In a sense, it was the verbal equivalent of a high-and-tight fastball — a pitch that sends a batter sprawling in the dirt to avoid getting beaned.
Or to put it another way, it was a proverbial wake-up call, one that in retrospect had a great deal to do with the development of catcher Ryan Lavarnway who was Boston’s sixth-round pick in the 2008 entry draft.
That’s the same Ryan Lavarnway who, last season, was named Boston’s Minor League Co-Offensive Player of the Year along with the since-traded Anthony Rizzo.
“I can actually trace a lot of my offensive success to one exact conversation,” recalled Lavarnway. “After my freshman year at Yale, my hitting coach (Glen Lungarini) challenged me. We were sitting there talking. I hit .296 my freshman year and led the team with six home runs. A lot of guys would have been satisfied with that. But I looked at it and knew I could do better.
“I told him, ‘You know what? I want to make All-Ivy next year.’ And he challenged me. He said, ‘All-Ivy? Are you serious? If you’re not an All-American by the time you graduate, I’ll be disappointed in you.’ “
Those were the only words Lavarnway needed to hear.
“Coach Lungarini really raised the bar to a level that I had never thought about before,” admitted Lavarnway. “He said ‘Every pitch that you take during summer ball, in the fall and the off-season, every swing you take whether it’s off a tee or soft toss, it’s got to be with a purpose. You’ve got to think why you’re doing it and how this is going to help you get better.’
“I remember that summer I was voted MVP in the Southern Collegiate Baseball league (a wood-bat league ala the Cape Cod Amateur League). That one conversation fueled me and gave me the fire for years. I still think back to that conversation if I catch myself in the batting cage not taking things as seriously as I could.”
Arguably, the last time Lavarnway didn’t “take things seriously” was before that conversation with Lungarini.
- He hit an NCAA-leading .467 during his sophomore year and became the Ivy League’s all-time career home run leader with 33.
- He was a semifinalist for the 2008 Johnny Bench Award (which is presented to the NCAA’s top catcher) and the Golden Spikes Award (which is presented to the nation’s top amateur player).
- In 2009 at Greenville, he led Boston’s farm system with 21 homers and finished second with 87 RBI.
- He split last season between Salem and Portland and hit a combined .288 (which ranked fifth in the system) replete with 22 home runs (which ranked second) and a system-leading 102 RBI.
Through his first 12 games this season with Portland, Lavarnway was hitting .220 with two homers and seven RBI.
Interestingly, Lavarnway didn’t become a full-time catcher until 2007.
“I caught some in Little League and on our junior varsity team in high school,” he said. “Then, our catcher went down in my freshman year at Yale and we had a senior catcher who graduated. The catcher who was in my class needed Tommy John surgery so he wasn’t able to play.
“There was an opening and I was playing right field. I told the coach (former major league pitcher John Stuper) one day, ‘You know what? I can catch. I enjoyed it in Little League so let’s see what happens.’”
But catching in Little League and catching at the NCAA Division I level is similar to the distance between the Earth and Mars.
“Coach threw me back there for a bullpen session and I had soft hands right away,” said Lavarnway. “He said ‘Let’s stick you back there.’ And it stuck.”
It stuck to the point where now Lavarnway is rated one of the top catchers in Boston’s farm system if not all of minor league baseball. But therein lays the rub because Boston is loaded with top-of-the-line catching prospects besides Lavarnway — like Luis Exposito, Tim Federowicz and Dan Butler.
“It’s a strong competition between those guys,” understated Boston’s Director of Player Development Mike Hazen. “Certainly they’re all vying for playing time and that’s where the competition really kicks in. We need to do our job to make sure all those guys get enough development opportunities.
“That’s the challenging part of it. But it’s better than not having that challenge and it’s a great situation for Boston because somebody always is knocking on the door. They’re all very talented and they all have different strengths. It’s about rounding out the weaknesses of some of those guys.”
In Lavarnway’s case, minimal time is spent with him when he has a bat in his hands.
“We don’t talk as much offense with him as we do defense,” said Hazen. “He works extremely hard. I think the level he’s performing at is certainly the exception rather than the rule. But that doesn’t necessarily predict anything for the future one way or the other yet that consistency has been very strong from level to level.
“We saw it at Double A last year and in the (Arizona) fall league. Hopefully, he can continue to make those strides as he gets to see more experienced pitching both at the Triple-A level and the big-league level. That’s a big unknown for all of those guys until they come up here and do it.”
Hazen was blunt when discussing what strides Lavarnway must make when he’s behind the plate.
“Obviously, you want catchers who are well-rounded,” he said. “Some guys are a little stronger on the offensive side (like Lavarnway) and some are a little stronger on the defensive side.
“Ryan has extreme offensive skills in comparison with the other guys in this group. But he really needs to fine-tune the defensive side of things. By that I mean he must work on blocking (pitches in the dirt), receiving, throwing and the footwork within his throwing.
“Those are things we focus on the most. Now, you can say for any catcher that he has to continue to develop those things. For Ryan, the technical aspects of running a game behind the plate are probably the most important. That’s what we would look at from a defensive standpoint.”
From a psychological standpoint, Lavarnway already realizes the importance of building trust with his pitchers.
“The biggest thing about giving a guy a kick in the butt or a pat on the back is you need to earn their respect first,” he said. “Either way, it’s not going to mean anything if they don’t respect you. I try to go out every day and prove to them that I’m here not only to help myself get to the big leagues but I’m also here for them.
“During the game, defensively, it’s their day to pitch. “I get to hit every day, hopefully. They pitch maybe once every five days as starters and maybe once every two or three days as relievers. It’s their time on the mound. They’re the guys who are going to get the win or the loss.
“I’m here to help make their pitches look good, to help guide them through at-bats, to try to tell them what I see in hitters and try to suggest pitches,” continued Lavarnway. “It’s really an art to catch the right way and to present it to the umpire to build confidence in your pitcher. Once I earn that respect, then I think the words I say to encourage them or light a fire have that much more meaning.”
EXTRA BASES: X-rays on Pawtucket center-fielder Ryan Kalish’s left shoulder were negative but an MRI revealed a “severe sprain.” … Kalish began rehabbing his injured shoulder on Saturday and will be re-evaluated in two weeks … Kalish injured his shoulder when he made a head-first, diving catch during a 14-0 romp over Syracuse last Thursday.