"You'd think he had to cool off," said one of Ryan Lavarnway's teammates with Pawtucket. "But it never happened."
The Red Sox cleared a spot in Triple-A for Lavarnway, a 24-year-old catcher, in mid-June by trading Mike McKenry to the Pirates. The move was not a reflection on McKenry—who immediately assumed everyday catching duties in the big leagues for Pittsburgh—but instead pointed toward Boston's desire to challenge Lavarnway.
Through the end of July, Lavarnway had batted .352/.428/.685 with 13 homers and 29 extra-base hits in 43 Triple-A games. During one hot stretch, he homered eight times in 10 games. He led the International League with a 1.113 OPS from June 13, the day he joined Pawtucket, through July 31.
It was a remarkable, head-turning run that made a resounding statement about Lavarnway's offensive capabilities. But it was not without precedent.
The all-time Ivy League home run leader and 2008 sixth-round pick from Yale, Lavarnway spent all of his first full pro season with low Class A Greenville, where he led the Red Sox system in homers (21) and OPS (.907).
He moved up to high Class A Salem in 2010 and went on an immediate tear, hitting six homers in an 11-game stretch in April. He carried an .879 OPS past the midseason point to earn a promotion to Double-A Portland, where he again hit the ground running by hitting .444 through his first seven games.
Lavarnway's three-year track record as one of Boston's most consistent hitters did little to prepare observers for the fury he would unleash on IL pitchers. Still, the idea that he would assert himself against more advanced competition was not foreign.
"Getting promoted kind of helps me refocus and lock in," Lavarnway said. "Instead of just being happy to get there, I take the approach that I want to belong there. For me, proving that I belong entails trying to be the best."
Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler moved Lavarnway to third in the lineup within two weeks of his arrival, and he never relinquished the post. Opponents soon identified him as a threat at the plate. Yet he still produced.
"There was a time in college ball where they kind of stopped pitching to me. I used to get frustrated," Lavarnway said. "In the last couple years, I've changed my mindset. I want to be the guy who they don't let me beat them, and even when they say they're not going to let me beat them, to still beat them."
Among the 27 homers he hit in Double-A and Triple-A over the first four months of the season was one against rehabbing Phillies starter Roy Oswalt. The blast underscored what has become increasingly evident, namely that Lavarnway's bat is not far from big league ready.
One rival evaluator said that Lavarnway could hit in the majors right now, thanks to an advanced approach at the plate that combines knowledge of the strike zone and awareness of pitches he can drive to all fields. Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen pointed to Lavarnway's ability to use a compact swing to let the ball get deep, thus letting him handle a full array of pitches against both lefties and righties.
Yet while his offense would justify a promotion, he continues to benefit from the opportunity to refine his defensive game in Triple-A.
Lavarnway, who in his sophomore year at Yale asked his coach to give him a chance to catch, has made significant strides behind the plate since entering pro ball. Over time, he has become more flexible while improving his setup, permitting him to become more athletic behind the plate.
His throwing accuracy and arm strength have both improved, as has his blocking ability. Boston catching instructor Chad Epperson said that Lavarnway regularly records times of between 1.95 and 1.97 seconds on throws to second base, which is roughly average.
Some in the industry remain skeptical of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lavarnway's ability to stay behind the plate. The Red Sox disagree.
"We're very confident that he's a future major league catcher," Hazen said. "Given his makeup, his work ethic, how far he's come and the time he's put in for the last four years, if there's any guy I'm betting on to achieve his goal of being a major league catcher, it's that guy."
Epperson compared the skills of Boston's three most advanced catching prospects, Lavarnway and Luis Exposito at Pawtucket and former Portland backstop Tim Federowicz, whom the Red Sox surrendered in their deadline deal for Erik Bedard. "If you took (the three catchers) and watched them do a showcase, you're going to look at Exposito and Federowicz and grade them out higher just on the look.
"But at the end of the day, when a manager goes out and fills out his game report, Lavarnway's caught everything, he's blocked everything and he's thrown a guy out. He may not be flashy, but he is a results guy, and at the end of the day, that's what a big league club wants—results."
Lavarnway is making apparent strides in technique thanks in part to a timeshare with Exposito at catcher and DH, an approach the Red Sox commonly employ to get their catchers more drill work on days when they aren't catching in games. But work still must be done to learn the nuances of signal calling and game management with pitchers who feature a more diverse repertoire than anything he has seen before. He is working hard to learn each pitcher's preference and tendencies to keep his batterymates in rhythm.
Boston wants to see more growth in those areas before deeming Lavarnway ready to handle a big league staff. Even so, he is driven to prove his critics outside the organization wrong.
"I definitely take it as a little bit of a chip on my shoulder sometimes," Lavarnway said. "It makes me work all the harder . . . I do want to be known as a complete player. I've worked really hard to get myself to where I am. I'm going to continue to do that because I don't just want to be a bat.
"Being a quality defensive catcher in the big leagues is something that I want to do more than anything else. I'll do what it takes to get there."