In Ryan Lavarnway's first full year of professional baseball, he led the Red Sox' farm system in home runs.
The feat is perhaps less impressive than it sounds. It only took 21 bombs to do so, with 2009 seeing a noticeable dip in that category amongst Sox minor leaguers thanks largely to the departure of a number of Quadruple-A types. His main competition would be Ryan Kalish, whose 18 longballs required an extra 100-or-so plate appearances to accomplish (Lavarnway spent his year trading starts behind the plate with Tim Federowicz, recently traded to Los Angeles as part of the Erik Bedard deal), and the year after that he would be topped by Anthony Rizzo with 25.
Still, it was a statement that demanded the attention of the organization and its fans, if not one that couldn't be seen coming. The Ivy League's most prolific home run hitter, Lavarnway came into the system as a sixth-round draft pick in 2008 who for all appearances seemed destined for designated hitting. That's a pretty tricky stigma to overcome by virtue of the bat alone, but Lavarnway's feat was not something that could be ignored. Yes, he was a college hitter in Single-A Greenville, but the farm system had failed to produce a true power bat since Kevin Youkilis half a decade ago. Add to the ability to dream of him behind the plate, and Sox fans had themselves quite the sleeper prospect.
Since then, Lavarnway's rrise has been...quick, to say the least.Blowing through his stint at Salem with the help of some improved plate discipline, posting numbers arguably more impressive than the ones he had in Greenville. The Sox didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a promotion this time, moving him up to Double-A in the middle of the season. In his first exposure to the level which has proved an insurmountable road block for so many prospects before him, Lavarnway flourished. Driving in nine runs in his first five games and fourteen at bats, Lavarnway actually performed better in his short sting at Double-A than he had in Salem, bringing his home run total up to 22-one higher than in his system-leading year.
An early slump to start 2011 couldn't keep Lavarnway down for very long. Now the premier power bat in the system with Anthony Rizzo gone to San Diego, Lavarnway surged back, earning a promotion in mid-June to Pawtucket. As was the case with his last promotion, the increased challenge did nothing to slow the now highly-regarded prospect down. Up until his last couple of weeks in the minors, Lavarnway maintained an OPS over 1.000, becoming the first Boston minor leaguer to slug 30 home runs in a season in years in his very last game before receiving the call to the Majors.
That particular number he achieved in just 417 at-bats-about two-thirds of what one might expect to see as a Major League starter.
Once again, Lavarnway has shown few signs of letting the promotion cause him any trouble. After starting 0-for-4, he's picked up five hits in just eleven at bats, drawing two walks while working around the rookie-sized zone that's been inflicted upon him on occasion. The most impressive show came in his last at-bat Sunday afternoon, when he flashed his power by cleaning out an inside fastball with an uppercut swing that knocked the ball off the very top of the wall in Kansas City. He'll have to wait a little longer for his first Major League homer, but we can certainly see that he's got what it takes to hit a good few of them for Boston.
The only question now for Lavarnway is whether or not he can cut it behind the plate. Quite frankly having that be up-in-the-air is something of an improvement from when he first entererd the farm system. While he's likely never going to win Golden Gloves, it seems likely that at this point the widespread opinion of Lavarnway's defense is built more from his earlier reputation that the present reality. While national outlets will likely stick to the story of Lavarnway as being about as useful behind the plate as a cardboard cutout of Jason Varitek, outlets closer to the source that actually see Lavarnway play are consistently hearing about and even speaking to his improvements there. And, indeed, we can see it in the numbers too. After allowing a 72% success rate to opposing base stealers and giving up 26 passed balls in 66 games in Greenville, Lavarnway has steadily improved in both categories. This year, in 58 games behind the dish, the young catcher has thrown out 35% of would-be base stealers, and allowed just seven balls to get past him. While there's a lot more to catching than just throwing out base stealers and catchign the easy pitches, dramatic improvements in those categories can't be overlooked.
And, really, what are the Sox' standards behind the plate anyways? They've entered the last two seasons with Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia as their primary backstops, and while Saltalamacchia has shown some improvement of his own back there, neither one was picked up for their ability with the glove. He may not be destined for it, given the presence of Saltalamacchia, but if Ryan Lavarnway proves to be the next in a long line big-offense Sox catchers, it's hard to imagine anyone will be complaining.