PAWTUCKET — Greg Grall, the bullpen catcher for the Pawtucket Red Sox, describes Ryan Lavarnway, the catcher, as “raw, which gives him the upside of what he can possibly do. Obviously with his hitting, he’s going to have the potential of playing in any lineup. Now he’s just going to work on continuing to improve his defense. That’s the key.”
Grall has found a willing and eager pupil in the 23-year-old Lavarnway. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to shed the good-bat, no-glove reputation that has been his cross to bear dating back to his days at Yale and has remained affixed during his ascension through the Red Sox’ farm system.
Enter Grall, who in the month-plus Lavarnway has been in Triple-A has devoted many a sultry afternoon at McCoy Stadium tutoring the hot-hitting prospect in the finer points of the game’s most challenging and, in some respects, least glamorous position. The sessions have not been for naught. From working on releasing the ball much sooner to blocking balls in the dirt to improving his footwork, Lavarnway says Grall has proven an invaluable resource.
“Anytime I want anything, whether it’s this drill or that drill or talking about the mental side of things, (Grall) has been amazing for me and I appreciate it very much,” Lavarnway said. “Over the past couple of years I’ve established a routine with Chad Epperson [Boston’s catching coordinator], but since there’s not a lot of catching guys on (Pawtucket’s) coaching staff other than Greg, having him here on a daily basis helps me stick to my routine, and he throws in a couple of tidbits every once in a while.”
Working hands-on with promising catchers isn’t a new endeavor for Grall. A bullpen/batting practice coach with the Norfolk Tides from 2008-10, Grall was a witness to the remaining steps Matt Wieters took in becoming Baltimore’s everyday catcher and eventually an American League All-Star in 2011.
Asked to pinpoint that difference between Wieters and Lavarnway, Grall believes it comes down to a matter of reps. Wieters was labeled the Orioles’ catcher of the future upon being selected with the fifth overall pick in 2007, meaning he was going to receive the lion’s share of the playing time. Lavarnway has resided in an opposite universe, as shuffling between catching and DH has forced him to seek alternative routes in his pursuit of becoming better.
“Ryan’s in a situation where he can continue to grow,” cautioned Grall. “There’s no dead end yet, which is a big factor.”
For Lavarnway, having a catching guru at his beck and call “is the whole key to everything, having someone there at any given time and say, ‘Hey, I need to work on this, let’s go,’” surmises Grall. “I’m around and he can bounce things off of me. [Reaching Class AAA] means you’re at that pro level basically and at a point where you need to start figuring out some things.”
The teacher-student relationship between Grall and Lavarnway has elevated to the point where Lavarnway is chomping at the bit to enhance his catching skills. The Red Sox are aware of the devotion Lavarnway has demonstrated in his pursuit to become a serviceable major league backstop, hence why Grall recognizes the importance of improving without the aid of repetitious drill work.
“It’s a good medium we have,” Grall remarked.
One way to gauge if Grall’s sessions are paying off is to swear by traditional stats. In 15 games as Pawtucket’s catcher —Lavarnway made his 16th appearance Tuesday night — he’s thrown out 29 percent of would-be base stealers with zero errors and two passed balls. Measuring progress strictly off numbers is not the only factor when it comes to charting Lavarnway, however. There are intangibles to pick up, jot down and reinforce after the night’s work is done.
Again, this is where Grall comes in handy.
“He’s learning how to work with the pitchers,” said Grall about where Lavarnway has taken the biggest steps forward, citing the quality of Pawtucket’s pitching staff as the reason way. “The job of a catcher is to make a pitcher happy. Look at Paul Bako. He was the personal catcher for Greg Maddux. At Triple-A you start building relationships and all of a sudden, things start to click that if you go up to the big leagues, you’re their guy.
“It was always taught to me that the pitcher comes first,” Grall added. “Ryan has the ability to make a difference in the game for his pitcher, which is a big factor. You put two and two together and you have a nice combination.”
There’s no question Lavarnway’s bat is major-league caliber. His OPS with the PawSox stood at an eye-popping 1.180 prior to his latest multi-RBI output Tuesday. If his defense can get up to speed with his offense, the Red Sox will be hard-pressed to keep him stashed in the minors.