PAWTUCKET — Professional catchers are part of a select fraternity and understand the physical grind which stems from crouching for nine innings a night multiplied by six or seventh months. Compound that with the never-ending pursuit of processing and distributing data regarding his team’s pitching staff, it’s easy to see that these men play the sport’s most demanding position.
From one lifetime member to a person who someday hopes to follow in his footsteps, ex-Red Sox backstop Jason Varitek passed along some thoughts via text message to Ryan Lavarnway during Boston’s visit to Seattle in early September. From a distance, Varitek could see that the 25-year-old Lavarnway wasn’t the same player as he was when the two were Boston teammates during the final month of the 2011 season, particularly from an offensive standpoint.
“(Varitek) said, ‘Stay strong, man; it’s harder on a player to hit .200 than .300.’ That was something I had never thought of because I had never hit .200,” Lavarnway shared Saturday during the PawSox’ annual Christmas Party for fans at McCoy Stadium.
What did Lavarnway take away from Varitek’s words of wisdom and support?
“It’s harder on a player’s psyche because it’s easier when things are going well. Staying mentally strong in this game is huge. You can’t ride the highs and lows.”
Lavarnway had a steep learning curve in 2012, a season that saw the Yale product catch over 100 games for the first time ever (between Pawtucket and Boston, he logged 108 games behind the plate). He became the PawSox’ primary backstop in mid-April, the classification change opening the door to a whole other realm that was going to have to be comprehended on the fly.
For comparison’s sake, Red Sox management informed Daniel Bard that he would be shifted from the bullpen to the starting rotation during the offseason, meaning he had time to mentally and physically prepare for what awaited him. In Lavarnway’s case, his introduction to a higher realm of catching responsibilities came during the heat of the season. What ensued was a juggling act that at the end of the day may end up serving him well moving forward, hence why Red Sox fans shouldn’t look at Lavarnway’s numbers and quickly dismiss his future merit.
A favorite of ex-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, Lavarnway hit .157 with two home runs and a .248 slugging percentage during his two-month stay with Boston while striking struck out 41 times in 153 at-bats. Such numbers were an extension of Lavarnway’s output with Pawtucket, where he hit just eight homers and slugged at a .439 clip.
Clearly Lavarnway was not the same menacing offensive force that he had been in three previous seasons – all ending with 20 or more home runs. With the additional catching workload he took on, it seemed almost unrealistic to expect that he would continue slugging at his career rate. The past season was about Lavarnway striking the right balance in order to help him to better deal with his more encompassing role.
“It was a very big learning experience for me to catch over 100 games and try to figure out how to stay strong while at the same time not exhaust myself in the gym,” said Lavarnway, looking back. “I think that I learned some things that I would do better going forward and that there’s a few things I did well that I would like to continue.”
Learning what is required to run a pitching staff represented a sizable hurdle for Lavarnway to clear.
“The biggest thing for me was catching guys multiple starts in a row whereas before I would catch two or three of the five in the rotation,” he mentioned. “When I started catching four out of the five, I got to see patterns along with consistencies and inconsistencies. I could pick up what they were doing well a lot faster on a given day because I had seen patterns – misfires or pitches in the zone – and knew them better.”
Talking about his offensive production and the back seat it ended up taking, Lavarnway expressed, “Looking back it’s easy to see what happened, but in the moment you to try to be your best at both (meaning behind the plate and in the batter’s box). I didn’t hit as well as I normally do, but to a certain extent that was OK because I was catching well.”
Lavarnway smiled when asked about Baseball America lauding him as the International League’s best defensive catcher as part of the publication’s annual minor-league tools survey. For someone who’s been forced to defend his abilities on more than one occasion, the recognition helped to momentarily silence the critics.
“That was a breath of fresh air because that was voted on by the coaches and the people who see me play every day,” said Lavarnway. “They not only saw me but all the other catchers in the league, which made it a nice honor.”
With a season of on-site job training behind him, Lavarnway is using the offseason to better himself for what he anticipates is another heavy workload in 2013. He relocated to Denver where the only request he made to his fiancé Jamie was to have a suitable workout facility nearby. Lavarnway hit the jackpot with Viking Power Fitness, where he’s been training under the supervision of owner/performance coach Oyvind Gulbrandsen.
Upon informing the Red Sox of his plans, Lavarnway said that team strength coach Pat Sandora collaborated with the Norwegian Gulbrandsen and came up with a program that wasn’t 100 percent baseball-specific, but that made no difference.
“I loved (Gulbrandsen’s) energy and the way he went about his business,” said Lavarnway about what drew him to this particular workout guru. “We lift four days a week and I do Pilates. We’ll go to an outdoor amphitheater about 7,000 feet above sea level and we’ll run on the stairs – stuff that will get me stronger and more explosive.”
Lavarnway has set a goal to report to spring training weighing in at 235 pounds; he tips the scales at 240 right now. Reminded of Boston’s crowded catching situation with free agents David Ross and Mike Napoli joining incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Lavarnway is looking forward to what figures to be an intriguing position battle.
“Spring training is important, especially for young players,” said Lavarnway, who plans to incorporate baseball activities into his fitness regime this week. “You really have to go in and establish yourself.”
With words like that, it appears Lavarnway is taking Varitek’s advice to heart.