Louie Varland ended May by shutting out the defending champion Astros for seven innings in Houston. Varland limited the Astros to four hits and a walk and punched out five in his best start of the young season in his super spot-starter role for the Twins.
At that point, the Twins’ back-to-back reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Year held a 3.51 ERA over 41 innings pitched, despite making some challenging starts, including at Yankee Stadium, a home date against the all-in Padres, and three in a row against AL contenders Los Angeles, Toronto, and Houston. He had held his opponents to a .245 batting average and struck out 23.2% of the batters he’d faced while walking just 4.8%.
It wasn’t all great, though. Varland’s FIP was 4.89 and he’d benefitted from a low .270 batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) and a 90.4% left-on-base rate. He’d also struggled to keep the ball in the park, giving up 9 home runs in his seven starts. Despite the good start, it was clear that regression was probably coming.
Since that Memorial Day success in Houston, Varland has issued three-straight clunkers. He gave up 7 runs in 6 innings on the road in Tampa, then didn’t make it out of the fifth when Toronto saw him a second time. Yesterday at home against Detroit was another disappointing outing, 6 runs over 4.1 innings, including 2 more home runs allowed.
In June, Varland has a 10.20 ERA over 15 innings. His strikeout-walk percentage has been cut almost in half to 9.6% and opponents have hit .323 against him during this stretch. Sure enough, his BABIP has been .356 and he’s only stranded 54.5% of the runners he’s allowed to reach.
(Bad) Luck Isn’t Everything
It would be easy enough to chalk up this rough stretch to a correction in his fortunes, and that’s certainly a part of it. But it’s not all of it. There are a couple of significant, although subtle, changes that have contributed to his recent poor performance.
Let’s look where Varland had been locating his four-seamer and his cutter, his two primary pitches that have made up about 75% of the pitches he’s thrown this season.
You can see clearly that he consistently located his four-seamer up in the zone to start the year. Opponents hit .254 and slugged .556 against it during this span, good for a .364 wOBA that isn’t particularly good. The pitch was almost neutral by run value (+0.6), though, as Varland was done in by the 8 extra-base hits (5 home runs) he allowed with it.
The cutter was consistently located down and to Varland’s glove side and it was quite effective. Opponents hit .271 against Varland’s cutter but were limited to a .375 slugging percentage and a .296 wOBA.
Since the calendar flipped to June, here’s where Varland has been locating those pitches:
More of those four-seamers have been located down in the zone, near the middle of the plate. That may have helped Varland keep his four-seamer in the yard, as he hasn’t allowed a homer off the pitch this month. But it’s also made it more hittable. Opponents have hit .333 and slugged .556 against it in June, good for an even worse .396 wOBA.
With the cutter, you can see that it’s been more elevated than before. That has made it much less effective and easier to elevate. Opponents have hit .300 and slugged .700 against Varland’s cutter this month, including 2 home runs and a triple. All of that has been good for .443 wOBA. Whereas before when Varland’s cutter was put into play it was most often on the ground (1.4° average launch angle), now it’s being hit in the air (19.8° launch angle).
Both of these trends — lower fastballs and higher cutters — are bad for Varland because of how those pitches perform in those parts of the zone. Here’s how hitters have fared against Varland’s four-seamers in different parts of the strike zone:
You can see that it has gotten crushed when it’s been down and in the middle of the plate.
Here’s the same plot for his cutter:
When it’s up, it gets hammered.
In addition, Varland’s now more elevated cutter has a different shape than before. In his first seven starts, his average cutter had 4.4 inches of glove-side horizontal movement and 27.2 inches of vertical movement (with gravity). This month, his cutter is moving 4.1 inches horizontally and 30.1 inches vertically. It’s more vertical than it was and seemingly less deceptive as a result.
Location, Location, Location is Key
In terms of his overall arsenal, Varland does not possess overwhelming, dominant stuff. None of his offerings grades out particularly high by the public-facing pitch quality models. Instead, he’s the rare pitcher that has as many as four average-ish pitch types:
That’s a model that can work, but they’ve got to be located well. If they aren’t, he can get hit and hit hard. That’s what’s been happening this month.
With Kenta Maeda nearly ready to return to the Twins, Varland’s next opportunity to make some necessary adjustments might just come with the Saints. There he can right the ship and get ready for his next opportunity with the Twins.