Twins

Minnesota's Lack Of Pitching Depth Is A Blessing and A Curse For Louie Varland

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the Minnesota Twins were underwhelmed coming into the 2024 season. Their payroll cuts squashed the high of breaking a two-decade playoff curse. During a relatively quiet winter at Target Field, the team didn’t add replacements in the starting pitching rotation. Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, and Kenta Maeda all left in free agency, which gave the Twins a shortage of proven big-league options to help them return to the postseason.

Anthony DeSclafani came to Minnesota in the Jorge Polanco trade as the only depth addition to the rotation. The Twins front office didn’t land any premier free-agent pitchers. Still, starting pitching was expected to be a strength of this team. Not just on the high end with Pablo López, but the team also had five young pitchers with upside.

Louie Varland started 10 games for the Twins in 2023 and posted a 4.63 ERA in 68 innings. Despite the fan support for the North St. Paul-born righty, he was expected to start the year in Triple-A St. Paul after Minnesota traded for DeSclafani. But DeSclafani likely will never make a start in a Twins uniform after he underwent season-ending flexor tendon surgery in late March.

The Twins lost out on a chance for another starter, but Varland emerged as the big winner. He broke camp with the major league club, ready to get an opportunity that Bailey Ober didn’t get a season ago because of Minnesota’s pitching depth. However, only three starts into the season, the Twins’ lack of pitching depth is hurting Varland in the long run, even though the same situation is helping him in the short term.

Varland had stretches in 2023 where fans could see a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher to help out the club for the next handful of years. But nothing has gone right for the St. Paul native this season. Varland owns an 8.36 ERA in 14 innings through his first three starts of 2024. Opposing lineups are hammering Varland’s pitches. Varland has allowed five home runs in his first three starts after allowing 16 in 10 starts last year.

Keeping the ball in the yard has been his big issue, which hasn’t changed this season. It’s not a case of bad luck, either. He has a 50 percent hard-hit rate, well higher than the 36.3 percent league average. Also, his 91.9 MPH average exit velocity is higher than the 88.4 MPH league average.

Varland throws around the strike zone with a 6.1 percent career walk rate, and the league average is 8.4 percent. A 96 MPH average fastball and Varland’s strategy to attack the strike zone aren’t the issue. Opposing hitters have gone up to the plate swinging, and he’s been unable to generate swings and misses. Because he’s still developing his secondary pitches, opposing teams can just time up his heater and tee off on it.

As a reliever, Varland could rely solely on a pair of pitches to get outs. But as a starter, he needs three-plus pitches that he trusts to throw multiple innings. Varland returned to his curveball and got rid of the sweeper this year. But he relied on his fastball and cutter last season, each with a 2-run value and 4-run value, and they were his only plus pitches.

However, he has generated a -5 run value with his 4-seam fastball and a -6 run value with his cutter this year. His curveball has a 1-run value, and his 2-seamer and changeup are at 0. And Varland doesn’t throw all of them as often as his fastballs. He has thrown his fastball and cutter a combined 68.5 percent of the time in 2024. As a pitcher who attacks the strike zone, Varland must get his fastball right, or everything else falls apart.

Minnesota’s lack of pitching depth is a blessing and a curse for Varland. It doesn’t look like anyone is pushing him for a spot in the rotation. Therefore, if he is struggling with generating whiffs or developing pitch mixes, he can’t vacate a rotation spot to work things out in St. Paul. Starting in the minors to begin last season probably wasn’t fair to Ober or Varland. However, it allowed them to fully earn the opportunity and flexibility to return to Triple-A and correct issues.

Maybe Varland will end up being a reliever in the long term, but the Twins can’t slide him into the bullpen without opening up a bigger hole in the rotation. Because they didn’t add more starting pitchers in the offseason, Minnesota must keep starting Varland until someone else can fill in for him.

Simeon Woods Richardson had a good performance in Detroit on Saturday. However, his 7.56 ERA in 8.1 Triple-A innings this season indicates he still needs development time. The Twins probably can’t call him up to replace Varland while he works things out in St. Paul. David Festa has only three career starts for the Saints. He has a 2.16 ERA in Triple-A, but he likely needs to keep pitching in the minors before bumping Varland down to the minors.

The Twins aren’t afraid to shuffle players around if they’re struggling. It’s not an exact comparison, but Matt Wallner only had two hits in 13 games, and they sent him back to St. Paul. The timing worked out with Trevor Larnach coming off the injured list.

Even though Larnach has his struggles with a 34 percent strikeout rate and just 109 games played over the last two seasons, he can still hold his own in the majors long enough for Wallner to get right in St. Paul. Woods Richardson or Festa could eventually become that for Varland later in the season. But he needs to suppress runs so long as the Twins continue to have him make major league starts.

Louie Varland is building on a good 2023 season. He still has an opportunity to pitch his way out of a tough start to 2024. Unless Varland’s production gets drastically worse, he seems to have no choice but to make it work, whether it’s good for him in the long term or not.

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Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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