August 22, 2010

On Baseball: The catcher from Yale is a lock to improve

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - He has tried to read Immanuel Kant in the clubhouse, but Ryan Lavarnway "decided that wasn't the best atmosphere to seep through that."

click image to enlarge

Ryan Lavarnway made an immediate impression when he was promoted to the Portland Sea Dogs last month, then cooled off, but he expects to improve.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Ryan Lavarnway, who also played outfield in high school and college, has been working on his defense with the Sea Dogs. The Red Sox performed a makeover on his mechanics.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

So Lavarnway might read a Clive Cussler novel and save the philosophy for later.

But he will return to philosophy, which was his major at Yale. And Lavarnway doesn't glance though the material, nor does he go for the lightweights.

"I like stuff I have to read two or three times to understand it," Lavarnway said. "That always is fun for me."

Terms like "quick and easy" don't resonate with someone like Lavarnway, who turned 23 this month and is in his sixth week as a catcher for the Portland Sea Dogs.

With a Yale degree, Lavarnway could have sat back and watched career doors open. Instead he left Yale after three years and is trying to overcome the odds of being a minor leaguer making it to the majors.

Lavarnway's situation is all the more difficult because he's a relatively inexperienced catcher out of the Ivy League, trying to move up in an organization full of catching prospects.

Yet Lavarnway is rising, reaching Double-A faster than most of his predecessors at the position, and earning an invitation to the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League in the offseason.

"He's made some huge strides," said Chad Epperson, the Red Sox minor-league catching instructor. "His work ethic is second to none. You challenge him with something and he's going to get it done.

"The reason he's where he is today is because he likes the challenge.

"He's made himself into the prospect we wanted him to be, that we were looking for and hoping for down the road."

The Red Sox are loaded with catching prospects, players destined to land major-league jobs -- Dusty Brown and Mark Wagner in Triple-A, Luis Exposito in Portland, and Tim Federowicz at advanced Class A Salem.

But Lavarnway has reached Portland after only 1½ seasons in Class A. Only Exposito, 23, accomplished that.

Lavarnway got off to a torrid start with Portland after his promotion July 15 but has cooled to a .257 average. Still, he has three home runs and 23 RBI, and his on-base percentage is .375.

Expect Lavarnway to improve. He always does.

"Every year in Little League, every time I got moved up to a new division, the first year I'd struggle and the second year I'd succeed," he said.

The trend continued.

His first year of junior varsity baseball in high school in California's San Fernando Valley, Lavarnway struggled. The next year, he was the team's MVP.

First year of varsity baseball: struggled. Second year: All-League selection.

First year at Yale: A so-so outfielder with a .281 average. Sophomore year: All-America catcher, batting .467.

"I kind of feel like I'm smart enough and I'm driven enough and I'm going to work hard enough that no matter what level of competition there is, I'll always try to stay ahead of the curve," Lavarnway said.

"I've put up a lot of good numbers offensively, but I think that my offense has not caught up with the Double-A talent level yet."

Lavarnway has the plate discipline the Red Sox covet, so there's confidence his offense will come around.

The question mark always has been his defense.

Lavarnway, 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, was a catcher in youth baseball but played the outfield on his high school varsity team and his freshman year at Yale.

Lavarnway knew he was too slow to play the outfield, and Yale had an opening behind the plate, so he switched back to his original position.

When Lavarnway signed with the Red Sox in 2008 as a sixth-round draft choice, he got an immediate lesson.

"I didn't really know how far I had to go," he said. "I think it was eye-opening and motivational."

The Red Sox performed a makeover on Lavarnway's mechanics.

"He worked on getting set up in more of an athletic position," Epperson said. "That has cleaned up a lot of the stiffness in all aspects of his catching, from blocking to throwing to receiving.

"It took him some time. You have to realize this guy has caught one way for a long time. To change and be productive is a challenge. And he took it and he worked on it.

"When he saw success and he felt comfortable, I think that's when he took off with it."

Epperson said Lavarnway has a strong arm that will just get stronger as he learns to use his legs.

The speed of his throws to second base "are above average for a major-league catcher right now," Epperson said.

The Red Sox aren't the only ones noticing Lavarnway's improvement.

Before the season, prospect-rating groups like Baseball America and the website soxprospects.com had Lavarnway down the list on the catching depth chart.

Baseball America doesn't update its list during the season, but soxprospects.com now lists Lavarnway as Boston's top catching prospect (although the website isn't convinced of Lavarnway's defense, calling him a catcher/designated hitter).

The other catchers are hardly being cast aside, although Brown is out of minor-league options next year. He'll contend for a backup job in Boston or find another team.

Wagner, coming off surgery because of a broken hand, will be back in Pawtucket next year. Exposito, the Sea Dogs' RBI leader, is expected to join him in Triple-A. Federowicz is expected in Portland next season.

Lavarnway is no lock to keep moving up, but he's showing the right makeup in how he approaches the game, and the challenges it brings.

"Great kid," Epperson said. "This guy loves the game of baseball. Loves where he's at right now.

"When you get a combination of a guy who is very confident, very comfortable and intelligent, success is right around the corner."

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

kthomas@pressherald.com

 

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