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PAWTUCKET â€” Ryan Lavarnway has worn many labels since his dynamic Triple-A debut with the PawSox three summers ago.
Back then he was viewed as a long-ball threat whose catching abilities needed refining. To Lavarnwayâ€™s credit, heâ€™s made tremendous strides behind the plate, though some scouts wonder if itâ€™s come at the expense of his power. The 26-year-old clubbed a combined 14 home runs over the past two seasons between Boston and Pawtucket â€“ after belting 18 round trippers in only 61 games at the Class AAA level in 2011.
Due to the plethora of catching options the Red Sox boast at the upper levels of their farm system, Lavarnway is once again undergoing a perception overhaul. This time, however, the focus is on the mitts he dons and the new position that heâ€™s been learning on the fly since spring training.
It wouldnâ€™t qualify as a stretch to anoint Lavarnway as Pawtucketâ€™s primary first baseman. Sundayâ€™s game against Indianapolis marked just his seventh appearance at catcher. The bulk of his playing time has come at first â€“ with 16 games there.
â€śIâ€™m really pleased with how itâ€™s been going. I still consider myself a catcher and wish I wish catching more, but the way the roster is here, Iâ€™m happy with the amount of at-bats that Iâ€™ve been getting,â€ť Lavarnway ex-pressed.
â€śThe way I look at it and the way he should look at it is that heâ€™s a catcher who can play first base too,â€ť said PawSox bench coach Bruce Crabbe, who has played a substantial role in hastening Lavarnwayâ€™s education as a first baseman.
With a month-plus worth of games under his belt, Lavarnway has adapted just fine to his new defensive calling card, at least in the eyes of two PawSox talent evaluators who are around him on a daily basis.
According to baseball-reference.com, Lavarnway has committed two errors in 142 chances at first base.
â€śFrom day one of spring training until now, heâ€™s shown more range and the footwork is improving. The cutoffs and relays â€“ making sure youâ€™re in the right position â€“ weâ€™re seeing some adjustments on that end as well,â€ť said manager Kevin Boles.
Added Crabbe: â€śPeople think itâ€™s an easy transition to play first base, but there are a lot of things you need to learn as far as not just receiving balls, but positioning and knowing where to be on certain plays. At first base, youâ€™re involved in just about every single play.
â€śRyan is a very smart guy and he out-thinks himself at times, but once you get the reps and see the balls during the game, you begin figuring it out that itâ€™s not so much mental. You have to do a lot of physical stuff over there,â€ť Crabbe delved further.
A telltale sign that Lavarnway has been able to grasp the many concepts that go into manning the infield was on display during a recent PawSox home game. With the locals protecting a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning against Buffalo, Lavarnway delivered a perfect relay throw to catcher Christian Vazquez to cut down the potential game-tying run.
â€śThat was the first time I had ever had that play. I think some of my catching instincts took over there with the quick release and the accurate throw,â€ť Lavarnway recalled.
â€śThere are times early on that he may have been a step or two late in position, but heâ€™s rehearsing before the pitch is thrown and once the ball is in play, heâ€™s reacting accordingly,â€ť Boles said.
The area with the steepest learning curve so far has been Lavarnwayâ€™s footwork around the bag â€“ not surprising for someone who prior to this season, was not required to make much lateral movement.
â€śThe lower half of his body probably needs the most work because heâ€™s been a catcher. Heâ€™s never had to move. For the most part, his footwork and hips have never had to be there for the most part,â€ť Crabbe noted. â€śThatâ€™s something that just doesnâ€™t come naturally to people. You have to work on agility-type actions as far as in the training room, but something like this, itâ€™s taken a lot of diligence on his part to do this and approach it with a good mental attitude. I think heâ€™s done that.â€ť
Thereâ€™s an industry trend to shift more catchers to the infield, at least in part-time roles, stemming from the need to preserve players for the long haul rather than seeing their careers cut unexpectedly short. Three examples of catchers undergoing said conversion are Bostonâ€™s Mike Napoli, Minnesotaâ€™s Joe Mauer and Clevelandâ€™s Carlos Santana.
As Crabbe pointed out, onetime Red Sox outfield prospect Brandon Moss is a prime example of someone who found a new lease on his professional baseball life after relocating to first base, the position he plays every day for Oakland.
â€śThat shows you what can happen when you become versatile,â€ť said Crabbe.
For a Red Sox farmhand who once seemed have his path to the major leagues all mapped out, Lavarnway has slowly but surely warmed up to this new wrinkle. If first base is going to open doors that at one time recently may have appeared closed tight, heâ€™s completely on board.
â€śMy dad always told me growing up that if youâ€™re the second best player in the world at your position and your teammate is the first best player, you have to learn how to play another position,â€ť Lavarnway said. â€śHe always preached versatility to me and that it can only help you. I think itâ€™s a good thing.â€ť
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