Sunday Notes: Twins Prospect Louie Varland is a St. Paul Sibling on the Rise

Louie Varland has been one of the best pitchers in the Minnesota Twins system this season. In 20 appearances — 10 with Low-A Fort Myers and 10 with High-A Cedar Rapids — the 23-year-old right-hander is 10-4 with a 2.10 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. Moreover, he has 142 strikeouts to go with just 30 walks in 103 innings.

In some respects, Varland has come out of nowhere. A 15th-round pick in 2019 who took the mound at a Division II school, he entered the current campaign well under the radar. His name was nowhere to be found on top-prospect rankings.

The relative obscurity doesn’t include the Twin Cities’ baseball community. The St. Paul native played close to home at Concordia University, as did his older brother, Gus Varland, who was drafted by the Oakland A’s in 2018.

The emerging Twins prospect has upped both his velocity and his pitching acumen since he toed the slab with the Golden Bears. Low-90s as a collegian, he’s now sitting 94 and topping out at 98. Varland shared that his four-seam fastball spins between 2,300 and 2,500 RPM and gets 17 inches of rise. Calling the pitch his “greatest gift right now,” he added that its effectiveness is due in part to “vertical approach angle, the riding illusion that hitters see.”

Varland credits his coaches at Concordia for helping him grow and mature, but he’s clearly stepped up his skill set since turning pro. Asked about those strides, he pointed to multiple members of the Twins player development staff, including a PhD who earned degrees both at the Utrecht (Netherlands) University and the University of Georgia.

“I would put it to our pitching coordinators and the pitching coaches with my teams,” said Varland. “But also Martijn [Verhoeven], our [motion performance] coach. He really cleaned up my mechanics so that I could pitch with an efficient arm path. That was really the root of it all; everything has stemmed from that.”

Asked to elaborate, Varland explained that he’d had “a severe case of elbow climb.” By lowering his slot he’s both lessened the stress on his elbow and created a more efficient arm path. That has allowed him to “throw cleaner and easier, and also harder.”

Again, that’s 94 mph, occasionally topping out at 98. According to Varland, his brother — a 24-year-old right-hander now in the Los Angeles Dodgers system — is almost identical, sitting 95 and topping out at 98. That’s quality velocity, but it takes more than firm fastballs to reach the big leagues. The St. Paul siblings need to further fine-tune their repertoires and continue to prove themselves as they climb the minor-league ladder. Based on this year’s performance, Louie Varland looks more than capable of doing both.

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Ryan McKenna grew up in Maine and attended high school in New Hampshire, so playing at Fenway Park is an especially big thrill. Doubling off of Chris Sale in his first-ever start at the historic ballpark, which he did on August 14, was therefore a moment he won’t soon forget. I asked the Baltimore Orioles rookie outfielder about it on Friday.

“He got me the first time, but I thought I saw him pretty well,” recalled McKenna, who chose humility over bravado when addressing the subject. “He’s got such a deceptive angle to his pitches, because he’s so far on the left side, so I was just trying to take it pitch-by-pitch and hoping to get one over the plate. I was trying to stay positive.”

Fair enough. But just how cool was it to get an extra-base knock off a pitcher of Sale’s caliber, and do so at Fenway Park?

“Very cool,” admitted the 24-year-old McKenna, who had a number of family and friends on hand that afternoon. “It’s a testament to a lot of hard work, and there’s a long road ahead, for sure. But yeah, it was pretty cool to get one off of him.”

Where did it rank among the biggest moments of his young career?

“Pretty high,” said McKenna. “My first home run and my first hit are No. 1 and No. 2. My first hit was actually against Boston, at Camden Yards, and my first homer was against Washington. The hit against Sale, here at Fenway, is probably No. 3.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Lance Johnson went 5 for 40 against Roger Clemens.

Tommy Davis went 5 for 40 against Luis Tiant.

Fielder Jones went 5 for 40 against Fred Glade.

Red Rolfe went 5 for 40 against Chubby Dean.

Zack Wheat went 5 for 40 against Elmer Jacobs.

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Before every game, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash sits down with the club’s radio broadcasters, Andy Freed and Dave Wills. They record a pregame interview, then proceed to talk shop. Interspersed with friendly banter, Cash shares information that the duo can then use on that evening’s broadcast.

What about the other way around? Does Cash glean anything of value from his sit-downs with Freed and Wills? I asked that question prior to a recent game.

