Can Louie Varland Answer Twins’ Middle Relief Questions?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Louie Varland found some success in 2023 as a Minnesota Twins starter, including a 5-game stretch in May where he posted a 2.67 ERA and struckout nearly a batter an inning. But after 10 starts and 56 innings of work, Varland was sent down to Triple-A St. Paul with a 5.30 ERA and 1.357 WHIP.

While he was better starting games for the Saints, his 4.06 ERA wasn’t something he bragged about to his Triple-A buddies on the team bus. But with the season winding down, both at CHS and Target Fields, the Twins turned to Varland and asked him to come out of the bullpen during the final stretch run this season.

Louie Varland, the reliever…

Varland admitted to reporters that he wasn’t all that happy when the Twins asked him to try the bullpen. He views himself as a starter, longterm, and wanted his bosses to understand that.

“I believe the best version of myself’s a starter. Starters also get paid. Yeah. I want to stay a starter as long as I possibly can. … I just had to voice my opinion on it so we’re on the same page, basically. I felt stubborn and I just had to voice my opinion. But we’re all on the same page now. All hands on deck. I’ll do whatever it takes to win and whatever the Twins need.”

Louie Varland (via The Athletic)

But only three pitchers will be tagged as starters, when the Twins enter the 2023 postseason in a few weeks, and there’s a big middle-relief weak spot in their bullpen. So after making his future plans clear to Twins brass, Louie walked out of the Saints bullpen for the first time this summer and, just a couple pitches in, it became clear that the Twins may have stumbled across a high-level relief option.

As a starter in 2023, Louie Varland averaged 94.9 MPH on his fastball. In his one relief appearance in St. Paul, that jumped to 97.2 MPH and he hit 100 MPH multiple times.

Pitchers throwing harder out of the bullpen isn’t a new phenomenon. But adding 5 MPH in his first relief opportunity left jaws dropped around Twins nation. And with Louie’s starter arsenal of off-speed pitches, he looked downright overqualified for minor league bullpen work.

First bullpen opportunity with Twins

So on Wednesday, Varland got his first appearance out of the big league bullpen. How did it go? Louie entered yesterday’s game to start the 5th inning. Three innings later, he exited after allowing just 1 hit, 1 walk and 0 runs.

He topped out at 98.9 MPH, the hardest pitch he’s thrown in an MLB game during his young career, so far. In all reality, the Varland bullpen experiment could not have gotten off to a better start.

“His stuff is there. When he went to the bullpen, I think he’s got a little bit more of that bulldog mentality: ‘I’m going to let it rip for as long as I’ve got it.’ So to see him up there in the 8s and 9s, really firing the ball in there, you can kind of see from my perspective, you could see some of the swings they were taking were uneasy. I could see the fastball was getting on to guys. … When you’re throwing with the stuff he has, it’s kind of hard to hit.”

Ryan Jeffers on Louie Varland (via The Athletic)

Obviously, the Minnesota Twins are going to turn to Jhoan Duran late, in high leverage situations, during the postseason. Just like they have for the better part of two seasons. But if they go to the bullpen for middle relief, the clear front runner to be called upon is Louie Varland. We’ll see if he can cement himself into that role, over the next few weeks, before the regular season expires and the playoffs begin.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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