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?
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.
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!