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May 3, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Lavarnway working hard to perfect defense

Ryan Lavarnway (Kelly O'Connor)
As he came up through the lower levels of the minor league system, Ryan Lavarnway’s defensive prowess was a question mark. There was little to no doubt that he had the offensive talent to have success at the Major League level, but as a catcher, that’s merely a bonus as the onus will always be placed on what he does behind the dish.

Over the past few seasons, Lavarnway, 24, has established himself as the top catching prospect in the organization due to his offensive prowess. His defense has also been particularly magnified since the Red Sox have struggled to throw runners out over the past few seasons. Even though there is still room for improvement, there is no doubt that Lavarnway has made remarkable progress behind the plate, and people are noticing.

Who better to speak of Lavarnway’s improvements than a pitcher who has come up through the system throwing to him? Alex Wilson, drafted only a year later, has seen Lavarnway call his games since 2010.

“He has come leaps and bounds behind the plate,” Wilson said of the 6-foot-4 catcher. “When I was first throwing to him he struggled a lot—basically the whole idea of catching. Now he understands what he needs to do. He has really gotten a lot better at calling games and really understands how to handle his pitchers now. So he’s improved greatly, and it’s been a benefit for me because I’ve thrown to him the past three years.”

SoxProspects.com Director of Scouting Chris Mellen discussed Lavarnway’s developmental needs necessary for him to stick permanently at the major league level in his Prospect Preview earlier this season. While he agrees that Lavarnway has shown strong defensive progress since signing, Mellen still sees need for improvement in order for him to be a full-time catcher in the majors.

“He struggles with breaking balls in the dirt, often boxing them around rather than controlling them,” wrote Mellen. “He can be slow coming out of his crouch when throwing, which slows him down and takes away from his solid-average arm. He also needs work with the positioning of his glove to set up correctly so pitchers have a target for throwing strikes.”

Lavarnway is conscious of his weaknesses, but has been working hard to improve.

“The biggest thing that I changed was my stance,” said Lavarnway. “I gave myself a more athletic base, I got more flexible in my hips especially, and giving myself more of a chance to let my body work with itself instead of against itself. That helped me improve my blocking and my footwork when I throw and also allowed me to sway a little bit back and forth with my receiving, which helps me get to more balls.

“I’ve learned more about opposing hitters and learned to gauge how my pitchers are throwing on a given day and work towards their strengths and then the hitters weaknesses instead of trying to just exploit a weakness first when it might not be a pitcher’s strength.”

Lavarnway had a particularly impressive spring training this season, where he batted .455 with a .500 on-base percentage. But with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach splitting time behind the plate, there is no way Lavarnway would be able to have consistent at-bats at the major league level.

In Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Lavarnway is batting a respectable .260 with a .375 on-base percentage. He has been heating up over the past 10 games, posting a .316 average.

Triple-A Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler believes that Lavarnway has what it takes to make it at the major league level.

“All he does is catch the ball, block balls, and throw people out,” he said. “[His defense] is very consistent. He’s solid, he keeps getting better, [and] he works very hard at it.

“He’s a smart kid, he’s just learning to read swings and getting to know hitters. He does a good job—he’s kind of that sleeper guy, but he’s solid. The whole package is really good.”

Players and coaches alike have noticed Lavarnway’s improvements behind the plate, and Lavarnway is still working hard to perfect the remaining flaws. If he can remain consistent both behind the plate and in the batter’s box, Lavarnway will soon make his case for his own spot on the 25-man roster.

Elizabeth Dreeson is a special contributor for SoxProspects.com Follow her on Twitter @Eli_Dreesox