The Minnesota Twins have been able to avoid significant injuries, for the most part, as they have ascended to a lead in the AL Central. Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa have stayed healthy, and they were able to welcome back Jorge Polanco to the lineup. Kenta Maeda has an elbow issue. However, the team hasn’t confirmed exactly how long he will be out.
But just as the team was ready to breeze into the summer, Tyler Mahle received some terrible news. He elected to have Tommy John surgery, and his ensuing absence will hurt. The Twins may need whoever they use to fill in his place for longer than a short stint. Bailey Ober has impressed with his extreme profile, but Louie Varland will also get an opportunity with Maeda and Mahle out. Varland picked up his first win this season against the Chicago Cubs, and he could tally on several more with his skillset.
The Twins may only use Varland as a short-term option because of an abundance of arms on the team. Upon Maeda’s return, Minnesota may opt to send Varland back down for some extra seasoning in the minor leagues. But no matter his fate, Varland will be a name to remember. The 25-year-old St. Paul native has dominated all minor league (MiLB) stops he’s made on the way to Triple-A. He has a career 2.70 MiLB ERA, and he’s accomplished that feat with a 1.20 WHIP with 323 (!) strikeouts in 253 innings.
Nobody should expect him to strike out batters at that rate in the MLB, but there’s reason to believe he can become an above-average strikeout pitcher with mid-rotation potential. Varland’s fastball is a key component to his success. His four-seamer has risen in velocity from 92 to 94 mph to 94 to 96 mph in his recent starts. Varland touched 99 against the San Diego Padres, and his spectacular near-seven feet of extension makes it a bit of a sizzler.
Combining the respectable velocity and extension with even more impressive spin rates has allowed Varland a 13.1% swinging strike rate. 9.4% is average on four-seamers; Shohei Ohtani and Shane McClanahan have 13.7% and 13.8%, respectively. Varland has a relatively vertical approach. His fastball’s spin direction is about 1:00, meaning the axis that the ball spins is tilted slightly to his right/arm side.
Varland gets the most out of his above-average spin as he can, with the active spin on his fastball currently at 96%. Varland’s fastball is pretty fast with pretty good backspin and minimal sidespin, meaning he’s got a riser. Most importantly, he’s used it exactly how he should. He’s got a Pitcherlist Value (PLV) of 5.69 with it. PLV was created by the data-driven site Pitcherlist to assess how well a pitcher performs without factoring in the outcome of the pitch. Pitches that are located well with high velocity and high movement grade out better than those that are not. 5.5 is considered elite despite the scale being 0-10. He also has a PLA of 1.69. PLA is just PLV but converted into an ERA metric. When factoring in the components of PLV like location and velocity of the pitch, Varland’s ERA while throwing his fastball is 1.69.
His secondaries may not be as noteworthy, at least not yet. Varland has had some success with his changeup, but he’s struggled to control it. He’s located it poorly more often than he’s located it well, according to the folks at Pitcherlist. Varland doesn’t throw it often (16% usage), but when he does, it hangs a tad too high where it’s hittable. He’s located his slider much better, down and away against right-handed batters.
I’ve discussed it before briefly with Mahle, but Varland has a substantial movement gap with his fastball and slider. The ideal induced vertical break difference is 8-16 inches, the ideal induced horizontal break difference is 6-14 inches, and the ideal velocity difference is 6-11 mph. Varland’s numbers are about 19-20 inches vertical, 18 inches horizontal, and 11.3 mph. His cutter helps mitigate the damages such a wide difference can create, but it may be necessary to rework the slider. The velocity gains he’s made with his fastball just haven’t translated fully to his slider.
Varland will get a crack at the rotation with Mahle out for the season. He can stick in the rotation permanently if he’s able to work out some issues with his secondaries. Improved control of his changeup is crucial. Increasing his slider velocity a tick or two could also help to better fool batters. His fastball is already effective, thanks in part to the velocity gains he’s made. If everyone breaks just right, Varland could be a solid rotation piece for the Twins.