The last former Yale Bulldog to play for the Pawtucket Red Sox was current Oakland A’s pitcher Craig Breslow. As I wrote about in a previous entry, Breslow was recently named “The Smartest Athlete in Sports” by The Sporting News.
Red Sox catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway is also a former Yalie. Can he match wits with Breslow?
“I don’t know if I’m as smart as Breslow – especially if he’s the smartest person in sports,” Lavarnway said with a laugh. “I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Craig a little bit and he’s a great guy. He really helped me make the transition from amateur ball to pro ball. He went out of his way to try to help me learn how to turn my mind off when it’s appropriate.”
(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
Lavarnway was a 6th round draft pick by Boston in 2008 and has rapidly climbed the minor league ladder. Last year between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland, the 23-year-old catcher batted .288 with 27 doubles, 22 HR, and 102 RBI (.393 OBP/.489 SLG). As a result, Ryan recently took part in the Red Sox Rookie Development Program which is reserved for Boston’s minor leaguers that are considered the most likely candidates to advance to the big leagues over the next two seasons.
“It was a great opportunity, and I think it speaks to how far I’ve come,” Lavarnway said. “I don’t think I was on the radar two short years ago, despite being selected early in the draft. I’ve absolutely worked my tail off – especially defensively because that’s where I needed the most work. Coming to this program means that they’ve noticed my hard work.”
Lavarnway was an outfielder in his final two years of high school ball in California, and didn’t start catching at Yale until his sophomore year. He was drafted largely for his bat after setting the Ivy League’s all-time record with 33 career home runs.
“The defense is catching up to the bat,” said Red Sox Director of Player Development Mike Hazen. “I would say that two years ago, the bat was way ahead of the defense but I wouldn’t say that’s the case anymore. Even though the offense has been really consistent and really productive over the last three years in the minor leagues, the defense is steadily catching up. He’s working very hard on his footwork and his throwing and his receiving.”
They don’t teach “Catching 101” in the Ivy League, but Lavarnway says the decision-making process behind the plate is as mentally stimulating as some of his course work at Yale.
“It really is actually,” Lavarnway told me. “It’s the pitcher vs. the hitter, but I’m the guy that suggests what to throw. It keeps my mind active and I love feeling like I’m involved in every pitch. I love the camaraderie that develops between me and the pitcher to try to work through a game.”
“I still think that whatever you would consider ‘book smart,’ there needs to be a degree of being ‘game savvy,’ Hazen said. “Learning how to call a baseball game is thorough experience, and he’s a very attentive, studious person. He pays attention to what goes on, and that’s the biggest part of it.”
Soxprospects.com projects Lavarnway to begin this season at Double-A Portland, but if Ryan posts the type of stats that he’s put up in each of the last two seasons, he’s likely to advance to Pawtucket at some point in 2011. When Craig Breslow was with the PawSox, the Ivy Leaguer was stereotypically assumed to be a master of all subjects. Lavarnway says he receives the same treatment from his teammates.
“Any time there’s a small bit of trivia like, ‘Who sang this song in the 80’s?’ they think the Yale kid must know it,” Ryan said.
Does he try to answer their questions or just fake it?
“It depends on the day. Sometimes I’m like, ‘How would I know that?’ And other times I just make something up and they say, ‘Oh yea, that sounds about right,’ Lavarnway said with a grin.
Pretty smart, don’t you think?
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