Sunday Notes: Daulton Varsho Goes Pull-Side, Thinks Low and Hard

Daulton Varsho’s last two seasons were directionally different than his first two seasons.The left-handed-hitting outfielder put up a pedestrian 37.8% pull rate in 2020-2021, and in 2022-2023 that number climbed to a lofty 52.6%. Apprised of the marked jump by colleague Davy Andrews prior to my recent visit to Toronto Blue Jays camp, I asked Varsho if it was spurred by a purposeful change of approach. He claimed that it wasn’t.

“I think it’s just how teams are pitching me,” said Varsho, whose pull rate in the two-year span was the highest among qualified hitters. “You don’t want to force the ball to any certain field — it has to sort of naturally happen — and I’ve been getting pounded in. You also have to figure out the changeup away and righties throwing sliders in. You don’t really want to force those to left-center or left field, because they end up being fly outs.”

Davy had also informed me that Varsho’s pull-side results have been far better than his opposite-field results, which came as anything but news to the 27-year-old Marshfield, Wisconsin native. My mentioning it elicited a matter-of-fact response.

“That’s where success happens,” said Varsho. “It’s where my swing is the most successful, and where I can do the most damage.”

It’s no secret that catching pitches out front and driving them in the air goes a long way toward producing power numbers, and not only has Varsho gone yard 47 times over the past two campaigns, just one of the blasts was to the opposite field. My asking if he’s made a concerted effort to lift the ball led to the following exchange:

“No. I’m trying to hit the ball on the ground.”

“Balls on the ground are outs.”

“Balls in the air are outs. Most balls you hit up in the air — any fly ball — you’re out.”

Varsho made a valid point. At 13.5%, his HR/FB rate over the past two seasons not only ranks in the middle of the pack among his contemporaries, it is also anything but dinger-friendly. As for whether he actually wants to hit the ball on the ground… that’s not the case. What he wants is to hit line drives, and those come from a hard-and-low thought process.

“When you’re on top of the baseball, you’re staying through it,” explained Varsho, whose 35.2% ground ball rate last year was anything but high. “Those are the line drives and homers you hit. Consistently working up, up, up, those are the misses where you’re flying out. By trying to work down, in games you’re going to have that adrenaline to where you’ll square up a baseball by missing a little bit underneath. Those are the homers. Homers are mistakes. If you try to hit a home run in a game, you’re going to pop out or strike out. It’s about being early, being on time, and letting my swing do the best thing I do. That’s basically to hit the ball hard and low on a line, which for me comes from thinking down.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Skeeter Webb went 0 for 14 against Phil Marchildon.

Muddy Ruel went 0 for 14 against Firpo Marberry.

Hub Perdue went 0 for 14 against Rube Marquard.

Irish Meusel went 0 for 12 against Cliff Markle.

Sherry Magee went 0 for 11 against Speed Martin.

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Dan Kantrovitz was understandably bullish on Matt Shaw in the wide-ranging interview he did for Prospect Week. Not only did the 22-year-old shortstop put up boffo numbers after being selected 13th overall last year by the Chicago Cubs, Kantrovitz is the VP of Scouting for the club that called his name. As point man in the draft-decision process, he was understandably enamored of the University of Maryland product.

He’s far from the only evaluator to hold a high opinion of Shaw. Another recent conversation I had about Chicago’s first-rounder elicited an equally enthusiastic assessment.

“When you’re going through your checklist, the first thing you do is see BP before the game, and with Matt it just really stood out,” an amateur scout (not Eric Kubota, who was likewise featured during Prospect Week) said of his pre-draft looks at Shaw. “He’s driving the yard backside, he’s destroying the power alley. You’re like, ‘OK, something is different about this guy.’ And it’s not like the physicality jumps off the page. It’s more of a fit, athletic, build, so when you see the ball jump like that, it’s almost like an an optical illusion. You don’t expect it to come out of there as hot as it does. You realize there’s a possibly you’re looking at a special bat.”

The scout went on to say that Shaw displays a solid in-game approach at the plate, as well as solid defensive skills. He did say that the University of Maryland product is “a little unconventional” with his throws, but not in a way that suggests a red flag. As he put it, “I think we’ve learned over time, as scouts, to be like, ‘OK, it’s not exactly how we were taught, or how we might draw it up, but if a guy is able to convert ground balls into outs at an above-average rate, at the end of the day that’s what matters.’ With Shaw, there’s not a play he can’t make.”

Shaw slashed .347/.400/.618 with eight home runs in 170 plate appearances last year between High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee.

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A quiz:

Three players have hit 20 or more grand slams. Alex Rodriguez and Lou Gehrig are two. Who is the third?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Larry Gerlach, Leslie Heaphy, and Sarah Langs are the 2024 SABR Henry Chadwick Award recipients. More information can be found here.

