NEW YORK — Ryan Lavarnway’s reputation preceded his promotion. He spent the better part of two seasons blasting Triple A pitching. The former Yale star’s offensive prowess was well-established, dating back to his days as the Ivy League’s all-time home run leader, but never got the chance to play a full schedule behind the plate as a catcher.
One by one, the inquiries about his defensive capabilities are disappearing as Lavarnway spends more time in the majors, developing his relationships with Red Sox pitchers, honing the necessary nuances demanded of big league catchers.
“It’s definitely a mental grind,” said fellow catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has been splitting time since Lavarnway’s call-up from Pawtucket. “You have to focus on the pitchers, that's No. 1, but at the same time you want to do well offensively to help the team. I wasn’t playing every day. It’s kind of like what we’re doing now. Couple on, couple off. It’s tough, but ultimately it makes you a better player, because you have to work at it and continue to grind.”
Lavarnway has found teachers in bullpen coach Gary Tuck and Saltalamacchia, picking their brains about pitch selection and asking them to evaluate the 25-year-old’s performance at this level. So far, the reviews have been positive.
“We’ve talked a lot,” Saltalamacchia said. “It’s only been a week or so since he’s been here. He’s asked me a lot of questions, trying to get better every day. It’s tough to see myself as a mentor, being 27, but you can look at it that way. Any advice I can give him is good.
“It’s only been a couple of games, but he looks good. Looks a little more agile behind the plate, a little more flexible. He’s doing a great job calling games and stuff, and swinging the bat. Production’s been pretty good as far as I’m concerned.”
Earlier this month, Baseball America’s annual minor league tools survey named Lavarnway the International League’s best defensive catcher, a testament to the work he has put in to prove wrong those questioning his shortcomings.
“My focus this year was to make a statement defensively,” Lavarnway said. “It was just acknowledgment of the work I’ve put in, just focus and getting better every day.”
Lavarnway caught 80 games for Pawtucket this season, 14 more than he had in any minor league season. But thanks to a new postgame physical routine, taking care of the everyday ailments before they become bigger issues, the physical toll often associated with arguably baseball’s most grueling position has not taken.
“He’s made big improvements,”reliever Clayton Mortensen said. “I think having a veteran staff down in Triple A has helped him along the way. How to call games, what sequences guys like to throw, he’s adapted real well. He caught on real quick to how I like to approach games. Since he’s been up here, he’s caught some really good games for us. He’s done a great job.”
He has only started four games at catcher and is hitting .129 since his promotion after going 1 for 3 in Sunday’s series finale 4-1 loss in New York. But he oversaw Jon Lester’s strong seven-inning outing Saturday and earned enough trust from manager Bobby Valentine to start again at catcher and bat fifth Sunday.
Twice during Saturday’s 4-1 win, Valentine noticed Lavarnway taking charge to positively “change the way the ball was rolling.”
The Sox promoted Lavarnway Aug. 1, thrusting him into a three-catcher situation with Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach.
But in trading Shoppach to the Mets for pitcher Pedro Beato Wednesday, they offered further validation of plans to have Lavarnway behind the plate in the near future.
“Well, it’s up to Bobby who plays every night, but both guys are important to us moving forward,” general manager Ben Cherington said of Lavarnway and Saltalamacchia.
“I think we’ll see both of them in there. What the split is, that’s up to Bobby. When Lavarnway came up and after we traded Shoppach, we talked about the opportunity to get Lavarnway in there, just to get to know things a little better at the major league level.”
Alex Prewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.