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  • Twins Daily 2021 Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year: Louie Varland


    David Youngs

    Minor League starting pitching was a beacon of light in a roller-coaster year for the Twins organization. It is only fitting that a product of the Land of 10,000 Lakes serves as the crowned jewel amongst a talented crop of pitching prospects. 

    Image courtesy of Jean Pfeifer (aka go4twinkies on Instagram)

    Louie Varland spent his childhood on the dirt of ballfields across the northeast sector of the Twin Cities. The Maplewood native turned his successful tenure at North St. Paul High School into an even better pitching career at Concordia-St. Paul. After that? A 15th round selection in the 2019 MLB Draft by his hometown Minnesota Twins. 

    And after a sprinkle of 2019 games in rookie ball and just one full season of pro ball, Varland has distinguished himself as one of the most prolific pitchers in the entire Twins organization. For that, he's been voted as our 2021 Starting Pitcher of the Month.

    Varland started the 2021 season with Low-A Fort Myers where he posted a 4-2 record and 2.09 ERA in ten appearances (eight starts). In that span he struck out 76 men and opposing batters hit a meager .208 against Varland. Those numbers earned him a promotion to High-A Cedar Rapids, just four hours from home. With his family able to finally attend games, Varland did not disappoint, going 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA in ten starts with the Kernels. While he didn't post as many strikeouts as he did in Fort Myers, Varland was more efficient, posting a stellar 0.99 WHIP and only 14 walks while holding opponents to just a .202 batting average. 

    Varland joined a talented Cedar Rapids rotation of Ben Gross and company upon being called up. That rotation was amplified towards the end of the season with Sawyer Gipson-Long, Cody Lawyerson, and Casey Legumina joining the rotation. Yet despite the addition of talented arms, Varland was the clear choice to start Game 1 of the High-A Central Championship Series against Quad Cities. Following a career-high 11 strikeout performance against Peoria on September 16, Varland dazzled in his postseason debut, tossing seven innings of six-hit, one-run ball while striking out four and walking one en route to a 2-1 Cedar Rapids victory. 

    There's no doubt that Varland's 2021 stat line makes him a clear-cut selection for this award. A 10-4 record and 2.10 ERA is pretty darn great at any level. For a pitcher to tally those numbers in his first full season?

    Unbelievable. 

    Prior to this season Varland only had three professional baseball appearances, all with the Elizabethton Twins in 2019. Varland only started one of those games and compiled a slim 8 2/3 innings in that three game span. With the 2020 minor league season scrapped due to COVID-19, it's truly incredible that Varland was able to trailblaze such an incredible 2021 season. Congrats, Louie!

     

    THE TOP SIX
    Varland wasn't the only pitcher in the Twins' farm system to have a standout season. In addition to Varland, these five pitchers round out the top six starting pitchers in 2021 per the Twins Daily Minor League staff.

    1. RHP Louie Varland, Fort Myers/Cedar Rapids (18 GS, 10-4, 2.10 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 103 IP, 82 H, 24 ER,  30 BB, 142 K)
    Check out Seth Stohs' interview with Louie prior to his electric season and other Twins Daily content on Varland!

    2. RHP Cole Sands, Wichita (18 GS, 4-2, 2.46 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 80.1 IP, 59 H, 22 ER, 35 BB, 96 K)
    Despite loads of movement in the organization, Cole Sands was an absolute workhorse for the Wind Surge all season. While many of his starts did not surpass five innings, it wasn't because of poor performance. Sands was as efficient as could be, holding opposing hitters to a .203 average on the year and touting seven scoreless starts. Ironically enough, one of Sands' two losses came on August 14 against Tulsa in a start where he recorded a season-high ten strikeouts. 

     

    3. RHP Jordan Balazovic, Wichita (20 GS, 5-4, 3.62 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 97 IP, 98 H, 39 ER, 38 BB, 102 K)
    Arguably the most notable pitching prospect in the organization, Jordan Balazovic had a season full of ups and downs. When he's on, the 2016 5th round pick is unstoppable with his blazing fastball and deceptive off-speed pitches. We saw that on July 15th when the Ontario-native lit up the Tulsa Drillers with 11 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball.

    On the flipside, Balazovic has struggled with control, command, and pitch selection at times leading to a few bad outings that have deflated his stat line. It's clear that the talent is there, Balazovic will continue to hone in on consistency as he reflects on his first season of Double-A ball. 