“I think the perspective that Dave and Andy have is similar to a scout perspective,” Cash told me. “They watch more of our games than anybody, and sitting up in the booth they see different things that we may miss in the dugout. It’s always refreshing to be able to talk about it the next day.”

Likening Freed and Wills’s view to that of offensive and defensive coordinators positioned overhead in football stadiums, Cash explained that they can see defensive movement and jumps better than he can at field level. Aided by monitors, they can also see things like pitch movement. Moreover, Freed and Wills are far more tuned into what the Rays fanbase is experiencing.

“They have what the fans are seeing, and those questions can be brought up,” explained Cash. “It makes you think, because it’s a different perspective. We have so much information provided to us in the clubhouse before a game, but it’s also refreshing to hear their perspective — and our fans’ perspective — from what they’re viewing from their seats.”

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A quiz:

Twenty-three natives of Australia have pitched at least one game in the big leagues. Which Australian-born pitcher has recorded the most wins?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

The Kansas City Royals announced a pair of promotions on Tuesday, elevating Dayton Moore to President of Baseball Operations, and J.J. Picollo to General Manager. Moore and Picollo have worked together in the Royals front office since 2006.

Kyle Boddy announced on Friday that he is leaving the Cincinnati Reds organization. The founder of Driveline was with the Reds for two seasons, most recently as Director of Pitching. Boddy has reportedly spoken to other teams about potential positions within their organizations.

Ryan Mountcastle set the Orioles single-season rookie home run record when he went deep for the 29th time on Thursday. Cal Ripken Jr. had 28 home runs in his 1982 rookie season.

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The answer to the quiz is Grant Balfour and Graeme Lloyd.. The Australia-born pitchers finished their respective careers with 30 wins. Liam Hendriks has 27, the most among active Aussies.

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Danny Coulombe is taking an online class at Grand Canyon University, and one of the assignments has him making regular visits to FanGraphs. Tasked with finding a solution to a problem in his line of work, the Minnesota Twins reliever is tackling length of games.

“It’s a project management class,” Coulombe told me on a recent visit to Fenway Park. “There are a lot of things that go into length of games — underlying things that might be might be slowing it down — and FanGraphs has so much information, all of these stats, all of this data. I’ve been citing the site a lot.”

Coulombe has been digging into a variety of data, as well as delving into questions like, “Which innings are adding the most time?” and “Would making the strike zone bigger or smaller increase contact rates?’”

Has the 31-year-old former Texas Tech University student come to any conclusions?

“Not yet,” said Coulombe. “I’m very early on in this process.”

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Jeff Criswell admits that he might not be as cool as his sister. At least not until he reaches the big leagues. The 22-year-old right-hander was drafted in the second round last year by the Oakland A’s, but to date his bona fides are mostly limited to a University of Michigan education and a smattering of professional innings. No small shakes, but his three-years-older sibling has accomplished even more.

“She was an incredibly talented violin player,” explained Criswell, who himself played the cello and trombone while growing up in Portage, Michigan. “She had a very unique musical gift. She was in the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra, and we actually ended up taking a trip to China during my freshman year of high school. They did a four-city tour there, and it was a really cool experience for me, because I got to see a different part of the world and watch her play violin on a huge stage.”

Natalie Criswell went on to break swimming records at Bowling Green University, and now works in the corporate world. Do those accomplishments truly make her cooler than a brother playing professional baseball?

“They do,” said Criswell, who has a 4.50 ERA in five High-A appearances after getting a late start to the season due to injury. “She’s got a very long list of accomplishments that I don’t know I can compete with. And she’s very good about letting me know that, too. But we have a great relationship, and she’s definitely been a huge role model. Seeing her accomplish so many great things has pushed me to be more successful in the areas that I’m pursuing.”

Criswell is No. 8 on our updated Oakland A’s Top Prospects list.

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FARM REPORT

The Lansing Lugnuts and West Michigan Whitecaps split a doubleheader on Wednesday night, giving the High-A Central rivals an all-time series record of 200-200. (Hat tip to Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.)

Minnesota Twins infield prospect Jose Miranda leads the minors with 167 hits. The 23-year-old Puerto Rico native began the season with Double-A Wichita, where he slashed .345/.408/.588 with 13 home runs in 218 plate appearances. Since being promoted to Triple-A St. Paul, those numbers are .338/.390/.557 with 15 home runs in 323 plate appearances.

Kansas City Royals catching prospect MJ Melendez leads the minors with 38 home runs. A 22-year-old, left-hander hitter from Miami, Melendez has slashed .277/.380/.612 in 484 plate appearances between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha.

