In 17 games in 2011, Boston Red Sox catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway had a batting line of .231/.302/.436, good for a wOBA of .323 and a fWAR of 0.1. In relatively few at-bats he had an impressive ISO power of .205. The Red Sox depth chart currently lists Lavarnway as third behind Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach. Most catchers who are third on a team’s depth chart end up in Triple-A to start the season, as there are just not enough roster spots for a team to hold three catchers. But is there an argument for the 24 year-old catcher with only 43 career major league plate appearances to be the Red Sox opening day catcher or even a top catcher in the game today?
In 77 games (231 PA) in 2012, Bill James projects Lavarnway to have a wOBA of .379, an ISO of .252, 13 home runs, and an OPS of .878. For a catcher, those numbers are ridiculous. Of the 38 catchers who had at least 230 PA’s in 2011, only Mike Napoli and Alex Avila had wOBA’s higher than .379 (.444 and .383, respectively). Napoli was the only catcher to have an ISO above .252, and J.P. Arencibia was second to Napoli, with an ISO of .219. Based upon raw power and weighted on base numbers, is it possible that with enough at bats Lavarnway could be a top 5 catcher in 2012?
In 2011, Alex Avila blossomed as an everyday major league catcher, starting the All-star game for the American league, accumulating a fWAR of 5.5, hitting for an OPS of .895 with 19 home runs. Those are incredible numbers for a 24 year-old catcher, and what sweetened his performance for the Tigers, is that Avila only cost the Tigers $425,000. Catching is an extremely valuable position, and to have one of the top catchers in the game at such a low cost is a luxury most ballclubs do not have. Lavarnway will make less than $500k next season for Boston, and projects to put up Avila-like numbers. As aforementioned, Lavarnway is projected to have almost identical peripherals in 2012, as to Avila’s 2011. And if the Red Sox give him the necessary amount of at-bats, Lavarnway has the ability to be an all-star catcher right now. The sample size of Lavarnway’s major league numbers is too small to take into too much consideration, but it seems as though James used Lavarnway’s numbers with Pawtucket in Triple-A to make his projection; in 264 PA, he hit 18 home runs, had an ISO of .317, and wOBA of .430. Although those numbers came in Triple-A, they are off the charts, and make James’ projections at the major league level of 13 home runs, ISO of .252, and wOBA of 3.79 in a similar number of plate appearances very reasonable.
Even if James’ projections are unrealistic and Lavarnway is not ready to be the next Alex Avila, Lavarnway still should be the Red Sox primary catcher in 2012. Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a good season in 2012 posting a fWAR of 2.5, wOBA of .319 and an ISO of .215 in 386 PA. James projects him to do about as well in 2012, with numbers dipping slightly (projects 3 less home runs), but his wOBA improving to .324. These numbers are very solid, but worse than the numbers projected for Lavarnway. Kelly Shoppach, Saltalacchia’s listed backup, had a rough 2011, hitting .176 with a wOBA of .274 and a fWAR of 1.1. James projects a slight resurgence in 2012, with his wOBA improving to .318 and an ISO of .204. Again, these numbers do not compare to Lavarnway’s ability.
Lavarnway is still very young and has little to no major league experience and maybe more time in Triple-A will be helpful to him. Star catchers Matt Wieters and even Avila, did not have amazing first full major league seasons, and there is a chance that Lavarnway would perform worse than Saltlamacchia as a full-time starter, but the potential reward heavily outweighs the risk in giving Lavarnway the chance. Lavarnway has already torn apart International League pitching and I don’t see why the Red Sox would waste such talent on the fans at McCoy Stadium, instead of letting the fans on the Monster seats catch souvenirs hit by the young catcher at Fenway all season. Lavarnway comes cheap to Boston and has the ability to be a top catcher in the game right now.