Veteran catcher's game-calling prowess draws comparisons to Varitek
BOSTON -- It all started with Jason Varitek.
Why the Red Sox haven't had offensive juggernauts behind the dish isn't exactly a difficult mystery to solve. Their starting catcher in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday -- an 8-1 Red Sox win -- was David Ross. He's caught Jon Lester's last three starts in the postseason, with Lester allowing three earned runs over 19 1/3 innings.
Ross hit a modest .216 this season, but he has a different type of value. He was worth $6.2 million over two years for other reasons.
The Red Sox's value the mind, and they know a catcher with a good one when they see it, as Varitek spoiled the organization with his.
"The most important thing is the pitchers understand that the catcher is fully invested in the pitcher on the mound at that given time," said Red Sox bullpen coach Dana LeVangie, who has spent the last 23 years with Boston in various roles. "That's what we've established here. We learned that way from Jason, his time here. That's what we're all about, first and foremost. The guy on the mound is the No. 1 responsibility. Anything after that, we take care of."
Varitek's last six years with the Red Sox never included offensive dominance, as he hit higher than .238 just once in those final seasons, but he kept coming back anyway. The thick binders he always carried with him represented just a fraction of his knowledge.
He made his name, earned his captaincy and made $2 million as a 39-year-old who hit .221 because of what he did behind the plate, not at the plate.
Varitek understood his pitching staff.
In came Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the middle of the 2010 season. Saltalamacchia had to learn.
"It's not easy," Saltalamacchia said. "You have to get familiar with their pitches, what they like to do. It may take some time. But there comes that time where you just click."
The Red Sox then added Ross, a 12-year veteran with a career .236 average, in the 2013 offseason.
Immediately, they knew they had another guy who fit the Varitek mold. Pitchers trusted him.
"David has been doing it a long time, a lot longer than I have," Saltalamacchia said. "He has a great idea behind the plate. He knows that's what he does well. Not a great year offensively last year, but he knows the No. 1 priority is pitchers. He made a great career out of it. He knows that first and foremost, and that's what makes him so special. It allows the pitcher to trust him, knowing that."
Ross said learning how to catch Lester was easy. But during the year, Lester had a 4.11 ERA with Ross behind the plate and a 3.58 ERA while working with Saltalamacchia.
Why? Lester's cutter is such an important pitch for him. When it's working, the entire approach changes. He can throw it backdoor or inside to a lefty. The game plan is constantly changing, and the catcher has to feel it.
"You can work so many different angles," Saltalamacchia said. "Especially that curveball, but when it's not on, you have to try to fight through it and see what you can do."
On Sept. 3, the Ross-Lester combination paid its biggest dividend yet: Lester shut down the Tigers, holding them to one run over seven innings while striking out nine.
Since then, Lester has worked with Ross almost exclusively.
"For whatever reason, me and him have kind of fallen into a little bit of a pattern, a little bit of a routine together and it's worked," Lester said. "And we'll just keep riding it out until the end."
Said manager John Farrell, "They've really developed I think a really good rapport. Their ability to read swings and make some adjustments from at-bat to at-bat or each time through the lineup. And we did it in the two games that Jon pitched against Detroit. So everything right now would point to that same tandem."
Lester was at his best again on Wednesday. Ross noticed it early, but the Red Sox were out to a 5-0 lead after two innings and Ross feared Lester might let off the gas.
"I told him after we scored five, we said, 'Hey, we have to keep putting the pressure on, keep making our pitches,'" Ross said. "We can't just lay heaters in there. And he said, 'I know.'