I believe Red Sox catcher and occasional designated hitter Ryan Lavarnway will ultimately become a very good hitter at the highest level in the game. It may take some time for Lavarnway to complete the transition between facing Minor League pitching as opposed to Major League Baseball.
Lavarnway was a sixth-round selection of the Red Sox in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. Lavarnway, a huge, highly athletic player at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, played college ball at Yale University. He majored in philosophy.
There aren't many philosophy majors in professional baseball.
In his freshman year at Yale, Lavarnway compiled a statistical line that included a batting average of .467 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs. He was an Ivy League All-Star and made the third team All-American team. Lavarnway was an outfielder at the time.
Realizing he didn't have the required speed to be a professional outfielder, Lavarnway converted to being a catcher, where he has played since.
Born in Burbank, Calif., the right-handed-hitting Lavarnway turned 25 in August. He could figure very prominently in the Red Sox's plans.
Lavarnway's first year of professional baseball did not produce the same offensive results as his college experience. He hit only .211 with two home runs for Lowell in the New York-Penn League. But he went to the plate only 71 times.
I saw Lavarnway when he and Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco appeared in the Arizona Fall League during the 2010 season. Scouts and player development personnel couldn't help compare the two, because they were both offensively capable catchers on similar career paths. Remarkably, they had similar fall seasons.
Like Mesoraco, Lavarnway flashed a very capable power bat in the short Arizona season. He hit .268 while hitting three home runs and driving in 12 runs in 82 at-bats covering 21 games.
Lavarnway caught 169 innings that fall, but he showed a need for more concentration and a need for work on his mechanics behind the plate. I'll discuss more about his defense later. For now, however, offense is what will allow Lavarnway to become a credible Major League player.
To begin, Fenway Park is very well suited for Lavarnway's short, measured stroke. Playing half his games at Fenway, Lavarnway's mechanically sound, slight uppercut swing is well suited for banging balls off the Green Monster. However, like every right-handed hitter who has played in that park, he will have to control his stroke and not become tempted to extend and lengthen his swing, thereby losing control along the way.
That's a challenge that has faced most Fenway Park hitters. The high and relatively close left-field wall is just so tempting.
Lavarnway has good pitch recognition, a factor that will help him utilize the power generated from his large, broad shouldered, athletic frame. Using patience at the plate, seeing more pitches and being selective has helped Lavarnway increase his walk rate and decrease his strikeouts.
In fact, at Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Lavarnway struck out only 62 times in 367 plate appearances. That's an outstanding achievement for a player with Lavarnway's raw power and ability to drive in runs.
By making contact and putting the ball in play, Lavarnway extends his own value to being a capable designated hitter/pinch-hitter, as well as a catcher.
Because Lavarnway covers the plate well and knows the strike zone, he is able to use the entire field as a solid gap hitter. I look for him to be able to hit the right-center gap in Fenway Park when he takes outside pitches for extra-base hits.
Lavarnway is a work in progress. He is still learning the basic components of his swing as well as the mechanics of being a Major League-quality catcher.
I think at this point of his developing professional career, Lavarnway is an "offense first" catcher. However, he is improving defensively.
When I saw him in the past, Lavarnway's greatest defensive difficulty was with his footwork. He showed an average, but capable arm behind the plate. His throws had sufficient carry and accuracy.
Again, like his counterpart Mesoraco, Lavarnway did have trouble blocking balls in the dirt. He was rather slow "popping up" to begin his throw to second or third during basestealing attempts.
Lavarnway is better now at both. At Pawtucket, he threw out 32 percent of the potential basestealers this season. He had eight passed balls. He is working hard at both aspects of his game.
Lavarnway played in Boston last season, appearing in 17 games and hitting .231. This year, he is hitting .162 in 110 plate appearances covering 31 games since his recall.
Lavarnway will need some time to adjust to better quality pitching. He will need some time to learn the pitchers he will face from an offensive standpoint.
Of course, Lavarnway will need time to learn his own pitching staff so he can best shepherd them through games. Being a capable receiver and calling a game are critical components of being a dependable Major League catcher.
Boston is a team in transition.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is only 27. He's had a good year offensively -- especially hitting the long ball. At this point, he is likely to return next season as the Red Sox's primary catcher.
Lavarnway is adjusting to the game at the highest level. Without a doubt, he could easily become a very capable backup.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.