    4. RHP Sawyer Gipson-Long, Fort Myers/Cedar Rapids (19 GS, 8-8, 4.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 97 IP, 99 H, 49 ER, 27 BB, 137 K)
    After a rocky month of May with Fort Myers, Sawyer Gipson-Long flipped a switch and was rock-solid through the summer, posting a combined 2.76 ERA in June, July, and August. 

    That stellar summer in the Sunshine State earned Gipson-Long a promotion to High-A Cedar Rapids on August 9th. Gipson-Long has qualities that resemble both Balazovic and Varland. Similar to Balazovic, Gipson-Long had some incredible outings this season but also saw a few outings get out of hand. Like Varland, Gipson-Long was drafted in 2019 out of Mercer and had just a few opportunities to get his feet wet in pro ball that year. After his first full-season of pro ball, Gipson-Long should be happy with his quality performance. Yet like any other young pitcher, experience and innings on the mound will help garner the young pitcher's consistency. 

    5. RHP Josh Winder, Wichita/St. Paul (14 GS, 4-0, 2.63 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 72 IP, 55 H, 21 ER, 13 BB, 80 K)
    If it were not for injuries and bad luck, there's a good chance that Josh Winder would be higher on this list. After an amazing two months in Wichita, Winder was promoted to Triple-A St. Paul on June 28th. Winder dazzled in his first start with the Saints, throwing 5 2/3 innings of eight-strikeout ball while giving up one run. With all the momentum stacked his way, Winder was struck by a line drive in his next outing that removed him from the game. Two starts later, he was placed on the 7-Day IL for a shoulder injury and has not pitched since. 

    It's likely that the Twins are taking the safe route when it comes to Winder's rehab. And why shouldn't they? The 2018 draft pick has been impressive each season since signing and will only continue to improve. If Winder continues his progress once healthy it wouldn't be shocking to see him at Target Field at some point next season. 

    6. RHP Ben Gross, Cedar Rapids/Wichita (17 GS, 5-4, 4.06 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 95.1 IP, 99 H, 43 ER, 32 BB, 122 K)
    Ben Gross closes out a talented crop of 2019 draft picks on this list. Gross was the heart and soul of the Kernels rotation prior to his late-summer promotion to Wichita. The 10th round pick has shown versatility on the mound with his pitch arsenal but also through how he retires hitters. Most of Gross' starts feature 4-8 strikeouts and a plethora of groundouts and pop flies. However, the 24-year-old diced on August 11th against Peoria when he struck out a career-high 13 batters. 

    While there's certainly work to be done, Gross has shown that he can be a consistent starter day in and day out. If things continue the way they are, he'll have the opportunity to showcase that consistency at a higher level.

    HONORABLE MENTION
    RHP Tyler Beck, Cedar Rapids/Wichita (13 GS, 3-4, 3.00 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 84 IP, 64 H, 28 ER, 30 BB, 91 K)
    LHP Charlie Barnes, St. Paul (16 GS, 6-4, 3.79 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 76 IP, 73 H, 32 ER, 24 BB, 62 K)
    LHP Andrew Albers, St. Paul (16 GS, 7-4, 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 96 IP, 113 H, 40 ER, 11 BB, 85 K)
    RHP Austin Schulfer, Wichita (24 GS, 6-8, 4.34 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 110 IP, 109 H, 53 ER, 49 BB, 105 K)
    LHP Kody Funderburk, Cedar Rapids/Wichita (10 GS, 4-3, 2.55 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 67 IP, 46 H, 19 ER, 28 BB, 82 K)
    RHP Sean Mooney, Fort Myers/Cedar Rapids (12 GS, 0-2, 2.79 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 42 IP, 22 H, 13 ER, 23 BB, 71 K)

    Previous Starting Pitcher of the Year Winners:
    2019 winner- Randy Dobnak
    2018 winner - Tyler Wells
    2017 winner - Stephen Gonsalves
    2016 winner - Stephen Gonsalves
    2015 winner - Jose Berrios
    2014 winner - Jose Berrios
    2013 winner - Taylor Rogers
    2012 winner - BJ Hermsen

    Congrats to all those mentioned! Comment your thoughts below!

     

     

     

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    A year ago Jose Miranda wasn't added to the 40-man and exposed to the Rule 5 draft.  Earlier this week, he was named Minor League Hitter of the Year with many of us wondering why he isn't in a Twins uni tonight.  

