While solid during the year, Boston's catching tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek has failed offensively in September. Enter Ryan Lavarnway.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth on Monday, and the Red Sox down three runs. Salty, too predictably for anyone who has seen him in September, struck out swinging on four pitches. Saltalamacchia has been very productive behind the plate for Boston in general, but has book-ended his season with a terrible April (547 OPS) and September (542) that have made him look like he has no idea how to use a bat.
Boston's backstop would exit the game in the next half-inning after taking a foul tip to the shoulder, and was replaced by rookie Ryan Lavarnway. Even though Saltalamacchia was considered healthy enough to play in last night's 8-7 victory over the Orioles, manager Terry Francona decided to stick with Lavarnway, who to that point had just seven plate appearances in September.
While that lack of playing time may seem usual for a September call-up, especially on a contending team, Red Sox catchers have struggled offensively as a group: throw in Jason Varitek's September, and they had hit all of .137/.180/.316 in the past month. Lavarnway, on the other hand, led the entire Red Sox organization in homers heading into last night's contest -- yes, even more long balls than MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury has launched. Lavarnway hit .295/.390/.612 in Triple-A Pawtucket over 61 games, going deep 18 times, and even threw out 36 percent of attempted basestealers, as a follow-up to his second impressive stint with Double-A Portland.
There's an argument to be made that Lavarnway, who attended Yale as a philosophy major and is a career .284/.376/.521 hitter in the minors with 75 homers over his full three seasons, had earned more playing time based on both Boston's needs and his performance. While they can't go back and change things, they have done the right thing now: Boston's reward for a start of Lavarnway was two home runs and four RBI, his first as a major league catcher, in a game that they won by just one run.
Lavarnway will likely get the start today against Alfredo Simon, given the way Saltalamacchia has played as of late, and considering that Varitek's knee made him unlikely to play last night anyway. Simon is right-handed, as is Lavarnway, but Lavarnway crushed righties in Triple-A (.575 slugging, .305 Isolated Power, and 13 of his 17 homers). Saltalamacchia hits righties better than lefties, but, as mentioned, hasn't been hitting anyone lately, and the Red Sox can no longer afford to wait until tomorrow to see how things play out.
In fact, the future may already be here, as yesterday could have been the start of Lavarnway's permanent tenure in Boston. Varitek is 39 years old, is playing on a one-year deal, and has appeared in just 107 games over the past two seasons due to injuries and the fact that he is a 39-year-old backup catcher. If Boston earns a playoff spot either tonight or through a one-game playoff in Tampa Bay Thursday, they would likely find a way to put Lavarnway on the roster in order to keep his bat around for either pinch-hitting or for a few starts behind the plate. This would be possible a few ways, most notably if Kevin Youkilis, who has been out due to both a sports hernia and bursitis in his hip, were to be placed on the 60-day DL, opening up a spot for a September call-up position player on the playoff roster. While Lavarnway may not be Youkilis, he is likely better than the one-legged variety, and only one of those two can catch.
There are still concerns about his defense, as Lavarnway is a converted outfielder and is still rough around the edges behind the plate. The Red Sox believe he made significant progress in the minors this year, though, as he came to camp more athletic than in the past, making the blocking of pitches easier for him. His arm strength was never in question -- the Orioles discovered this last night when he gunned down the first runner to attempt to steal on him -- and he made a few quality stops behind the plate last night, showcasing that, while he isn't the defensive catcher either Varitek or Saltalamacchia is, he can get the job done. Especially when you consider that he may be an offensive force in catcher's gear, too -- something Boston could use right now as they fight to keep their season alive.