Two-strike contact troubles Varland in start vs. O's

April 16th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- collapsed to a half-crouch as his head whipped around and watched the ball spring off Cedric Mullins’ bat -- and he couldn’t bring himself to take his eye off it as it soared toward the foul pole then tucked itself into the seats, fair.

Varland snapped back around, jumped into the air and started a long orbit of the mound, bringing up his glove to yell into it in frustration for what seemed like an eternity as Mullins rounded the bases and Austin Hays prepared to hit.

“Just letting the team down,” Varland said. “It’s a bad feeling.”

It’s been that kind of frustrating beginning to the season for Varland -- who got his desired opportunity to start the season in the big leagues instead of in Triple-A but has struggled with hard contact and the long ball -- which continued with another tough outing in the Twins’ 7-4 series-opening loss to a good Orioles lineup at Camden Yards on Monday night.

Minnesota’s lineup showed some needed signs of life by matching a season-high with 11 hits, spurred by three knocks apiece from Ryan Jeffers and Jose Miranda -- which, for the latter, marked his first three-hit game since April 7, 2023, more than a year ago.

But Varland just gave the Orioles too much, allowing six runs (four earned) on a career-high 11 hits, including two homers, the latter of which was the back-breaking two-run blast by Mullins in the fifth that opened up a 6-2 Baltimore lead before Varland’s exit.

Notably, Varland didn’t issue a walk for the first time this season -- but it seems all that strike-throwing is actually a meaningful part of the problem.

“Not leaving the zone with two strikes is an issue right now,” Varland said.

Five of the 11 hits allowed by Varland came in two-strike counts, including three singles, a double and a homer -- that being the Mullins homer that caused the right-hander so much frustration, on a cutter that was actually executed on the inner half, which perhaps led to those visibly intense emotions.

Getting ahead in counts is good, obviously. Varland just hasn’t been able to finish all season, attacking the zone too aggressively with two strikes.

Here’s the telling stat: Entering this start, Varland had made 57 pitches with two strikes -- and only three had resulted in swinging strikes. His fastball has played way up this season, jumping from an average of 94.9 mph as a starter last year up to 95.7 mph this year, entering his start against the O's. But somehow, Varland didn’t get a two-strike whiff on a fastball at all this year until he got Jackson Holliday in the fifth inning on Monday -- and it was telling that said heater was off the plate.

“It’s multiple starts in a row where he threw the ball reasonably well but needs to make better pitches when he gets to two strikes,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Those pitches that are in the middle of the zone, those are not quality pitches.”

Varland's two-strike pitches on Monday night, per Statcast.

So, what happens from here? For now, it seems the Twins will continue to see if Varland can execute better in those situations because they still believe in the quality stuff.

Varland’s repertoire is still way up this season, with his fastball averaging 96.7 mph on Monday and sustaining into the late innings. He’s still throwing strikes and getting ahead in counts. But he’s still getting punished, having allowed 13 earned runs in 14 innings (an 8.36 ERA) to begin the year.

There is depth behind Varland. This isn’t an analog of last season, when Bailey Ober was pushed to Triple-A because the rotation had veterans who couldn’t be optioned; instead, Varland is an optionable youngster, as is Simeon Woods Richardson, the next man up in Triple-A, who dazzled with six innings of two-hit ball as the 27th man in the Twins’ doubleheader sweep in Detroit on Saturday.

But it’s also worth noting that Varland has faced the Brewers, Dodgers and Orioles in his small sample size this season -- and that certainly hasn’t helped.

The pieces are all there for Varland to be a good starter; it’s about helping him harness that more effectively.

“He was throwing the ball hard. It was up to 98, and that's going to play no matter what,” Jeffers said. “It's just like any start: There's good things, there's bad things. We'll learn from it, we'll grow from it. He's going to have a lot of starts for us this year.”