‘Personal’ touch last resort

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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It can be as easy as a knuckleball. It can be as complicated as comfort. Usually, as Yankees catcher Russell Martin put it, “It’s a feel thing.’’

When the relationship between the starting catcher and a starting pitcher doesn’t work, teams sometimes turn to “personal catchers,’’ though it’s a rare move because it can leave a team without its best offensive matchups and with less flexibility in the lineup.

But it has almost become the norm in Boston, with the Sox using a personal catcher for Tim Wakefield — even going so far as to get Doug Mirabelli back via trade and police escort — and now turning over Josh Beckett to Jason Varitek.

“It’s an extreme when there’s a personal catcher, but there’s certainly data and statistics and a comfort level with pitchers that is very real and tangible,’’ said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher. “It’s very tangible that this guy performs better with this guy catching.

“I think that’s the last resort because that’s when you’ve exhausted every option with the other catcher, it’s just not working out, and you’ll kind of funnel those two guys in together.

“It’s certainly nothing you just jump into.’’

Varitek has been on both sides of the issue. He has had to work day games after night games, or other games when it didn’t make sense for the starting catcher to play, because Wakefield’s starts didn’t fall perfectly on the calendar. And now, while the Red Sox have a more healthy rotation with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Varitek has been behind the plate for all but one of Beckett’s starts (for a 1.66 ERA).

“It’s just dramatized a little bit more right now, but you want all your pitchers to feel comfortable and trust and do those things to make them better,’’ Varitek said. “Does it? I don’t know.

“Salty did a pretty good job with him. There are going to be times when he’s going to have to catch him, I’m going to have to catch [John] Lackey, I’m going to have to catch [Jon] Lester.’’

It can limit matchups and days off. It can also produce benefits. And it can last for years, as seen in famous pairings such as Tim McCarver and Steve Carlton in Philadelphia and Eddie Perez and Greg Maddux in Atlanta.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to put the best lineup out there for your team, which is offense, defense, and the intangibles that go along with that,’’ said Mariners manager and former catcher Eric Wedge. “If that works and you want to run with it, you can. But it kind of hogties you in certain respects, too, if you want to put a different type of lineup out there.

“I’ve done it myself a few times. If something’s really working and you need to roll with it, that’s what you do.’’

In the end, managers are striving for results. And if a pitcher is significantly more comfortable with a particular catcher — and if the numbers back that up — it’s something that must be considered.

“It’s something that if all the data, the feedback you’re getting, seeing guys’ work points in one direction, you certainly have to consider it because it’s too important to the success of a club to ignore it,’’ Scioscia said. “You can’t just say it’ll work itself out. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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