How much does a catcher contribute to a pitcher’s success? There was an attempt to quantify the answer to this with a statistic called catcher ERA, but the numbers for catchers varied too much from year to year for the stat to be trusted as an accurate statistical tool. If anything, the statistic suggested that catchers are pretty much going along for the ride, and catcher ERAs merely mirror the relative merits of pitchers.
If that’s the case, Jeff Torborg was a particularly lucky guy, but not as lucky as Jason Varitek, who last night surged ahead of Torborg and eleven other catchers to become the all-time leader in no-hitters caught. (As Gordon Edes points out, one of the other catchers with three no-hitters caught, Ray Schalk, was for many years credited with being a part of four no-hitters, but one of those was a game in which his pitcher lost his no-hit bid in extra innings; in 1991 such games were no longer considered no-hitters.) I was actually surprised to hear that there were so many catchers who had been a part of three no-hitters, since the first and only guy I think of when I think of multiple no-hitters caught is Jeff Torborg. This may be because of this card, which includes, on the back, Torborg’s tepid major league statistics (.214 lifetime batting average with 8 home runs in 1391 at bats) along with a couple lines of text at the bottom: “Jeff caught 3 no-hitters in his career . . . by Sandy Koufax (1965), Bill Singer (1970), and Nolan Ryan (1973).” I didn’t know much about Bill Singer, but I did know that there were no more impressive names from the pitching world than Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax, and Jeff Torborg had been on hand to collaborate with them at their most superhuman. Though this did rescue Torborg in my mind from total anonymity, I doubt I gave him much credit for his feat. All he had to do was catch immortal fastballs.
I’m sure it’s bias that makes me want to give Jason Varitek credit where I gave Jeff Torborg none. But bias aside, Varitek does have the list of names of the no-hitter pitchers he’s worked with (a fading Hideo Nomo, an erratic Derek Lowe, and two talented but very young pitchers in Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester) as a mark supporting the claim that he had something to do with their success. Also, throughout his career both pitchers and coaches have remarked at length about Varitek’s ability to positively influence pitching performance. Maybe everyone saying it has made it a fact. All I know is that as I sweated out the last few outs of the game last night I was glad the captain was behind the plate.
As for Torborg, shown here at the beginning of his long and mostly featureless managerial career, I no longer think first of him as an extra in stories of no-hitter greatness. This changed for me around the time Ray Schalk was dumped back into the pile of three no-hitter catchers, in the early 1990s, when Torborg became the manager of the New York Mets. He ended up presiding over a colossal Mets failure that season, but what I remember most is the defining moment of his bright and hopeful first press conference. The phrase he uttered, about a newcomer to the team, came to loom over the ruin of the season like a curse.
“Just wait’ll you see Bill Pecota,” Torborg proclaimed.