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Lavarnway’s catching on as PawSox's primary backstop

June 8, 2012

Ryan Lavarnway

PAWTUCKET — There was Ryan Lavarnway the other day, sitting in PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler’s office along with Chad Epperson, the Red Sox minor-league catching coordinator. The seating arrangement resembled that of an atypical boardroom meeting, with Beyeler staring directly at Lavarnway from his behind-the-desk vantage point while Epperson occupied the plush leather couch to the right of 24-year-old.
The door to Beyeler’s place of off-field business at McCoy Stadium was completely open. On what was a predetermined off night for Lavarnway, the timing seemed perfect to hold a huddle-up session between the catching prospect along with the two talent handlers.
These past few months for Lavarnway in Pawtucket have resembled the requirements needed to obtain a master’s degree. For the first time in his pro career, he is the undisputed number one catcher. No more timeshares, no more splitting the reps with a peer close in age, circumstances that Lavarnway undoubtedly grew accustomed to as he progressed through the ranks.
The date that everything changed for Lavarnway was April 15 of this year, when Boston designated Luis Exposito, 25, for assignment. By taking Exposito off the 40-man roster and replacing the second catching slot in Pawtucket in the person of 35-year-old Mike Rivera, Lavarnway was being told without directly receiving a memo that Pawtucket’s pitching staff was being entrusted to him.
Speaking shortly following the aforementioned confab in Beyeler’s office, Epperson agreed with the suggestion that becoming the primary backstop represented the last frontier in Lavarnway’s development.
“If you’re the guy everyone is talking about, you have to play every day. That was probably the only thing he didn’t have checked off on his résumé,” Epperson stated. “Now that he’s been able to get that chance and show that he can do it, I think he’s padded the résumé.”
With any catcher, it’s all about striking dichotomy between catering to a pitcher’s needs and making sure one’s own offense doesn’t fall into complete remission. As Lavarnway quickly found out, seeking out that routine that allows him to serve his primary two masters, that of the PawSox pitchers and himself, was something that he was going to have to figure out on his own.
At least in the early going of this final crossover into establishing himself as bona fide big-league catching material, Lavarnway would have to place the pitchers’ needs ahead of his own. If that meant forgoing a session with PawSox bullpen catcher Greg Grall or not heading to the batting cage for some extra swings, so be it.
“The one thing about Ryan is that he just never feels that he gets enough work in,” remarked Epperson about the overzealous nature of his primary pupil. “We talked for 40 minutes (on Thursday) about that happy medium where he feels like he gets his work in, but he’s not overworking himself. That being said, I’d rather have to reel him in than try to find him, and this is a guy you definitely have to reel in.”
Building a trusting relationship with the pitchers, that’s what Lavarnway was striving for and something that Epperson believes his pupil has made substantial gains in over a relatively short period of time.
“When he was sharing time with Exposito or Tim Federowicz [a former Red Sox minor-league catcher who was traded to the Dodgers at last year’s July 31 trading deadline], it might be 15 days before he sees that pitcher again,” Epperson said. “I will say that these [Pawtucket] pitchers have definitely bought into him and it’s not just because he’s Ryan Lavarnway. It’s because of the way he’s gone about his business.
“Pitchers watch and they’re smart,” continued Epperson, primarly a catcher during his nine-year pro career. “He’s going out there night after night and putting them first. He’s reading swings, dissecting (opposing) hitters and more importantly, he’s in the dugout in-between innings and talking to the pitcher.”
Those “put your trust in me” moments have also extend to the pitchers-and-catchers-only meeting that PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur conducts prior to the first game of a new series. As Epperson noted, Lavarnway has not been afraid to voice his opinion in said setting.
“He’s making sure that they’re taken care of before grabbing a bat,” Epperson stated matter-of-factly.
As Lavarnway sought to polish up his game-calling skills, he did so at the expense of his power numbers. Beyeler still made it a point to slot Lavarnway in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, but as May turned to June, so too did the realization that through 41 games, he had just two home runs and 17 RBI appearing next to his name.
Where did the power that helped Lavarnway maturate into one of the most regarded prospects in Boston’s farm system drift off to? Such concerns have subsided through the first four games of the current month, where he has compiled five extra base hits (three doubles, two home runs) and five RBI.
“Everywhere he’s gone, he’s been known for his bat,” Epperson said. “He feels like he’s an everyday catcher in the major leagues and he’s out to prove that to everybody, but I’m just real happy where he is as an all-around player.”
Such a statement speaks volumes about Lavarnway’s penchant for incorporating what many in the Red Sox organization undoubtedly feel is the last hurdle for the Yale product to clear. He’s no longer viewed as strictly a home run threat, but as a catcher who thanks to his quick grasp of commanding respect from his pitchers has positioned himself on the periphery of a place where all Triple-A players yearn to reside.
“He’s put himself in a position where if something happens, he’s ready,” Epperson said.

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