BRADENTON, Fla. — Ryan Lavarnway has spent the better part of the last six seasons learning the many intricacies of catching, literally sitting in the dirt for countless hours throwing his body at baseballs.
So when Red Sox manager John Farrell called in January asking what he thought about learning to play first base, Lavarnway initially recoiled.
“I’ve worked so hard at making myself a legitimate catcher,” Lavarnway said Monday. “Now that I’m kind of there, I don’t want now to be the time to change positions because I think there’s a real future for me there.”
Then it started to make sense. In an organization loaded with catching talent, the ability to play another position could lead to increased opportunities at the plate.
“I’m keeping it in the right now and right now this is how I can help the team,” Lavarnway said. “This is what I was asked to do and this is how I can make myself more valuable to us.”
Lavarnway did get a guarantee from Farrell that the Red Sox still would view him as a catcher. It was important that all his work did not go to waste. He did not concede the idea of reaching his first goal.
“That was the one thing he wanted to be clear on,” Farrell said. “If we didn’t feel there was a chance he could catch, we would not view him as a catcher first with the ability to play first base. This is a way to make the most of his skills.
“That’s at the root of it, that the versatility can give him a chance to get him to the plate more.”
Lavarnway started at first base against the Pirates in a 7-6 loss Monday and handled himself well, making a diving stop on the line in the second inning to take a double away from Travis Snider.
Infield coach Brian Butterfield acknowledged that he didn’t expect Lavarnway to be starting a game so soon.
“You look at Ryan and you see a big body that doesn’t run well. There are a lot of guys in this league like that, but he’s a good athlete,” Butterfield said. “He can get his feet down quickly; he can get the ball in the air quickly. He’s very accurate on his throws.
“When you put in the work, a lot of good things can happen. The biggest test will be getting repetitions in games.”
Lavarnway said his catching skills have helped him. He has good hands around the bag and has shown the ability to make quick throws to second. He also grasps defensive concepts readily.
The tough part has been learning to move his feet. Catchers are stationary and make plays with their hands. First basemen have to react with their feet.
“There’s a lot more moving parts, coming off the bag after holding a runner on and fielding a ball,” Lavarnway said. “There are a lot of parts that have to move in rhythm. It’s certainly different. But I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
For Butterfield, it all starts from the bottom.
“That’s the most important thing for me when a guy is first learning first base — his footwork around the base taking throws, because he’s handling the welfare of the second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman,” Butterfield said. “You have to be able to maneuver around there and he’s done that very well.”
Both team and player were emboldened by the transition Daniel Nava made a year ago in learning to play first base. The outfielder picked it up quickly under Butterfield’s guidance and played 19 games at first last season.
“There’s more of an awareness that, hey, this is a possibility for somebody like Ryan,” Farrell said. “When they see how it can get them more at-bats, they’re much more open to it.”
Said Lavarnway, “That gave me a big amount of confidence right away when I was wondering how I could learn a position I had never played before in one spring training. If anybody can teach me, it’s Butter because he did it last year [with Nava.]”
Butterfield said Lavarnway has sought out extra work and committed himself to improvement.
“If you can get their trust, that’s half the battle,” he said.
Lavarnway had not worked with Butterfield directly before, other than in teamwide settings. But, like other infielders, he came to embrace Butterfield’s blend of fundamental knowledge and good humor.
“I still don’t know what’s good and what’s bad over there,” said Lavarnway. “So when their feedback is good, it’s news to me. I obviously have a lot to learn still but Butter is a great teacher. I’m soaking up everything I can.”
Lavarnway has one minor league option remaining and knows he could be on another team by next season, if not sooner. The Red Sox have signed veteran catchers in each of the last two offseasons and now have prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart drawing closer to the majors.
Lavarnway, once considered the catcher of the future, is stuck in the middle. The Red Sox hoped he would be an offensive force with at least reliable skills behind the plate.
But as his defensive skills improved, his bat faded. At 26, Lavarnway still has time to pull everything together. For now, creating options is the goal.
“Absolutely, I wonder where this leads,” he said. “This is my career. It’s my life. It’s my family’s life. My goal is to catch here. But with this team and the way the roster is now, first base is a great opportunity for me.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.