There is a maxim in baseball that most relief pitchers are “failed starters.” Most of these kinds of adages are rooted in kernels of truth, even if they don’t blanketly apply to every case.
The Twins’ current bullpen options comprise several examples.
Jhoan Duran came up through the minors as a starting prospect. Griffin Jax started 14 games for the Twins in 2021. Brock Stewart has made 11 career starts. Cole Sands and Jordan Balazovic were both developed into Triple-A as starters. Jorge Alcalá was primarily a starting pitcher until he reached Double-A.
Beyond those, it’s usually true that almost everyone who makes it to professional baseball was a starting pitcher as an amateur.
For @Dbacks reliever Andrew Chafin, "Failed Starter" is a name he wears proudly on his sleeve (or, well, shirt). Hear more about the tee's origin and why @BigCountry1739 likes seeing it put a smile on fans' faces. pic.twitter.com/HXTr6tgxjK— MLBPA (@MLBPA) June 15, 2023
In most of these situations, the decision to shift a pitcher to relief permanently is pretty straightforward for any number of reasons. They might get exposed and become ineffective at a new level (Jax, Sands). They might get injured and move to relief to try to stay healthier (Stewart, Balazovic). They might have long-term questions about their ability to start due to control, lack of third pitch, or other skill reasons (Alcalá). Some of those kinds of pitchers possess the kind of stuff that profiles in impact roles in the major league bullpen and get moved to fast-track their arrival (Duran).
Rarer are the cases like the one facing the Twins this winter with Louie Varland where the decision to start or relieve might not be so clear-cut.
A Viable Starting Prospect
Varland, as this crowd well knows, was the Twins back-to-back minor league pitcher of the year in 2021 and 2022. Across 319.2 innings over four different minor league seasons, Varland had an aggregate 2.96 ERA while working almost exclusively as a starter. Varland struck out better than a batter per inning (28.7% overall) and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings in that span. He also kept the ball in the park (0.8 HR/9).
That performance got him placed on the back end of the top 100 prospect lists earlier this season as a high-probability 4th or 5th starter. Varland’s performance in the high minors justified that outlook, and so did his scouting report.
Despite some initial concerns about his delivery forcing him to relief, FanGraphs’ prospect writers lauded Varland’s demonstrated ability to throw quality strikes with 4 or 5 different pitches and the sustained velocity and stuff quality improvement that he experienced with some mechanical cleanup in the Twins’ development system.
Varland’s Major League career began with 15 starts (5 in 2022, 10 in early 2023) that brought mixed results. He showed flashes of outperforming that back-end starter projection, like when he blanked the defending champion Astros on the road for seven innings and when he authored a couple of strong starts at Yankee Stadium. But he also issued some clunkers, like his seven-run outing in Tampa Bay and a six-run start against Detroit.
Together, Varland has worked 82 innings as a major league starter with a 4.83 ERA, 5.11 FIP, a league average-ish strikeout rate (21.6% as a starter, league average was 22.1%), and an above-average walk rate (6.3% vs. 7.9%). It’s fairly normal for a pitcher to shed some strikeouts when they move from facing minor league to major league hitters, but Varland’s nearly one-quarter decline stands out.
Moreover, he has no longer been able to keep the ball in the park and has yielded 1.98 home runs per nine innings as an MLB starter, more than double his minor league rate. You can potentially point out some misfortune due to his significantly elevated 18.0% rate of home runs per flyball allowed (compared to the 13.3% league average for starting pitchers), but that’s contrasted by the fact that Statcast’s estimates of Varland’s expected number of home runs allowed based on batted ball data perfectly matches his actual homers allowed.
Varland has also displayed a pronounced reverse platoon split as a starter. He’s been more effective against left-handed hitters, holding them to .320 wOBA, but he’s been trounced by right-handed hitters to the tune of .364 wOBA). Thirteen of the eighteen home runs he’s allowed in a starting role in the majors have come from right-handed batters.
While 82 innings and 15 starts are hardly enough to make any definitive conclusions about Varland as a major league starter, it’s worth putting his work in context with the rest of the league. Here are Varland’s ranks among the 213 different pitchers to have worked at least 80 innings in a starting capacity in the past two seasons:
- ERA: 159th
- FIP: 189th
- K%: t-110th
- HR/9: 209th
- AVG:: t-165th
By ERA and AVG, Varland’s peers in these rankings included Dylan Bundy and Kyle Gibson. By FIP, Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, and Madison Bumgarner. Yikes. Things were a little more favorable by strikeout rate, where he was with José Berríos, Jordan Montgomery, Patrick Sandoval, and Alek Manoah. Overall, though, those are probably not the contemporaries you want to be hanging around with. In total, Varland’s starting work thus far has been roughly replacement level by fWAR.