    A year ago Louie Varland had just completed his summer of doing nothing (I know he probably worked his tail off, but didn't play in a single game) and left wondering what his future would be.  Today he is named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year after an astonishing season.  Will he become the best player to ever have played for Lunch McKensie at Concordia?

    Yes, I understand that Josh Winder's season was cut short by the line drive and shoulder problem.  But looking at his numbers, he is the only pitcher in this group of a dozen pitchers with a sub 1.00 WHIP...and he did it at AA/AAA.  Furthermore, his K:BB ratio of more than 6:1 is better than all of them, except Albers, and much better than most.  I know if I were voting on this honor, after seeing several of his games at Wichita and that first gem in St. Paul, he would be at the top of my list.

    When next year's Players of the Year are announced will we also be surprised that they will have seemed to come out of nowhere?  

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    For transparency, and to create discussion in the hopes others will give us their rankings here, here is my ranking: 

    1.) Varland - easy choice. 

    2.) Sands - I had to do a double-take at his numbers. For being a good (mid-teens) prospect, he didn't get talked about a lot! 

    3.) Winder - Until the injury, he was certainly the favorite. And, he might just be the top prospect. 

    4.) Gipson-Long - Those strikeouts are pretty impressive. 

    5.) Balazovic - ups and downs, but he is the top pitching prospect. 

    6.) Gross - Just solid, consistent, ate innings, had a good first full season. 

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    For transparency sake, I'll post my ballot and explain it here.

    1. Louie Varland

    Not much to say here. He was easily the best starting pitcher in the system by most  important metrics.

    2. Sawyer Gipson-Long

    I don't look at ERA at all these days. I don't care about what a guy has done, but rather what he is likely to do in the future. These are prospects after all. Gipson-Long had the second highest K-BB% in the system for a starter (25.6), and also threw 97 innings. That means a lot in my book, so he received my second place pick.

    3. Ben Gross

    Gross is quite similar to Gipson-Long. He also had a phenomenal K-BB% (21.8) while tossing 95 1/3 innings (if you couldn't tell, I greatly value how many innings a pitcher threw). His overall peripherals are not as good as Gipson-Long, but they were good enough to nab 3rd place for me.

    4. Andrew Albers

    Andrew Albers walked 2.7% of hitters in 2021. 2.7! That was too absurd to overlook. He was not one to strike out many, of course, but, again, he pitched 96 innings in the minors with a respectable WHIP. That kind of workload is sometimes difficult to find among minor league starters.

    5. Jordan Balazovic

    These last two spots were nearly impossible for me to choose and I actually almost left Balazovic off of the list. His peripherals were actually fairly mediocre for his standards (3.91 FIP, 4.28 xFIP), but those 97 innings stuck out to me; especially considering that he started the season on the IL. I'm not married to this placement and I could easily be argued into choosing Cole Sands or someone else for these spots, though.

    6. Josh Winder

    This was the one time I strayed from my love of innings. Winder "only" had 72 innings but was just so dominant in those innings (24.4 K-BB%), that I gave him the nod for the last spot. Is that hypocritical? Maybe. But I don't care. 

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    41 minutes ago, Matt Braun said:

    For transparency sake, I'll post my ballot and explain it here.

    1. Louie Varland

    Not much to say here. He was easily the best starting pitcher in the system by most  important metrics.

    2. Sawyer Gipson-Long

    I don't look at ERA at all these days. I don't care about what a guy has done, but rather what he is likely to do in the future. These are prospects after all. Gipson-Long had the second highest K-BB% in the system for a starter (25.6), and also threw 97 innings. That means a lot in my book, so he received my second place pick.

    3. Ben Gross

    Gross is quite similar to Gipson-Long. He also had a phenomenal K-BB% (21.8) while tossing 95 1/3 innings (if you couldn't tell, I greatly value how many innings a pitcher threw). His overall peripherals are not as good as Gipson-Long, but they were good enough to nab 3rd place for me.

    4. Andrew Albers

    Andrew Albers walked 2.7% of hitters in 2021. 2.7! That was too absurd to overlook. He was not one to strike out many, of course, but, again, he pitched 96 innings in the minors with a respectable WHIP. That kind of workload is sometimes difficult to find among minor league starters.

    5. Jordan Balazovic

    These last two spots were nearly impossible for me to choose and I actually almost left Balazovic off of the list. His peripherals were actually fairly mediocre for his standards (3.91 FIP, 4.28 xFIP), but those 97 innings stuck out to me; especially considering that he started the season on the IL. I'm not married to this placement and I could easily be argued into choosing Cole Sands or someone else for these spots, though.