José DeLeón, a right-hander who pitched for five teams from 1983-1995, died last Sunday at age 63. The Rancho Viejo, Dominican Republic native had one of his best seasons in 1989 when he went 16-12 with a 3.05 ERA with the St. Louis Cardinals. He’d gone 2-19 with a 4.70 ERA with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1985.

John Oldham, a left-handed pitcher whose big-league career comprised one game with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, died on February 24 at age 91. His lone appearance was both brief and atypical, as he never took the mound. Oldham pinch-ran for Ted Kluszewski, and one batter later the inning was over.

A reminder that the SABR Analytics Conference will be held this coming weekend, March 8-10 in Phoenix, and includes an impressive array of featured speakers. The full schedule can be found here.

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The answer to the quiz is Manny Ramirez, with 21 grand slams. A-Rod had 25, the Iron Horse 23.

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Is Sonny Gray underrated? He doesn’t have a Cy Young Award or a no-hitter on his résumé — as do Corey Kluber and Tim Lincecum — but he does have three All-Star appearances. Moreover, he has numbers similar to those of Kluber and Lincecum:

SG: 270 starts, 1,571 IP, 1,521 Ks, 98-85 W-L record, 3.57 FIP, 121 ERA+.
TL: 270 starts, 1,682 IP, 1,736 Ks, 110-89 W-L record, 3.45 FIP. 104 ERA+

CK: 260 starts, 1,641 IP, 1,725 Ks, 116-77 W-L record, 3.23 FIP, 122 ERA+.

Now a St. Louis Cardinal, Gray is coming off of arguably his best big-league season (2.79 ERA, 2.83 FIP, 5.3 fWAR). He hasn’t accomplished quite as much as Kluber or Lincecum, but he’s still going strong at age 34. When all is said and done, he could very well rank as the best of the three.

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Is Kazuhiro Sasaki the most underrated closer — at least on this side of the globe — all-time? The right-hander made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2000 and proceeded to average 40 saves over his first three seasons stateside. In his fourth Seattle season, at age 35, he logged 10 more. His NPB career was every bit as good. Sasaki had 252 saves in Japan, giving him a total of 381 between the two leagues. He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.

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SPRING SMALL SAMPLE SIZE STANDOUTS, YOUNG GUNS EDITION

Milwaukee Brewers infield prospect Brock Wilken is 5-for-7 with two doubles and an .818 OBP in 11 plate appearances.

Washington Nationals outfield prospect James Wood is 8-for-16 with three home runs and a .636 OBP in 22 plate appearances.

Washington Nationals outfield prospect Robert Hassell III is 5-for-11 with two doubles, a triple, a home run, and a .500 OBP in 14 plate appearances.

Texas Rangers outfield prospect Wyatt Langford is 6-for-17 with three home runs and a .450 OBP in 20 plate appearances.

Chicago Cubs outfield prospect Owen Caissie is 8-for-14 with two doubles, a home run, and a .647 OBP in 17 plate appearances.

Pittsburgh Pirates infield prospect Termarr Johnson is 6-for-12 with a double, two home runs, and a .538 OBP in 13 plate appearances.

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That Jose Siri swiped just 12 bases (in 15 attempts) last season isn’t indicative of his speed, but rather of a self-imposed scarcity of opportunities. The free-swinging Tampa Bay Rays speed-burner logged an abysmal .267 on-base percentage over 364 plate appearances. A year earlier, he’d gone 14-for-16 while logging an every-bit-as-abysmal .268 OBP over 325 PAs.

The 28-year-old outfielder pilfered a pair of bags on Wednesday, after which he told reporters that he aspires to steal 30 in the forthcoming regular season. Count Kevin Cash among those who feels Siri is more than capable… assuming, of course, that he can put himself in position to do so.

“That’s great,” the Tampa Bay manager said when told of Siri’s goal. “40, 50; it all depends on how much he can get on base. He’s confident when he gets on base. Instinctual. He wants to run. Elite base-stealers, the first thing you always hear them talk about is that they want to run, and he’s certainly one of those guys.”

Writers are getting themselves into regular-season shape just as the players are, and when I proceeded to ask Cash if Siri has the green light to go at any time, I accidentally said “red light.”

“Green light,” Cash replied with a smile. “If I gave him a red light and told him not to go, I don’t know what the hell would happen. He’s got a green light even when he’s got a red light. He doesn’t care. He’s running.”

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A random obscure former player snapshot:

Ike Brown, who played for the Detroit Tigers from 1969-1974, is believed to the last player to go from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. An infielder/outfielder who was born and raised in Memphis, Brown had his contract purchased by the Tigers from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1961 as the post-integration Negro Leagues were coming to an end. He put up a 119 wRC+ over 644 career plate appearances while seeing action at seven different positions.

