BALTIMORE -- It was a huge night, but certain aspects of Ryan Lavarnway’s memorable night in Baltimore, in which he made his first career start as a catcher, were not shocking.
The two home runs? While rare for such a young player -- at 24 years, 51 days, Lavarnway became the youngest Red Sox with a multi-homer game since Nomar Garciaparra hit a pair of homers at precisely the same age on Sept. 12, 1997 -- Lavarnway’s 75 minor league home runs over the last three years made clear his power potential.
“Obviously, at the plate, we knew he could hit,” Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “That wasn’t the issue.”
The on-the-money throw to catch Adam Jones in his attempt to steal third base?
Some who’d heard the questions about the catcher’s defense might have been surprised. But while caught stealing numbers in the minors are an imperfect statistic, Lavarnway did lead the Sox system by gunning down 37 percent of attempted base thieves, and the fact that he made just two errors in 62 games behind the plate suggested tremendous accuracy.
The textbook block of a Jonathan Papelbon splitter in the dirt in the ninth? Again, not a surprise to the coaches throughout the Red Sox system who had worked with the catcher as he put countless hours into improving his defensive technique since the Sox signed him as a sixth-round pick out of Yale in 2008.
“This kid,” said one of Lavarnway’s instructors, “has come so [expletive] far it’s unbelievable.”
Lavarnway had already shown all those aspects of his game at the minor league level. But there remained a great unknown to his game -- until Tuesday.
The task of calling a game and guiding a major league pitching staff through nine innings remained something of an X-factor in Lavarnway’s development. While he had made strides in that department in the minors -- pitchers and instructors were often quick to say that Lavarnway was steadily improving in that area -- it remained to be seen how he would apply scouting reports in order to put down the right fingers and earn the trust of his pitching staff.
Lavarnway had caught nine innings in the majors, mostly in the late innings of blowout games. But he had never been given primary responsibility for calling a game with the outcome in question, much less a contest of tremendous consequence.
But there he was, entrusted with that weighty responsibility in the Sox’ 161st game of the season -- with the team in a dead heat in the wild card race with the Rays -- thanks to injuries to Jason Varitek and Saltalamacchia. Given the opportunity, Lavarnway seized it in the Sox’ 8-7 victory over the Orioles that allowed Boston to keep pace with the Rays for the wild card lead.
From the moment that he arrived at the park on Tuesday, and through his afternoon of conversations with starter Erik Bedard, pitching coach Curt Young and fellow Sox catchers, Lavarnway looked like a player who was comfortable in his surroundings and his own skin. And with good reason.
A DIFFERENT TEST AT THE BIG LEAGUE LEVEL
In the minor leagues, catching a game typically requires improvisation. There are scouting reports on opposing teams, but they are haphazard and often forged on hearsay.
“The minor league level, you kind of ask around the clubhouse, ‘Who knows this guy?’ If no one had seen him then you don't know anything about him,” Lavarnway explained before Tuesday’s game. “And here, you have all the information you could need.”
Indeed, the available scouting information for a big league catcher can be shocking the first time a player is called up. There is a reason why most catchers undergo something of an apprenticeship before they are given control of a pitching staff.
Iin the big leagues, the reams of scouting data create an entirely different preparation process than what a catcher has experienced to that point. Pitchers and other position players can allow their baseball instincts to take over once they reach the majors. Catchers encounter a different game.
“No comparison, just because you’ve got all this paperwork,” Sox catcher Luis Exposito, who was called up for the second time this season on Monday, said of the difference between the majors and minors. “It’s kind of like an open-book test. You’ve got the answers.”
Lavarnway appreciated his teammate’s analogy, yet he noted that it was flawed in one crucial respect.
“I don’t think you can call it an open-book test, because you can’t look at it while you’re out there,” Lavarnway said. “When you’re out there catching, it’s a matter of how much can you remember, and how much can you regurgitate and use in the right situation. There’s more information than anyone can use. It’s how you use it.”
