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April 1, 2010 at 8:00 AM

Q&A with Ryan Lavarnway

In his first full season as a professional, Ryan Lavarnway had a fantastic offensive season in Greenville in 2009, hitting .285 with 21 home runs and 87 runs batted in over 104 games en route to being voted the SoxProspects.com Offensive Player of the Year. That offensive output was even more impressive considering that, the prior season, the former sixth-round pick out of Yale had been slowed by a wrist injury suffered in the spring, limiting him mostly to just 22 games, 12 at designated hitter, in Lowell after signing. Lavarnway, currently SoxProspects’ 28th-ranked prospect in the organization, sat down with Chris Hatfield in Fort Myers after a long day of practice last week to discuss going pro from the Ivy League, the work he is putting in to improve defensively behind the plate, and what players do in their spare time during spring training. Many thanks for Ryan to going out of his way during his down time to meet up and chat.

Chris Hatfield: The Ivy League isn’t exactly a professional hotbed, although Yale does have Craig Breslow in the Majors and there are a few guys from other Ivy schools out there. When you committed to Yale, what did you think in terms of how that would affect your baseball future and professional aspirations?
Ryan Lavarnway: Coming out of my junior year of high school, to be honest, Yale was my only legitimate option to play baseball. I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. I was still playing outfield and I didn’t really run fast, so I wasn’t really a pro prospect at that point. I was always a very strong student, so education was always a high priority of mine. When Yale called and I was given that opportunity, there was no way I could pass that up.

CH: You started catching at Yale, what led to that switch?
RL: My sophomore year, I asked my coach if I could start catching because at that point, I had started to become more of a pro prospect with my bat. I knew that, realistically, outfield wasn’t going to be an option with the limitations of my foot speed. I had caught some in Little League and on the junior varsity team in high school, so I knew I enjoyed catching.

CH: That year you played about half-and-half (catcher and outfield), and started catching full-time your junior year. How did that adjustment go at first, and did you have trouble picking the position up again?
RL: I’ve always really enjoyed catching. I’m a thinker – I like to be involved in every play. I like the aspect of calling pitches and trying to pick small things up like hitches in opposing players’ swings, or helping a pitcher get back on track if he’s lost his arm slot. Catching helped me feel the rhythm of the game more. It also helped me learn the strike zone better as far as my hitting goes.

CH: Your junior year ended when you injured your wrist on a play at the plate (as a runner). Going into the draft, did you think that affected your status, and how was the scouting process for you?
RL: Before the injury, I was talking to a lot of teams, a lot of scouts, and I was getting questionnaires and phone calls. Once I hurt my wrist, most of the teams pretty much wrote me off and said, “we’ll see you next year.” There was really the Brewers, the Red Sox, the Yankees, and maybe one or two other teams that were still interested. They said, “we’ve seen this injury before, and we’ve seen guys make full recoveries relatively quickly.” There was less interest, but seeing there was still some interest made me feel good about the impression I had made earlier.

CH: After you were drafted by the Red Sox, you were limited in Lowell, only doing a little bit of catching. Then last year in Greenville, you came out and had arguably the best offensive year of anyone in the system. In fact, our community members voted you as the Offensive Player of the Year. What adjustments did you make to go so quickly from being limited by your injury to not only adjusting to pro ball, but excelling?
RL: Well, even in Greenville there were still a lot of adjustments that I made throughout the year: I started using a bigger bat, and I straightened my stance out a lot. But I think that when I was in Lowell, even though I felt 100 percent and thought I was 100 percent, I wasn’t really completely strong to the point I was before. I’ve got to give a ton of credit to the coaches, (then-Greenville Hitting Coach) Billy McMillon and (Minor League Hitting Coordinator) Victor Rodriguez, who worked with me and let me hold on to the strengths in my approach and tweaked the things that were weaknesses. It’s still an ongoing process. There’s still a ton of adjustments I need to make. You don’t have a year like last year and all of a sudden you’re in the major leagues – by all means I’m not there yet, but that’s the place I’d like to get to.

CH: Of course, the other half of the game is defense. Where do you feel you’re at defensively right now? What are you working on, and what do you feel comfortable with in the defensive half of the game?
RL: That was definitely my biggest weakness last year. Going into the offseason, that was the number one thing that I wanted to focus on and spent the most time thinking about, and that’s what I’ve spent the most time on in practice and in Spring Training. I think the biggest thing for me is getting into a better squat, a better starting point. That will allow my hands to receive better, allow me to get better footwork to second base, and get a more athletic base to block and move better to each side. I’ve been working a lot with Chad Epperson, the new catching coordinator, continuing from what I was doing last year in the spring. I’m happy with the progress that I’m making and continue to make. I watched a lot of video of Mauer and Varitek, and I try to emulate the things that I think they do well. That’s the style I’m trying to get.

CH: You played for much of last year and, depending on how the assignments go, could play much of this year with Tim Federowicz. With the two of you guys coming up the ladder together as catching prospects, how has that relationship been? Do you have a friendly rivalry? What’s the dynamic?
RL: I think Tim’s great. He’s a great guy, a good clubhouse guy. I like him a lot – we play cards together as partners in Spade games. I have a lot to learn and I can learn a lot from him because he does a lot of things very well back there. I think that I am better for him being around. I don’t think there is a better catcher than him in the minor leagues, and having him around definitely raises the standards (for me). I can only hope he feels the same.

CH: Now, as for spring training in Fort Myers… there’s a few nicknames we’ve heard about how boring it gets down here. How do you guys stay sane during spring training?
RL: I think the biggest thing is, when you get away from the field, you need to get away from the field mentally as well. Peter Hissey, Ryan Dent and I are living in a beautiful house, and the neighbors have been nice enough to lend us their kayaks, so we go out fishing on the lake every day. That’s a nice way to clear your head.

CH: I ask because I get this myself sometimes, but do the guys bust on you at all for being the Ivy League kid?
RL: If I misspeak, I get “oh, you went to Yale supposedly?”, or if I use a word of more than three syllables then it might get thrown out there. But for the most part, that was an initial reaction, and now that I know all the guys it’s more of a thing of the past. We’re just baseball players who are all in this together trying to get to the major leagues.

CH: Last question. We ask this in all of our interviews: what one teammate has impressed you the most?
RL: I’d say Tim. Catching, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone throw like that. That’s the one thing that he does that impresses me more than anything. It’s incredible the way he throws it.