    6. Josh Winder

    This was the one time I strayed from my love of innings. Winder "only" had 72 innings but was just so dominant in those innings (24.4 K-BB%), that I gave him the nod for the last spot. Is that hypocritical? Maybe. But I don't care. 

    I need some help, Matt.  For the life of me, I don't understand how your K-BB% is calculated and what it means.  For example: Winder had 13BB and 80 K, which you state is a 24.4 K-BB%.  Gipson-Long had 27BB  and 137K, which you indicate was 25.6 K-BB%.  I guess I don't understand how this is calculated as they are almost identical, yet, Winder struck out 2 more than 6x as many as he walked with Gipson-Long striking out 2 more than 5x.  To my old 'California math', Winder would have a better strike out percentage, albeit in less innings.  And both were substantially better than both Sands and Balazovic.

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    1 hour ago, roger said:

    I need some help, Matt.  For the life of me, I don't understand how your K-BB% is calculated and what it means.  For example: Winder had 13BB and 80 K, which you state is a 24.4 K-BB%.  Gipson-Long had 27BB  and 137K, which you indicate was 25.6 K-BB%.  I guess I don't understand how this is calculated as they are almost identical, yet, Winder struck out 2 more than 6x as many as he walked with Gipson-Long striking out 2 more than 5x.  To my old 'California math', Winder would have a better strike out percentage, albeit in less innings.  And both were substantially better than both Sands and Balazovic.

    You're comparing solely strikeouts and walks to each other instead of considering all that a pitcher can allow.

    Winder had 80 strikeouts and 13 walks, yes. But he allowed other things as well; singles, homers, groundouts, you name it. K-BB% includes all of this instead of just pitting strikeouts and walks against each other. Say a pitcher strikes out two batters in an inning, walks another, and in total, faces six hitters. If you calculated it by comparing the strikeouts to the walk, he would be at 66%. If you calculated by including all outcomes (the six batters faced), he would be at 16.7%. In a way, you can think of K-BB% as considering strikeouts along with a pitchers WHIP. Giving up more hits and walks takes away opportunities for strikeouts. 

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    28 minutes ago, Matt Braun said:

    You're comparing solely strikeouts and walks to each other instead of considering all that a pitcher can allow.

    Winder had 80 strikeouts and 13 walks, yes. But he allowed other things as well; singles, homers, groundouts, you name it. K-BB% includes all of this instead of just pitting strikeouts and walks against each other. Say a pitcher strikes out two batters in an inning, walks another, and in total, faces six hitters. If you calculated it by comparing the strikeouts to the walk, he would be at 66%. If you calculated by including all outcomes (the six batters faced), he would be at 16.7%. In a way, you can think of K-BB% as considering strikeouts along with a pitchers WHIP. Giving up more hits and walks takes away opportunities for strikeouts. 

    Thanks Matt.  In your one inning example, the strikeouts were 33.3% and the walks 16.67%, with a difference of 16.67%.  So the percentage you referred to is the difference?  In the case of Winder, his strikeouts were 24.4% higher than the walks based on all hitters faced?

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    34 minutes ago, roger said:

    Thanks Matt.  In your one inning example, the strikeouts were 33.3% and the walks 16.67%, with a difference of 16.67%.  So the percentage you referred to is the difference?  In the case of Winder, his strikeouts were 24.4% higher than the walks based on all hitters faced?

    Yes, that's exactly correct. 

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    Well deserved! And probably an easy choice with how well he threw this year.

    Just a few comments/observations:

    1] Take a moment to look at the numbers for all 6 guys again like I did. Sure, a WHiP or two is a little higher than we'd like, Gipson-Long's ERA is a little high but was inflated by some early bad performances, but the overall numbers for each guy are quality, and the K's are definitely there!

    2] Realize this impressive list doesn't even include Duran, Canterino or Enlow, filled with potential but injury plagued in 2021. Further, for various reasons, there is no Ober, Ryan or any other of the arms recently acquired with real talent. Kind of makes you excited for the next few years doesn't it?

    3] The 2020 draft was what it was, short and no opportunity for anyone to play. Unless I'm mistaken, 5 of the 6 listed here were 2018-2019 draft choices. Despite limited milb experience, and a lost 2020, there is some aggressive promotion taking place here and, apparently, some good drafting taking place.

    I am very excited about the arms in the system in a way I haven't been for YEARS!

