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  • It's Louie's Time to Shine

    Lou Hennessy

    Louie Varland didn’t make the Opening Day rotation out of spring training, but he is every bit as vital to the team’s plans as the five pitchers that did. With such a small sample for his MLB career, it’s unreasonable to deem him as a star at this point. But he’s shown an interesting pitch mix that compares him to one of the best arms in the game. So what’s next for the pride of North St. Paul now that he has a more permanent spot in the starting five?

    Image courtesy of Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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    Louie Varland didn’t spend the offseason planning for an easy ride to MLB stardom. He didn’t head to the Dominican Republic or Mexico to play winter ball. He didn’t hang around with an entire entourage of MLB players (aside from his brother Gus Varland , who is currently rehabbing in Triple-A for the Milwaukee Brewers). 

    Instead, he mixed in his off-season workouts around a side hustle working for the man. More specifically, he worked for his old man, Wade, who owns Varland drywall. Surely, plastering drywall didn’t have some magical effect on his pitches, their individual intricacies and his execution of each offering. But those pitches in his repertoire are already off to a great start for the 25-year-old. They even share some key characteristics with a certain surefire future member of the Hall of Fame. So what has made Varland Drywall’s ace effective so far in his young career, and what can he patch up if he wants to reach his ceiling?

    One of the young right-hander’s biggest areas of growth over the last few seasons has been his fastball, especially in terms of adding velocity. He topped out at 88-89 mph while pitching for Concordia University, St. Paul, but has already ramped all the way up to averaging 95.7 mph on his heater in 2023. In his game this week against the Padres, he hit 99 mph. 

    On its own, that velocity is solid, if unspectacular (45th percentile). But Varland’s fastball also boasts above-average spin, creating more deception for opposing hitters. So far, his four-seamer has resulted in a 26.1% whiff rate in his three starts, which is above the league average over the last two years (22.3%). 

    He works quickly, using that fastball early in counts so that he can set the table for his strong secondary offerings. His changeup has had more swinging-misses than any of the other options in his repertoire (43.5% whiff rate), but he’s limited damage with his high-spin cutter (.267 opponent slugging percentage). On top of that, he has a plus slider that he’s used less often in 2023, but was his most effective offering in 2022. Look for him to start using it more as the season progresses and the league adjusts to him as a more permanent fixture in the Twins’ rotation for the time being. 

    Interestingly enough, Varland’s pitches have a high similarity score to those in Max Scherzer’s 2022 repertoire in terms of velocity and movement according to Baseball Savant. Granted, this doesn’t mean that he’s bound to follow in the steps of a three-time Cy Young award winner. But it’s encouraging to see that his raw stuff bears a resemblance to a frontline starter in a season where he had a 2.29 ERA and struck out 30.6% of opponents faced. 

    In order to have a performance in the same realm as Scherzer had when he was healthy last year, Varland is going to have to find a way to limit the damage on that same fastball that has developed into a mid-to-upper nineties weapon. While its growth has been impressive, it still gets knocked around a decent amount. It’s not uncommon to have a higher expected slugging percentage on fastballs, but Varland’s .690 mark in that regard is not sustainable for how essential it is when it comes to setting up the rest of the at-bat. This can be seen in the fact that he currently finds himself below average when it comes to barrel percentage (9th percentile) and average exit velocity (41st percentile). When hitters get a hold of one, it gets plastered, and not in the way that Varland is familiar with.

    With veterans Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda out for the foreseeable future, Varland is going to have an extended opportunity to hone his craft at the game’s highest level on the fly. Like he did with his dad in the offseason, he’ll have success by hitting the corners, working quickly and paving over the cracks that are presented to him. 

    What do you think? Have you been encouraged by the North St. Paul product? What are reasonable expectations for Varland going forward? Let us know what you think in the comment section below. 

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    The Cubs seemed to sit on a pitch on Friday night and yesterday afternoon, which did not work because both Gray and Ryan varied their routines and hit their spots. This is the typical life of a pitcher, needing to be effective with at least two and hopefully four offerings from the mound. 

    I think Varland has looked good thus far and he seems committed, mostly controlling the at bats and making the batter work. Louie sure does pitch quickly, no nonsense or hesitation. Today should be another good test for Varland. I'm real big on his potential to have a good year because he seems to improve in small ways each time out.

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    What a world we live in where 95mph fastballs are only average-ish velocity.

    Varland has talent but he needs to keep working on refining his pitches, hitting his spots, and working his pitch mix. The changeup is generating whiffs, but when he misses with it, it's getting hammered. He probably needs that velocity on his 4-seamer to keep the other pitches playing up, but he hasn't been able to consistently spot it enough to keep it from getting thumped way too often. The slider is better than advertised and it's good to see the cutter avoiding hard contact more this season.

    He's going to get a lot of opportunity this season to show he can be a part of this rotation. Looking forward to seeing how he does.

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    15 minutes ago, HrbieFan said:

    Count me as one that doesn't think speed is the end all. If you can't control your repertoire and keep bats guessing, you are going to get hit hard and often. Give me a pitcher like Greg Maddux every day and I'll be happy. 

    I don't that's the point of this article? Also Varland's best pitch is his fastball so it makes sense to discuss velocity. The writer also mentioned that his secondary pitches were pretty good but clearly not at the level that his fastball is. Maddux was one of a kind as well and we kinda have one in Sonny Gray who clearly isn't at Maddux's level but doesn't compete w elite velocity, the same as Joe Ryan who could hit 95 but that isn't his focus.

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    16 minutes ago, TwinsHater1991 said:

    I don't that's the point of this article? Also Varland's best pitch is his fastball so it makes sense to discuss velocity. The writer also mentioned that his secondary pitches were pretty good but clearly not at the level that his fastball is. Maddux was one of a kind as well and we kinda have one in Sonny Gray who clearly isn't at Maddux's level but doesn't compete w elite velocity, the same as Joe Ryan who could hit 95 but that isn't his focus.

    Welcome to TD! Great first post

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    95Mph may be “averageish” but it doesn’t mean it’s easy to hit. Middle/Middle is easy to hit.

    Varland obviously has good enough stuff to get MLB hitters out. He’s started a half-dozen or more games with decent results. Command is the key…….Maddux command is a big ask……just the ability to move the ball around helps a bunch. The thing I’d like to see Varland do is to take a page out of Ryan’s approach and throw some letter high fastballs both in & out. Ryan consistently is up in the zone with velocity & he works both sides of the plate with this. He throws high strikes not just Show pitches to set something up. If Varland could not only pound fastballs at the knees but also get some high strikes occasionally it would be very valuable.

    Easier said than done!

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    He seems to have good control which is really important since walks always seem to score runs. Some of the Twins RP's issue too many walks which really should never happen. Most batters get on base about 2 or 3 times per 10 at bat, but a walk is a 100% base runner.

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    I'm not predicting All Star games and CY Young Awards, but I think we've seen the last of Mahle and Maeda in the Twins rotation.  Ober and Varland have shown no tendency to give those spots back, and that's an excellent outcome.  We've been waiting for a couple of home grown SP's to crack the rotation.  Ryan, Gray and Pablo Lopez have been great trade acquisitions but it's time to get the young guns in there.  Mahle's season is done and Maeda's future should be in the bullpen with an occasional start if needed.  The sample size is small but I've been very encouraged by what I've seen from both Varland and Ober.

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    He pounds the zone which I really like. Of course that means he is going to get ambushed from time to time but he makes guys swing the bat. 

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