed it. How good was Hideo Nomo his first two months in a Red Sox uniform? Good enough to wrap up two of the top five pitching performances of the last decade of Red Sox baseball. Only a Shannon Stewart fourth inning double broke up a night of pure domination against Toronto. Nomo would strike out fourteen Blue Jays on his way to the top spot of best caught games in Jason Varitek’s career.
I would imagine that if you asked the captain which of these games stood out as the best game he ever caught, he would hold a sweet spot for Jon Lester’s recent no hitter and Pedro’s 17 strike out game against the Yankees. I bet he would even have a game or two that stood out to him that never made this list.
For me, I don’t think Pedro’s September gem against the Yankees can be topped. Damn that Chili Davis!
One thing is clear, Jason Varitek has been a cornerstone of this franchises best performances for the past decade. While the future is never certain, if Varitek were to finish his career wearing the familiar #33 with a “C” on the front shoulder, I would have to consider immortalizing his career as one of the most important in Boston Red Sox history. He’ll never be a Hall of Fame catcher, but he most certainly should, and I think will, be a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.