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Pitcher-catcher relationships are important, and for some hurlers, having the same battery mate has been paramount. Clayton Kershaw meshed well with A.J. Ellis when the latter was a Dodger. Jon Lester always wanted to throw to David Ross. Bruce Kimm caught all 29 of Mark Fidrych’s starts in The Bird’s magical 1976 rookie season. From personal catchers to the strongly-preferred, it is a dynamic with a long history that extends to the present day.

A.J. Hinch isn’t a fan.

“I stay away from the personal-catcher declaration as much as possible, because I can’t always control when they are going to be available,” the Detroit Tigers manager told me earlier this week in Lakeland. “If you don’t do the personal-catcher thing from the very beginning, you don’t have to worry about something happening and having the pitcher’s world cave in. My goal is to have all of our pitchers comfortable with each catcher, and vice versa. Now, I’ve had a pitcher have a majority of starts with the same [catcher] — they catch a rhythm, or maybe he gets the most of out him — but I don’t know that there’s anything definitive I can grab that would make me want to do it.”

Following up, I asked the catcher-turned-manager about any performance issues he’s encountered when a pitcher didn’t have his preferred receiver behind the dish. He claimed not to have put a lot of thought into it.

“Maybe part of that is I don’t want to believe it,” explained Hinch. “More importantly, I don’t want the pitcher to believe it. I would never want to put it in the pitcher’s mind that he’s going to perform worse because one guy is behind the plate versus another.”

That’s not to say he wouldn’t have embraced the role he now eschews.

“I always thought I should have been a personal catcher,” said Hinch, who was almost exclusively a backup during his big-league playing days. “I just didn’t get paired up with a good enough guy to carry me through my career.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Pitcher List’s Lucas Seehafer looked at how Zack Wheeler leverages his fastballs to be one of MLB’s best.

Through The Fence Baseball’s Mark Brown wrote about three franchises who are addressing a perplexing future,

At Twins Daily, Cody Christie wrote about a prospect who could fill a Donovan Solano-type role in Minnesota.

Five years after being let go in Toronto, John Gibbons is back in a big-league dugout as Carlos Mendoza’s bench coach with the New York Mets. Shi Davidi talked to the erstwhile Blue Jays manager for Sportsnet.

The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro wrote about how Kristian Robinson is flashing potential in Diamondbacks camp.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers had 41 pitch-timer violations last year (11 of them by Johan Oviedo), the most in the majors. Seattle Mariners pitchers had six pitch-timer violations, the fewest in the majors.

Seattle Mariners batters had 39 pitch-timer violations last year, tied for the most in the majors with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Minnesota Twins batters had 13 pitch-timer violations, the fewest in the majors.

Arizona Diamondbacks hitters had a .250 batting average against right-handed pitchers last year. They had a .251 batting average against left-handed pitchers.

Matt Chapman, who turns 31 in April, has played seven seasons and has 1,448 total bases, a 118 wRC+, and 27.4 WAR. Doug DeCinces’s first seven seasons as a full-time player, which came at ages 25-31 from 1976-1982, saw the erstwhile third baseman log 1,495 total bases, a 121 wRC+, and 28.5 WAR.

Miguel Cabrera had 511 home runs and a 139 wRC+.
Eddie Mathews had 512 home runs and a 143 wRC+.

Tom Seaver tossed 61 shutouts and induced 316 GIDPs.
Nolan Ryan tossed 61 shutouts and induced 314 GIDPs.

The San Diego Padres signed Craig Breslow as a free agent on today’s date in 2005. The Yale University product made his MLB debut that summer and went on pitch 12 big-league seasons. The southpaw appeared in 576 games, including 202 each with the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics.

The Pittsburgh Pirates purchased Debs Garms from the Boston Bees on today’s date in 1940. The outfielder/third baseman from Bang, Texas proceeded to win that year’s NL batting title with a .355 average.

Players born on today’s date include Josef Koukalik, a right-handed pitcher who appeared in one game for the Brooklyn Superbas in 1904. One of just four natives of the Czech Republic in MLB history — his family emigrated to Chicago when he was a toddler — Koukalik allowed one earned run over eight innings in a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

Also born on today’s date was Aubrey “Yo-Yo” Epps, a catcher who appeared in one game for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1935. Playing in the second game of a double-header on the final day of the season, Epps went 3-for-4 with a triple and three RBIs. His .750 batting average is the highest in franchise history among players with more than two plate appearances.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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dmfox
2 months ago

Thanks for the Phil Marchildon reference! Growing up in Midland, Ontario, right next door to Phil’s hometown of Penetanguishene (“place of the rolling sands, in Ojibwe), I was always taken by the big old black and white photo of him in the Penetang arena when we played hockey there. Phil held the record for most Wins in a season (19, in 1947) and a career before Chatham’s Fergie Jenkins broke both in the 60s. I spent a very nice afternoon with Phil’s youngest daughter Dawna, who let me leaf through scrapbooks of her dad’s newspaper clippings.