PAWTUCKET – Plate discipline and strike zone recognition can be found on the first page of the hitter’s manual. Knowing the pitches one can drive goes hand-in-hand with refusing to chase the ones that dance outside the strike zone, tempting as they may be.
One day Yale head baseball coach John Stuper passed along this nugget to Ryan Lavarnway, words of wisdom mentioned to him by Gene Tenace, a former teammate of Stuper’s with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 80s.
The ironic part? Stuper was a pitcher who failed to hit more than .140 in his four major-league seasons. Knowing full well Lavarnway takes to advice like kids jumping in pools on a hot summer day, Stuper believed Tenace’s message stood zero chance of becoming some forgotten footnote.
“Tenace used to say, ‘They (pitchers) throw it in that little bitty box because you’re ahead of them 2-0. You’re not fouling it off, you’re hitting it hard somewhere,’” Stuper shared earlier this week.
Several years later, the swing Lavarnway has honed through countless repetitions in the batting cage has placed him on the cusp of becoming a major leaguer. The otherworldly stats the catcher/DH for the Pawtucket Red Sox has compiled since June 13, the day he was promoted from Double-A Portland, has lifted him into rarified company among Red Sox farmhands.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to anoint Lavarnway the best pure power prospect that’s been drafted and developed under Theo Epstein’s watch, a claim backed by three straight campaigns of 20 or more home runs. Regarding the 2011 season, it’s become only a matter of when, not if, the 23-year-old clears 30 homers.
Yet in order to understand how Lavarnway has turned the berm in left-center field at McCoy Stadium into a souvenir haven and the parking lot situated beyond left field into the open range, where car windshields quake in fear, one must understand this: Lavarnway simply did not turn on the power facet of his game overnight.
Improvement came from countless hours of hitting in the indoor cage during the wintertime. Don’t discount the tee work and soft toss, two baseball remedies designed to smooth out the approach while at the same time sharpening hand-eye coordination. Lavarnway would also reveal his devotion by lugging a 10-pound weight vest around the New Haven campus.
In no way was Lavarnway going to get cheated out of getting stronger and better.
“He’s a worker beyond words. I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody go after it like him,” Stuper said, mentioning in the same sentence “the strength coach had to kick him out of the weight room numerous times for being there too much. He was very single-minded. He was going to be a great college player and he’s going to become a great big leaguer.”
Stuper said Lavarnway started to better understand the nuances of the strike zone heading into his sophomore year at Yale, when his home run total jumped from six in 43 games as a freshman to 14, also in 43 games played. He also rode the lift in his newfangled honed-in approach to an unheard of 186-point lift in his batting average, from .281 as a first-year Bulldog to a NCAA-leading .467. (Lavarnway “slumped” to .398 as a junior in 2008, the same year the Red Sox selected him in the sixth round.)
“As a freshman, yeah, he would bite at breaking balls out of the zone. After that, you couldn’t get him to bite,” said Stuper, who remains in contact with Lavarnway via text message. “During his sophomore and junior years, it reached the point that it got scary to throw him batting practice indoors. He was hitting the ball so hard.”
Said Lavarnway, “Every pitch and every swing became a part of me.”
PawSox hitting coach Chili Davis is a believer that young hitters can spend all the time in the weight room they want, but the power aspect won’t start surfacing until deciphering the strike zone. Make the pitcher pitch from a position of weakness, not strength.
Thanks to Lavarnway’s ability to eliminate the guessing game, he’s allowed his natural swing to supply the power. His measurements – 6-foot-4, 225 pounds – conjure up a certain image, like somebody grunting and snarling while competing in the World’s Strongest Man competition. Couple his hulking attributes with keen awareness and there’s your reason why Lavarnway has avoided getting off to a slow start in his PawSox career.
After 33 games at the Triple-A level, Lavarnway is batting .376 with 12 doubles, 11 homers and 31 RBI, numbers that have made him a scary presence in the heart of manager Arnie Beyeler’s lineup. In the “you decide what’s more impressive” category, the California native has 15 multi-hit games – six coming in his last eight starts – while going hitless just seven times.
Adjustment period required? Hardly.
“I didn’t envision a call-up this quickly, but I’m definitely pleased and happy with the progress I’m making,” said a clearly humble Lavarnway, who has swatted 25 homers in 88 games between Portland and Pawtucket. “I felt ready to be (in Class AAA) and feel I can excel at this level.”
“He’s making Triple-A look like college right now,” said Stuper. “Guys at that level are around the plate more with better stuff, but he’s been able to thrive.”
Davis has seen enough in the month-plus he’s worked with Lavarnway to draw the following conclusion: he has all the mechanics necessary to scold the ball all over the stadium and beyond the fences. Even if the swing goes slightly awry, the player’s approach can’t completely hold him back from driving the ball someplace.
“With the swing he has and as strong as he is, the mentality is that he’s not afraid to get beat,” Davis said. “Even if he does get beat, he has enough power to maybe not hit it out of the ballpark, but to still drive the ball hard and over the infielder’s head.
“His swing is connected to his hands and lower body, which enables him to create a real good swing path,” Davis added. “He’s always trying to get the barrel of the bat to the ball, no matter where it is. It’s an aggressive swing, but it’s a controlled swing also.”
It’s a swing that is still present regardless if he’s walloping home runs or sending screaming shots to the left-field corner. By not deviating from what works, Lavarnway has gone out and treated International League pitchers like a piñata.
“I texted him (Wednesday morning) and said, ‘You must be seeing the ball really, really well,’” relayed Stuper about his most recent check-in with his former player. “Apparently he is.”
Lavarnway’s increased power totals hardly represent the lone fluctuation his numbers have undergone since turning pro. He increased his walk numbers (70 in 2010 compared to 50 in 2009) while lowering his strikeouts over the same period (104 in 2010, down from 113 the previous year). Even if he cools off slightly, Lavarnway stands to finish the season above .300 – his batting mark stood at .318 when he woke up Thursday morning – for the first time dating back to his college days.
Again, this comes from understanding what works and what doesn’t all while staying within the boundaries of the strike zone.
“The guy has a plan when he goes to the plate,” said Beyeler, who also managed Lavarnway in Portland last season. “Whatever it is – I don’t know because it changes as he watches pitchers, but he’s not afraid to take a bad swing.”
Added Stuper, “Ryan’s plate discipline is his best attribute. Great strike zone recognition.”
Regardless if you talk to someone from Lavarnway’s past or present, they all hum the same tune: it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a major league contributor. Certainly the Red Sox are in no rush to call up Lavarnway (presently he’s not included on the 40-man roster), though it would have been intriguing to see if Boston would have given serious thought to promoting him had the Jason Varitek/Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching combo continued to provide little offense, as was the case through the season’s first six weeks.
Whenever that day happens, Stuper will beam with pride. The Yale coach is adamant that Lavarnway is baseball’s answer to the American Dream – that hard work plus acknowledgment of that “little bitty box” can bear fruit with the utmost rewards.
“This kid is so special, just so special,” said Stuper. “ It’s going to be hard to not find a spot in a big-league lineup with his bat.”