It can be challenging for fans to temper their expectations, especially when their team is toeing the line of another postseason berth. But for Minnesota Twins faithful, the excitement has gone to another level with the announcement that hometown kid, Louie Varland, would be making his much-ballyhooed major league debut. Many had been clamoring for this development since the young right-hander was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Twins last season. Some desperately hope he can be a sorely needed jolt in the arm for a tired, beleaguered rotation.
Still, is that a fair expectation to put on a kid that was in Low-A just last season? Has the season really come down to a potential handful of starts from a mid-level prospect? Louie doesn’t need to be a star to be a success story — or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. But what are some reasonable expectations for Varland now that we’ve seen his first start?
He was raised just miles from CHS Field, and his new home ballpark, Target Field. But Varland didn’t get the benefit of taking a major league mound in the comforts of his home state on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, they threw him into the fiery depths of Yankee Stadium.
Varland didn’t get to sleep in his own bed the night before. He didn’t get to come home to a plateful of mom’s hot dish or a Tupperware of leftover Sweet Martha’s cookies. Instead, he got to feast on the pure adrenaline of facing Aaron Judge and the first-place New York Yankees, where he twirled 5.1 innings of three-hit ball. Varland walked one and struck out seven. He flashed the league’s biggest smile as he departed the mound in front of 25 guests that made their way to the Bronx to witness his debut.
Listen, a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium sounds about as fun as a root canal for any team, especially for the Twins, whose record against their biggest bully over the last 15 years is as numbing as novocaine.
But Varland held his head high, knowing he earned this call-up thanks to his strong fastball, clean mechanics, and winning spirit. Fans know how high these attributes can raise expectations in the final month of the season. They only have to look back one calendar year to find the last time they had such high hopes for a pitching prospect. Last September, Joe Ryan was at the other end of this excitement. Fans had their fingers crossed that this would be the guy to raise the water level of the starting rotation. That enthusiasm continued until 2022, when Ryan took the bump as the team’s Opening Day starter.
I’m certainly not claiming that Varland should be under serious consideration for a Game 1 nod, but the Ryan comparison is appropriate. Both pitchers own a flashy fastball, shoved in the high-minors, and project to be mid-rotation starters in the big leagues for years to come. Ryan had a 3.41 ERA with a 7.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 14 appearances at Triple-A. In 24 starts between Double-A and Triple-A this year, Varland had a 3.06 ERA with a much milder 3.48 K/BB. The former debuted in the final month of his team’s lost season, and the latter took on the dreaded Yankees while their team clung to a potential playoff possibility. Both received incredible hype before their debuts.
But the current excitement surrounding Ryan pales compared to what Twins fans expressed a year ago. The rookie still owns a respectable 3.88 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. Still, the same fans that were thrilled with Ryan’s addition at the expense of fan-favorite Nelson Cruz are now wavering on their comfortability with him in a potential playoff start. In 22 appearances this season, he’s given up four or more runs in five of them. Not to mention, he has a 5.44 ERA in the second half.
Granted, the hype was not the problem. It’s natural to make expectations and change them as time goes on. That’s the point.
As starved as Twins fans are for high-caliber arms in their starting rotation, they need to realize that they can’t will it into existence. Pitchers don’t stop developing at the moment they get that exciting call to the big leagues. Their development is rarely linear. There are bound to be ups and downs from here on out.
That’s a fair mindset to have when considering Varland. It’s awesome that his debut was at a relatively high point on the roller coaster. But fans must prepare themselves for at least a few dips, which may put an uneasy pit in their stomach for a time. A year from now, if Varland has similar numbers to Ryan’s rookie campaign, the Twins and fans alike would gladly take that. And that’s not unreasonable, given each’s success at the top levels of the minor leagues.
Varland’s debut against the Yankees shows why you should be excited about his future.
Ryan’s rookie season shows why you should temper expectations to something more reasonable.