SEATTLE, WA - Ryan Lavarnway #60 of the Boston Red Sox rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on September 4, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Around mid-August, when the Red Sox chances at being a postseason team were waning at a rapid pace, the focus began to shift from winning in 2012 to seeing what some of the younger players could potentially offer in 2013. For many, the end of this transformation occurred on August 24th, when the mega-deal between Boston and Los Angeles went down. However, about ten days earlier, the trade of Kelly Shoppach opened up a significant amount of playing time for catching propsect Ryan Lavarnway.
Coming into this season, many believed Lavarnway possessed the bat to be a major-league catcher on Opening Day. Despite this, he spent the majority of this 2012 season in the minors to hone his defensive skill-set. He hit well in AAA Pawtucket for the second straight year, and was re-called to the team, making his season debut on August 2nd. Many were expecting big things of him this year, as he showed flashes of huge talent in his major-league debut last year, and he hit .295/.376/.439 in AAA this year, good for a 126 weighted-runs-created-plus. In 110 plate appearances at the big league level this season though, Lavarnway has not come through as expected.
His struggles bring up an interesting question, one which many assumed they knew the answer to before he even joined the big-league roster. It had been popular belief that Lavarnway would be ready to receive the bulk of the catching time by 2013. In fact, not too long after he rejoined the Boston roster, it was announced that he was voted the best defensive catcher in the International League this season. So, now that his defense was at least passable -opinions may vary depending on how one feels about awards voted upon by managers - he was supposed to be ready to be a permanent member of this roster. Now, after his struggles at the plate, the team must decide how big of a role he will truly be ready for in 2013.
Firstly, despite the small sample size that comes with only playing in MLB for about a month and a half, there's no denying how poorly Lavarnway has been at the plate this year. He has stumbled his way to a .155/.219/.262 slash-line, which gives him an ugly .214 weighted-on-base-average and 22 wRC+. A few things about that line jump out. For one thing, he has hit for a very minimal amount of power so far in the majors. Prior to 2012, he had always shown impressive power, even ending with a .205 isolated power in 43 plate appearances down the stretch in 2011. However, he has just a .107 ISO with Boston right now. For a point of reference, Darwin Barney has a .105 ISO at the moment.
The other thing that jumps out to me is a bit more encouraging, though. There is reason to believe that he has nowhere to go but up. Firstly, he has only gotten 114 plate appearances this season, so any numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. At this point, he has just a .184 batting average on balls in play. Once that number starts to approach even the mid-.200's, all of Lavarnway's slash-line components will rise with it. However, his batted ball data does support a low BABIP. Currently, he has hit a line drive only 12-percent of the time, about nine points behind the league average. Additionally, he has hit 13-percent of his batted balls for infield pop ups. These are almost sure outs, and his rate is three points above average. While his BABIP is due for an improvement, he'll need to make better contact to get it to a respectable level.
Looking on the bright side, though, his batted ball data also suggests that he should be hitting for more power. Although he hasn't hit many line drives this year, he has hit the ball in the air quite a bit. His 50-percent fly ball rate is sixteen points above the league average, and is sixth in all of baseball amongst batters with at least 100 plate appearances. To go along with that high rate, however, he has a home run to fly ball ratio of just 5.3-percent. As someone who has shown significant power in all systems in the Red Sox system, one would have to assume that this ratio will approach the league-average of around 11-percent at some point, and more balls will begin to find the bleachers.
With the expected bumps in BABIP and power, Lavarnway should be a good major-league hitter, especially compared to what he's doing now. However, he still has work to do until the team can trust him to produce at that level on a consistent basis. The team also has incumbent starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the roster for next year. If Lavarnway had produced at the high level we had all hoped, the front office may have been comfortable enough to see what they could get for Saltalamacchia this winter. However, that move wouldn't be so easy now. While Lavarnway's numbers suggest a rebound is highly possible for next year, he still has to prove he's capable of doing it on a full-time basis. For this reason, I would keep both catchers on the roster next year. If Lavarnway bounces back as is expected of him next year, Saltalamacchia could be trade bait at the deadline. Until then, though, it'll be interesting to watch Lavarnway's progress. His September that was supposed to be a showcase for him has been a failure, but there is still plenty of hope for him moving forward.