Louie Varland had no expectations walking into Target Field for his pre-draft workout more than two years ago. He didn’t know much about the Twins’ interest in him. There must have been some, he thought, or they would not have invited in the first place. But he had no idea whether they might draft him.
But in the local kid, a North St. Paul High School grad and then a Concordia University pitcher, the Twins saw something they liked and grabbed him with their 15th-round pick in 2019. Since then, the right-hander has done everything in his power to reward them for that decision.
Varland, 23, was named the Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in September. That came after he posted a 2.10 earned-run average and struck out 12.4 batters per nine innings in 20 games — 18 starts — in 2021 between Class-A Fort Myers and Class-A Advanced Cedar Rapids, where he ended the season.
“It’s always cool to wins awards like that, but I have to credit all my coaches I had throughout the year and also my teammates and my defense make incredible plays behind me.,” Varland said. “But receiving that award is always nice. I was really happy once I got it. It was kind of a goal that I had halfway through the season was to win this thing after I was doing well. It was an honor to win that award.”
An honor born of hard work.
Varland is currently listed as the Twins’ No. 28 prospect per MLB Pipeline and the 15th-round draft pick has certainly made an impression within the organization. Near the end of the season after Varland received the award, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said the pitcher had “put himself on the big league radar,” and that “everyone has to pay attention to him right now.”
“We have this stable of starting pitchers who are coming. A year ago, I don’t know that we would have put him in that stable. Now, he’s in that stable,” general manager Thad Levine said in September. “Not only is he in that stable, but he’s in a leadership position in that stable. So, it’s a tremendous success story for the organization and Louie, the coaches and the staff who worked with him that deserve a ton of credit.”
Much of that work can be traced back to last year. Though COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the Minor League Baseball season, and Varland had thrown just 8 2/3 game innings as a professional the year before, he utilized the time away to develop. He spent the year working with Twins coaches Mark Moriarty and Richard Salazar — both of whom served as pitching coaches at Cedar Rapids in 2021 — and Twins motion-performance coach Martijn Verhoeven.
Verhoeven helped highlight flaws in his delivery, and the two worked to clean up his “case of elbow climb.” By dropping his arm slot, Varland was able to become more efficient with his movement while also lessening some of the stress on his elbow, eliminating the soreness he would experience after outings.
He also spent time working at Starters Sports Training, attending sessions on Fridays during which he would max out his effort for 16 pitches in an attempt to stimulate his central nervous system, he said, which in turn would help him throw harder in-game.
His work both at Starters and with Twins coaches cleaning up his mechanics has led him to a point where he was sitting around 94 mph last year, an increase from the 91-92 mph he was sitting at two years ago. Varland is currently tinkering with his slider, bumping up the velocity to around 85 mph while working to the horizontal movement on the pitch.
“I think Louie Varland is a tremendous success story of our entire organization,” Levine said. “The conversation almost started with our analytics people who sat down with our pitching coaches and said, ‘Hey, we think there’s some opportunities for growth and development in Louie.’ We then presented a plan to him. He took it and ran. … He did last year, as well, on his own, and he comes back kind of a transformed individual who, at every step of the way, got a little bit better.”
Varland already has started training for the upcoming season — currently at Take the Field in North St. Paul, but soon back at Starters once he starts throwing bullpens and ramping up. He also keeps in close contact with his coaches from his Concordia days, especially John Gaub, who he said he talked to once or twice a week throughout the season.
During the offseason, he has a built-in training partner in his older brother, Gus, who also went to Concordia and spent last season pitching for the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate. The two are back in Minnesota during the offseason, training together.
Shortly after coming home for the offseason, Varland attended a Twins game at Target Field with his family. While he had no expectations walking out of Target Field a couple years ago, with some success under his belt, he has some now, and he’s able to visualize what it might be like pitching in front of the hometown crowd.
“It’s been a goal of mine and a dream. I really can picture myself on that mound throwing,” he said. “If things work out and I stay healthy, we’ll see.”
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