Louie Varland Has Rebuilt His Confidence In St. Paul

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never something players want to face after making it up to the big leagues for the first time. But sometimes, a player struggles at the highest level and needs to go back to Triple-A to sort things out.

That was the case for Louie Varland following a dreadful start against the Detroit Tigers on April 21 at Target Field. Varland threw 74 pitches but only got through 2 ⅔ innings, allowing four runs on three hits, four walks, and a home run.

“I work hard every week, I do all the right things, and then to go out there and have an outing like this, it’s frustrating,” Varland told reporters following his April 21 start. “It’s everything I asked for. I trained for this offseason and going into camp. Had the opportunity right in front of me, and it’s just not ideal how it’s been going.”

The next day, the Twins front office optioned Varland to Triple-A. They selected reliever Ronny Henriquez‘s contract to cover some innings until they recalled Simeon Woods Richardson to fill Varland’s spot in the rotation.

On the following Saturday, April 27, Varland made his first start for the St. Paul Saints in the first game of a doubleheader against the Rochester Red Wings.

He laid out his Triple-A goals after his first start. “It’s basically being able to land a changeup for a strike,” he said, “get more competitive misses, and build some confidence.”

Varland successfully rebuilt his confidence over his first two starts with the Saints. In his season debut against the Red Wings, he threw five innings of one-run ball, allowing only four hits and a walk but struck out five. His second start, though, was phenomenal. Varland threw seven shutout innings, allowed only three hits, and struck out eight batters on 77 pitches.

The results from these two starts put Varland back on track to being the starter the Twins front office knew he could be in Spring Training. More importantly, he regained control of his changeup, which he struggled with in the majors. And the pitch has continued to flourish every time he has thrown it.

Varland has thrown his changeup 76 times in his four starts with the Saints. He never had a batter swing and miss on the changeup in his four starts with the Twins, but he’s accumulated 12 swings and misses on it with it in St. Paul, accumulating a 15.7% whiff rate.

Varland has started to command his changeup. Of the 76 times he’s thrown it over the last four starts, he has only missed the strike zone 28 times, resulting in a 63.2% strike-to-ball rate. Of his five walks allowed in 21 ⅔ innings with the Saints, only two have been allowed on his changeup.

“It’s been great,” Varland said on May 15 regarding the results of his changeup. “Especially today, I had close to 10 swings and misses on just that pitch. So it’s a huge positive, throwing it to both sides of the plate. So, I’ve slowly gained confidence and control. It’s been a weapon recently.”

However, not all of Varland’s minor-league results have been positive. Over his last two starts, he’s allowed 10 earned runs in 10 ⅔ innings of work. The Omaha Storm Chasers tallied five runs against the Varland on Wednesday night. Varland allowed six base runners in the second inning on five base hits and a fielder’s choice.

“It was just their approach,” Varland said. “I figured out their approach after that second inning, and I think that’s what the great pitchers do. The sooner you can figure out their approach the better, and I am learning to do that now.”

Varland faired much better in the following two innings in Wednesday’s start, retiring the minimum in the third and fourth innings while striking out three batters. The fifth wasn’t as great as Drew Waters hit a home run to lead off the inning, and a single and walk followed. However, Varland regained his composure to avoid further damage and ended his start on a better note.

“I just pitched the opposite of their approach,” he said. “That’s what I did, and it worked out.”

“Louie threw the ball pretty well,” Saints manager Toby Gardenhire said following Varland’s start Wednesday night. “But when you’re on the mound, you have to figure out a way to pitch out of some of those jams and make those pitches. He’ll tell you he missed a couple of spots and things, but overall, he didn’t throw the ball too bad.”

Despite his ups and downs at Triple-A, Varland has regained his confidence and shown a resurgent stride in his command of the strike zone. Saints pitching coach Pete Larson has been instrumental in Varland’s improvement. He has worked with Varland at every level except High-A since 2021. There may be no better person in the farm system to help Varland.

“Louie’s always up for a challenge, and that’s what makes him awesome,” said Larson. “We think the changeup tweaks that he’s made are extremely positive and how quickly he picked it up was awesome. It’s an attribute to him and his work ethic. I’ve been with him for six years, and anything we throw at him, he’s always had the attitude of, ‘All right. Give me the goal, and let’s do it.’”

Varland is maintaining that mentality Larson described despite back-to-back mediocre starts. No matter what the outcome is for Varland’s return to the majors, either as a reliever or a starter. Varland is seeing the growth within himself that he needs to achieve to return as soon as possible.

“I have quotas to hit, some usage stuff, and some other goals every start that I’m trying to hit,” said Varland. “I try to hit those things, I try to work on them, and also try and win the game, but at the end of the day, it’s growing as a pitcher, getting better and getting more big league ready.”

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