Ted Williams once said hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sports.
Try telling that to International League pitchers who’ve faced catcher Ryan Lavarnway since he was promoted from Portland to Pawtucket on June 13.
Through his first 40 Triple-A games encompassing 172 plate appearances, Lavarnway has hitting at a .361 clip which included 15 doubles and 13 home runs to go with 40 RBI — plus an off-the-charts 1.141 OPS.
In addition, his batting average hasn’t fallen below .309 since his promotion.
It’s been more of the same since he forced Boston to kick him upstairs because in 55 games with Portland, he hit .284 replete with 14 homers and 38 RBI.
A conversation with then-Yale hitting coach Glen Lungarini has had much to do with his success at the plate — which, in retrospect, led to Boston picking him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and to Baseball American ranking him as the organization’s No. 1 catching prospect entering 2011.
“After my freshman year at Yale, my hitting coach challenged me,” recalled Lavarnway. “I hit .296 my freshman year and led the team with six homers. A lot of guys would have been satisfied with that. But I knew I could do better.
“I told him ‘You know what? I want to make All-Ivy next year.’ 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.’
“He really raised the bar to a level I never thought about before,” continued Lavarnway. “He said ‘Every pitch you take during summer ball, in the fall and the off-season, and 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.’ “
To say Lavarnway took Lungarini’s words to heart would be a massive understatement.
Lavarnway led all Division I schools with a .467 batting average as a sophomore and wound up as the Ivy League’s all-time home run leader with 33.
In a premonition of things to come, Lavarnway and the since-traded Anthony Rizzo last season were named Boston’s Co-Minor League Offensive Players of the Year as he combined to hit .288 with 22 homers and 102 RBI between High-A Salem and Portland.
“(Hitting) may look easy but it’s definitely not easy,” said Lavarnway. “I agree with Ted. It’s one of the hardest things to do. I actually read his book in school. It’s about preparing yourself to come out and succeed every day, and staying disciplined with your approach.
“If I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail with my own lack of discipline. But I’ve been staying pretty focused recently.”
“What he’s doing surprises everybody or they wouldn’t be talking about him the way they are,” said manager Arnie Beyeler who had Lavarnway last year at Portland. “He’s got a real consistent plan at the plate. He’s getting good pitches to hit and he’s not missing them. He’s taking walks. He’s got a good idea of what he wants to do with pitchers when he goes up there.
“Hopefully, some of our other guys are watching and will see how he’s going about it and get something out of it.”
Not surprisingly, Lavarnway realizes the difference between the quality of pitching at the Double-A land Triple-A levels and the need for adjustments.
“It’s a chess match,” he said. “The pitch sequencing here is a lot different than it was in Double A. I’ve had to figure that out, both when I’m catching and hitting. It’s a constant back and forth with the pitchers trying to make adjustments to get you out. You’ve got to make adjustments to hit the pitches they’re giving you.
“There are older guys here. I’m trying to learn the way they think and the way they go about getting guys out.”
Lavarnway also has had to learn how to be a catcher since he didn’t become a full-timer until his sophomore year at Yale (2007).
“I caught some in Little League and on our junior varsity high school team,” he said. “Our catcher went down my freshman year at Yale and we had a senior who graduated. The catcher who was in my class needed Tommy John surgery so he wasn’t going to be able to play.
“There was an opening and I was playing right field. I told the coach one day ‘You know what? I can catch.’ I enjoyed it in Little League so let’s see what happens. He threw me back there for a bullpen session. I had soft hands right away. He said ‘Let’s stick you back there,’ and it stuck.”
From that standpoint, Lavarnway can be considered the proverbial work in progress.
“He’s a student of the game,” said Beyeler. “He works on his drills every day. He improves every day on his blocking, his catching and his game calling. He watches the game and asks questions.
“He’s improved and he will get better. He’s a quality guy behind the plate.”
Not every scout shares Beyeler’s assessment of Lavarnway’s proficiency behind the plate. In some cases, his offense is rated as being ahead of his defense.
Lavarnway is tactful when broached about this topic.
“They’re entitled to their opinion,” he said. “They have that job because they’re very good at it and I respect them. But becoming a consistent and an above-average defender is something I’ve taken a lot of pride in and put a lot of work in over the last couple of years.
“I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from my pitching staff, my coaches and even umpires that have had me in previous years. They’ve commented on my improvement and that they’re glad I’m behind the plate instead of some guy in another organization.
“It’s something I definitely take a lot of pride in,” continued Lavarnway. “I’ve been trying to shake that image for a while. But it does stick to you for a little bit.”
Since Boston’s farm system is well-stocked at catcher (read Luis Exposito and Tim Federowicz besides Lavarnway), the former Bulldog has even more incentive to improve on his craft.
“It’s tough to be a great catcher because there’s a lot involved with it,” said Beyeler. “These guys don’t realize a lot of it until they get to the upper levels and start handling the pitchers and seeing how tough that is, along with the hitting and the wear-down of catching a whole season.
“ ‘Salty’ and ‘Tek’ have set a high bar with the big club. Hopefully, one of our young guys will reach up and grab that bar and move ahead of the other guys.”
Could Lavarnway be that guy?