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    Varland is a feel-good story to be sure. However, he was 1.1 years over average age in Florida, and only 0.3 below average age in Cedar Rapids. In fact he's almost a year older than Balazovic, who was competing in AA, at -2.7 years younger than average. JB is a full year younger than teammate Sands, nearly a year younger than Gipson-Long.

    I suppose this award is a pure comparison of raw numbers, and so Varland is deserving. However more than holding your own against significantly older competition is as impressive to me, especially at AA.

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    40 minutes ago, Monkeypaws said:

    Varland is a feel-good story to be sure. However, he was 1.1 years over average age in Florida, and only 0.3 below average age in Cedar Rapids. In fact he's almost a year older than Balazovic, who was competing in AA, at -2.7 years younger than average. JB is a full year younger than teammate Sands, nearly a year younger than Gipson-Long.

    I suppose this award is a pure comparison of raw numbers, and so Varland is deserving. However more than holding your own against significantly older competition is as impressive to me, especially at AA.

    Yeah, I don't think this award is meant to crown the best prospect, but merely to reflect in absolute terms who had the best year.

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    Heck of a year for Varland. When they drafted him I never saw him as a starter just strictly a reliever.  His numbers at Concordia didn't exactly jump off the page as dominant and his first taste of pro ball was short and nothing special.  He didn't let 2020 go to waste though and worked hard to refine his stuff and capture this award.  Have to say I didn't see him being even close to this dominant especially his first year in pro ball.

    Happy the Twins found this guy and hope he continues to improve as he moves up. You just can't pitch much better than he did this year.  He has to be happy with his season.  Thanks Louie for being fun to watch every time out this year in a year where lot's of pitchers went down.  I hope your hard work leads to your dream of playing MLB.

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    9 hours ago, Monkeypaws said:

    Varland is a feel-good story to be sure. However, he was 1.1 years over average age in Florida, and only 0.3 below average age in Cedar Rapids. In fact he's almost a year older than Balazovic, who was competing in AA, at -2.7 years younger than average. JB is a full year younger than teammate Sands, nearly a year younger than Gipson-Long.

    I suppose this award is a pure comparison of raw numbers, and so Varland is deserving. However more than holding your own against significantly older competition is as impressive to me, especially at AA.

    The award is not about best prospect, but about the best numbers overall.  The award is not saying Varland is the best pitching prospect but stating he put up the best pitching over the year.  The fact he is older than others does raise the fact he is not a top prospect, as prospect rankings take age and projection into account.  

    Maybe Varland climbs system quickly next year, or maybe he just sits in the minors, only time will tell.  I do not think anyone is suggesting he should be number 1 pitching prospect for team, but he is a name that was not high on prospect list but may be rising now that he actually got a full season of pro ball.  

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    Some great stuff here. Like everyone else I had Varland in the top spot but struggled after that. Balazovic is indeed the 'top prospect' in regards to pitchers but his dominant outings were sometimes mudded with rocky starts. Other than dropping him a few spots on this list, I don't think this season reflects poorly on him as a prospect. Keep in mind, this was his first season at Double-A. I would imagine that he'll start the season in Wichita next year but wouldn't be surprised if he spends a bulk of the year in St. Paul and even higher if things go in the right direction. Consistency is key and Balazovic is on the cusp of being ready.

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    Varland is a fine choice, i think. He's had an excellent and healthy year, making him the rare Twins pitcher to hit that double. Sands was equally good at a higher level, but I think it's fair to ding him a little for the lack of innings pitched; Varland only got one more start but threw 20 more innings. That's a fair delineator, IMHO.

    The winners of this award show it's not easy to translate minor league success into MLB prosperity, though. Stephen Gonsalves only made the majors this year because the BoSox had a huge run of injuries/covid problems; he didn't make it on merit. Hermsen was out of baseball 2 years after winning the award.

    Didn't enjoy being reminded of Tyler Wells, though. Would rather see him pitching for the twins right now than Charlie Barnes, frankly. But I do understand why the Twins exposed him in the Rule 5: didn't pitch in 2019 at all and only had 6 games above A-ball when the O's took him...you'd hope someone would take a pass. But that's the reality on Rule 5: bad teams can grab a guy like that and throw him in the bullpen for a year and hope. twins are going to have several of those tough calls again this year.

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    Twins ending season with rotation of Pineda, Ryan, Gant, Jax, and Barnes. Can't say the pitchers on this list are blocked from advancing due to loaded rotation at MLB. Hope some of them get a chance next year.

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