Pierzynski Takes Over

One of the few newcomers on the Sox as they go for their World Series defense is the catching spot. It opened when Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who had perhaps his best season in the majors in 2013, signed a three-year, $21 million contract with Miami over the winter.

To replace Salty, the Sox brought in 37-year-old AJ Pierzynski, who made the Sox his fifth major league squad. In 16 seasons with the White Sox, Twins, Rangers and Giants, he has proven a very durable receiver. Since becoming a regular in 02, he has averaged 133 games per year, a high number for a catcher. Though not known as a power man, he has averaged 26 doubles per year, a figure which might increase in Fenway. Pierzynski comes to Boston with a strong lifetime average of .283, three times topping the .300 mark. HIs strikeout totals are fairly low, a big change from Saltalamacchia. AJ has also led the league three times in fielding percentage for a catcher.

Pierzynski's personality has sometimes overshadowed his exploits behind the plate. In 2012 he was rated "the most hated player in Major League Baseball." This label stems from numerous incidents, beginning with an alleged kneeing to the groin of the Giants trainer during spring training of 04. Two years later there was a "Punch AJ" campaign from the White Sox, which had a double meaning. His team meant it as an all-star vote, but the term originated in a collision with Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, where a Pierzynski knockdown at the plate precipitated a bench-clearing brawl resulting in five ejections. There also have been stories of AJ running to first on the inside of the base, resulting in the spiking of the Twins' Justin Morneau.

The catcher's position is, of course, a very important one. Unfortunately, the post- WW2 Red Sox era is not loaded with great receivers. The best one, of course, was Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Fisk was a regular in Boston from 72 to 80, when front office bungling resulted in his defection to Chicago. During that time, he batted .284, reaching highs of 39 doubles (1978), 5 triples (76 and 78), 26 homers (73 and 77), and 102 rbi's (77). He was a Rookie of the Year, a seven-time all-star, and four times received top 10 MVP votes. A fine fielder, he was often high on Gold Glove lists. After leaving Boston, Fisk played 13 more years with the White Sox. He retired in 93, holding more than a dozen all-time catching records and the MLB career mark for homers hit after age 40. It is no surprise that the Sox contended for the pennant five times in his Boston career and won it in 75. Footage of his World Series homer against the Reds is among the most famous in

baseball history.

The only modern catcher to approach Fisk's achievements is Jason Varitek, who was a Boston regular for 14 years. Though his totals do not approach Pudge's, he was a three-time all-star, averaging 22 doubles, 14 homers, 54 rbi's (including 4 times over 70), a .254 average and .435 slugging percentage. He also spent several years as team captain, a position which eluded Fisk in Boston. Varitek's best seasson was in the magic year of 04, with 73 rbi's and a .296 mark. Eight times his Sox teams made the postseson, twice winning the Series. His 1488 games caught is the most in the Sox' 113-year history.

The Sox are taking a bit of a chance with Pierzynski, largely because of his age. He has been quite durable, however; the Sox apparently expect more than 110 games from him, with David Ross the backup.

Though neither Pierzynski nor Saltalamacchia will approach the figures of the top catchers in baseball, their presence on the Sox shows what the team should have known all along- an effective catcher can have a huge influence on a team. The days when Boston would hope to get by with a Mike Macfarlane, John Marzano, or Tony Pena appear to be over.

About Matt O'Donnell