New York Yankees outfield prospect Everson Pereira has a 178 wRC+, the highest in the minors among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is slashing .303/.398/.686 with 20 home runs in 221 PAs split between three levels. Pereira is currently with High-A Hudson Valley.

Atlanta Braves right-handed relief prospect Indigo Diaz has a 1.42 FIP, the lowest in the minors among pitchers with at least 30 innings. The 22-year-old native of North Vancouver, via Michigan State University, has 83 strikeouts and just 21 hits allowed in 45 innings between High-A Rome and Double-A Mississippi.

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A statistical comp, through their age-22 seasons (Soto’s still ongoing):

Mike Trout: 493 games, 98 home runs, .305/.395/.549, .404 wOBA, 165 wRC+.

Juan Soto: 450 games, 94 home runs, .301/.429/.548, .408 wOBA, 155 wRC+.

Trout is widely considered to be the best player in baseball, and among the greatest ever to the play the game. Soto is well on his way to achieving similar status.

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Pirates manager Derek Shelton fielded multiple questions about Roberto Clemente Day earlier this week. One of the Zoom-call inquiries came from MLB.com’s Jake Crouse, and elicited this response:

“The first thing that jumps out to me is how great of a humanitarian he was,” said Shelton. “Obviously, he was one of the best baseball players of all time, and I think he was the greatest humanitarian that our game has ever had. Because of that, we recognize him every year. I just saw the list [of Roberto Clemente Award honorees] and what really stands out is, No. 1, Jacob Stallings, which I’m really excited about. Also Joe Musgrove, in San Diego. I sent Joe a text last night, congratulating him… You hear guys that are past winners talk about how it’s one of the greatest accomplishments in their career.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At USA Today, Cesar Brioso wrote about how Minnie Minoso’s legacy lives on as the Jackie Robinson of Latino players.

At Chicago Magazine, Peter Sagal wrote about how broadcaster Jason Benetti is the storyteller of the White Sox.

The Athletic’s Levi Weaver wrote about how Texas Rangers left-hander Taylor Hearn has turned himself into a legitimate starting pitcher.

Lookout Landing’s Michael Ajeto offered a nerdy look at the effectiveness of Mariners reliever Yohan Ramirez.

Justin Stofferahn presented a regional view of Minor League Baseball’s housing crisis at FanGraphs’ Community Research blog.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leads all American League hitters in batting average, base hits, home runs, runs scored, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR.

Max Scherzer is 7-0 with a 0.78 ERA in nine starts since joining the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline. The future Hall of Famer is 15-4, 2.08 on the season.

Jesse Chavez has a 1.57 FIP, the lowest among MLB relievers with at least 40 innings. The Atlanta Braves right-hander has made 26 appearances and worked 27 innings.

Shohei Ohtani has made 33 career starts and is 13-5 with a 3.68 ERA.
Zac Gallen has made 47 career starts and is 8-18 with a 3.45 ERA.

Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez has 610 plate appearances, 45 home runs, and a 128 wRC+. In 1998, Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall had 627 PAs, 12 home runs, and a 136 wRC+.

In 1975, the Oakland A’s had three relievers (Rollie Fingers, Paul Lindblad, and Jim Todd) pitch 120 or more innings. According to @LeeTrocinski, that’s the most in MLB history.

On today’s date in 1964, Willie Davis stole home in the bottom of the 16th inning as the Los Angeles Dodgers handed the Phillies their second-consecutive walk-off loss. Philadelphia won the following day, then lost their next 10 games to blow what had been a six-and-a-half game lead in the National League standings.

On today’s date in 1977, Ted Cox singled his first two times up to give him six hits in six big-league at bats. The Red Sox DH had gone 4-for-4 the previous day in his MLB debut. Cox had 189 career hits.

Players born on today’s date include Astyanax Douglass, a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds during the 1921 and 1925 seasons. The name “Astyanax” comes from Greek mythology.

Also born on today’s date was Ulysses McAtee, an infielder/outfielder for the Negro National League’s Louisville White Sox in 1931. McAtee hailed from Hopkinsville, Kentucky.





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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MikeS
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MikeS

You are only comparing Trout and Soto’s hitting. During his first ~500 games, Trout was +30.5 baserunning RAR and +8.6 fielding RAR. Soto is -2.0 and -28.3 in each of those, respectively. Trout has continued to be at least average in those facets, Soto isn’t likely to improve in either as he ages.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Haven’t most metrics shown that Soto improved his defense this year? His dWAR, DRS, and Outs Above Average are higher than previous years.