Flashing in Relief
After a nine-turn run in the starting rotation last May and June, Varland was pushed back to St. Paul when the Twins’ starting staff got healthy. He continued to work there in a starting role through the summer, but with the Twins in contention and working with an occasionally shorthanded (and sometimes wobbly) bullpen late last season, Varland was a natural choice to shift to relief for the stretch run.
Louie Varland was throwing heat in his first relief appearance of the season for the @StPaulSaints⚡️— Twins Player Development (@TwinsPlayerDev) September 1, 2023
Varland touched 100.1 mph which was the fastest pitch he’s ever thrown. His 4 fastest pitches of his career all came yesterday #MNTwins pic.twitter.com/4Jj23NX6xI
Varland made one relief appearance in St. Paul to prepare for his new role and then headed back to the Twins for September. He pitched regularly in relief for the Twins the rest of the way, working 12 innings, allowing two runs on two solo home runs, and striking out 17 batters against just a single walk.
Varland more or less operated the same way in relief as he had as a starting pitcher. His pitch usage was nominally similar, led by his four-seamer and cutter making up about three-quarters of his offerings, while he mixed in changeups and sliders, and the occasional sinker for the rest.
Often when a starter moves to relief, they experience an uptick in stuff, largely because of increased pitch velocity. That was certainly true for Varland, who went from averaging 94.5 mph on his four-seamer as a starter to 97.5 mph as a reliever. That pushed his four-seamer Stuff+ from an average-ish 101 as a starter to a well-above-average 117 in relief. (Here, I’ll caveat that Varland’s work in relief is a very small sample (173 regular season pitches) and still below the threshold where the pitch quality models stabilize.)
That extra heat helped Varland miss bats at a higher rate, particularly within the strike zone. As a starter his overall whiff rate was 23.3%. In relief, that shot up to 31.3%. On pitches within the strike zone, Varland drew swings and misses on just 11.8% of swings. As a reliever, 23.2%.
Again with a screaming small sample caveat, here are Varland’s ranks among the 639 relievers to have thrown at least 10 innings in the past two seasons:
- ERA: t-13th
- FIP: t-55th
- K%: 2nd
- HR/9: t-505th
- AVG: t-13th
To Start or Relieve?
The question facing the Twins this winter is what’s the best role for Louie Varland going forward? What’s most helpful to the organization? In which role can Varland be most successful?
Varland has been clear that he sees himself as a starter and wants to continue in that kind of role. It’s hard to blame him for that thinking. Competent starting pitchers get paid in ways that only the best relievers can even dream of.
In a way, Varland’s interests and the Twins’ interests might be well aligned this winter. With Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda already finding new homes with other organizations (and getting paid handsomely to do so), Minnesota has holes to fill in its rotation. The Twins are also looking to reduce payroll, which makes filling one of those spots with a pre-arbitration player making the league minimum like Varland an attractive option relative to spending the $10 million-ish annual going rate on a veteran free agent starter.
At the same time, the results thus far suggest that Varland is no sure thing to be a capable starter and might have the upside to be an impact reliever. The assessment is not as straightforward as simply comparing Varland’s numbers in the two roles because the baselines are different, as research has shown. Starting pitchers allow, on average, about one more run every nine innings than relievers do. Their wOBA allowed is usually about 30 points worse. Relievers strike out about 17% more batters and allow about 17% fewer home runs.
It’s too early to declare Varland a “failed starter,” but given work in the majors thus far, it’s fair to suggest that he *might* become a league-average starter with some continued development to suppress homers and close his platoon split. But it seems pretty uncertain.
On the other hand, he’s probably already an above-average reliever, and it’s probably fair to have a much higher degree of confidence that he can stay that way.
The viability of Varland in either role gives the Twins some roster-building flexibility this winter as they evaluate free agents or trades. We (and Varland) might not know the ultimate outcome until the end of Spring Training.
What is the best role for Louie Varland in 2024?
This poll is closed
In the starting rotation
In the bullpen