Of course, the idea that processing big league scouting reports is analogous to test-taking is intriguing when considering Lavarnway’s background and potential. As a Yale-educated philosophy student, he developed and applied skills in a classroom setting that are now proving useful in transforming scouting reports into game plans.
“I was always a good test-taker. I have good reasoning skills,” Lavarnway explained. “The way that I go about learning information [as a student and catcher] is similar.
“My philosophy teachers in college would say that the best thing in my philosophy writing was that I could take a complicated subject and simplify it. I think that’s what I try to do when I look at a scouting report. With so much information, I try to find what information is most usable and put it into a simpler format so that there’s less to remember but you still know all about the hitter.”
Lavarnway’s ability to soak up information and then employ it became evident over time in the minors. In Triple-A, for instance, Exposito was able to see his teammate improve in a condensed period.
Lavarnway was promoted from Portland to Pawtucket in mid-June. Whereas he seemed to struggle initially to get a handle on game-calling, he quickly got on top of the learning curve.
“You can say the first couple of weeks he was kind of iffy as far as pitch-calling. But I think he started to make the adjustment as far as realizing hitter’s weaknesses. This guy does his homework on all these guys,” Exposito said. “You can see the difference when we’d play a team the second time around after he was first called up. It got better and better and better.”
Indeed, even before Tuesday night, the Sox already had been given reason to believe that Lavarnway’s work with a pitching staff could improve with exposure to the big league environment. Though he had spent a seven-game stint in the majors in late August primarily as a designated hitter, Lavarnway used the time to gain new insight into his work behind the plate.
“He’d spent substantial time with [Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck] going over [scouting information], not only reading it but thinking about how to apply it, which is the most important thing out on the field,” Sox minor league catching instructor Chad Epperson said. “He’s got a new playbook. This gave him an opportunity to be the third-string defensive quarterback, to not only read the playbook but understand the playbook when he got in a couple innings here, a couple innings there, taking baby steps to apply the playbook.
“He’s eager to learn. He’s always been that way. I know after he went up there, coming back down [to the minors], between the ears, he’d gotten even smarter as far as his game-calling and how to approach hitters.”
THE INTELLIGENCE APPLIED
On Tuesday, Lavarnway got his opportunity to demonstrate that progress at the game’s highest level. It was not by design, but when Lavarnway got his taste of being the leader of the Red Sox pitching staff, he was prepared.
“I had to do some more homework last night so I would know their hitters when they were coming up, and I studied [Bedard] a little bit so I knew what he would be bringing to the table,” Lavarnway said afterward.
He and Bedard were in sync with their use of the left-hander’s fastball and curve. When reliever Alfredo Aceves entered the game for the fourth through seventh innings, Lavarnway navigated what he described as a “set of signs that's unique to anything I've ever done before.”
With closer Jonathan Papelbon steering through the final inning, clinging to a two- and then one-run lead, Lavarnway did what he had to do -- often heading to the mound where the closer dictated the course of action -- to make sure that the two were seeing eye to eye.
In short, given the opportunity, Lavarnway looked and acted every bit the part of a major league catcher. Even setting aside the significance of the win, it was a day of great pride for many members of the organization who had worked with the catcher to get to this point in his career.
Yet as satisfying as they found Lavarnway’s debut as a starting catcher, the success of the endeavor did not come as a shock.
“This kid went to Yale. One of his biggest assets as a baseball player is up in his attic. I have no worries with him getting to go up there and run a game plan,” Epperson said. “If you have knowledge, you’re confident, and when you’re confident, you’ll have success. He’s very confident because he knows what he has to do and he’s prepared for it. It’s almost at times like he wrote the script.”
Yet until Tuesday, any imaginings of a day as spectacular as Lavarnway’s first start behind the plate would have been dismissed as fiction. As such, the team could only shake its collective head and revel in the unlikelihood of what it had seen.
“He played his [butt] off. That was exciting,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “Besides what he did offensively, I thought he ran the game. I thought he had a lot of poise. That was one of the more exciting things to watch.
“We’ve seen a lot of interesting things here over the years,” he added. “That was right near the top.”