Former Stinger Gus Varland Getting Noticed in the A’s System
A’s prospect Gus Varland has gone from obscurity to legitimate big-league prospect in a blink of an eye
By Melissa Lockard Mar 3, 2019
The Athletic – Bay Area – Full Article
Division II collegiate baseball players have a tough time getting on the draft radar even when they are in warm weather states like Florida or California. That task grows exponentially more difficult when they are in cold-weather states. For current A’s prospect Gus Varland, who pitched for the Concordia-St. Paul Golden Bears, it took a trip to the Northwoods to land on the Major League Baseball map.
Based in the Upper Midwest and Northwestern Ontario, the Northwoods League has helped future MLB stars such as Max Scherzer, Ben Zobrist and Chris Sale improve their MLB Draft profile. Varland — who put up the best numbers of any pitcher in the A’s 2018 draft class last summer — says his time in the Northwoods League during the summer of 2017 was a significant part of his path to professional baseball.
“It’s extremely important for a kid who went to a small D-II, especially in Minnesota, to get noticed,” Varland said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of scouts go to those games and I was lucky enough to go to the Major League Dream Showcase, where I did pretty well and I think it got my name out there enough.”
College baseball players might be known more for their exploits in the spring, but it is often their summer activities that land them opportunities with major-league clubs. Summer wood bat leagues offer scouts a chance to see how top college players from around the country fare when stacked up against one another while using wood bats. The Cape Cod League is the most famous of these summer leagues, but the Northwoods League has produced many a scouting find in its own right.
Suiting up for the Willmar Stingers, Varland posted a 1.42 ERA in 50 2/3 innings and drew notice from scouts when he tipped 95 mph on the radar gun. He then threw a scoreless inning in the annual Major League Dream Showcase. Varland says finding success against Division I hitters gave him a boost heading into his junior season.
“I had more confidence in my stuff. I got these D-I guys out, so going back, I’m thinking, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
That confidence led to a strong junior season at Concordia, where he posted a 1.04 ERA and struck out 79 in 60 innings. When the A’s called his name in the 14th round in last year’s draft, he became the highest-ever draft selection from Concordia-St. Paul.
A’s area scout Derek Lee first took notice of Varland during his junior season. Lee, Varland’s signing scout, says his talent was readily apparent.
“When you first watch him warm up and how his arm works, it was just really loose and free and easy,” Lee said in a recent phone conversation. “The ball just jumped out of his hand. After that, you start breaking down the pitches. He had command of his fastball. He had a breaking ball. He was very aggressive on the mound, going right after hitters. And he competed really well.”
The A’s signed Varland to a $125,000 bonus. Once he turned pro, he took his game to a whole new level. Upon arriving with the A’s, he was told by the coaching staff that his fastball had an above-average spin rate. The average spin rate on a fastball is 2,100. Fastballs well below that spin rate are generally effective down in the strike zone in getting ground balls. Fastballs well above 2,100 are more effective in the upper part of the strike zone, often generating popups and swinging strikes.
The advice to go up in the zone led to a sparkling pro-debut season during which Varland struck out 50 in 38 innings split between Rookie ball, short-season and Low-A. Varland says that before joining the A’s, he was unaware of the spin rate on his fastball and how that could help him.
“My whole life I’ve been told to throw low in the zone,” he said. “And then I noticed over time that one of my best pitches was the high fastball. When I got here, they explained to me that since I have a high spin rate, I should work up in the zone when you’re going for a strikeout. I started doing that and I got a lot more swing-and-misses. It just made sense after they explained it to me.”
Varland says having access to technology that gives him instant feedback on things like spin rate has allowed him to make significant improvements quickly since turning pro.
“It’s really useful because then you can see different techniques that can increase your spin rate or lower your spin rate and see which one works best for you,” he said.
Varland’s strikeout total wasn’t the only eye-opening number he produced in his pro debut. He also allowed just seven earned runs (0.95 ERA) and hitters batted just .173 against him. He was particularly dominating against the most advanced hitters he faced, holding Low-A Midwest League batters to a .123 BAA in 19 1/3 innings for the Beloit Snappers.
Perhaps the most impressive number on the back of Varland’s baseball card was his walk total, just eight, or 1.89 per nine innings. Above-average command is nothing new for Varland, who says that he had to work hard in the weight room to increase the velocity on his fastball, but he’s always had a knack for putting the ball where he wants to put it. He spoke with disdain of walking batters.
“I’d rather have someone earn their way on base by getting a hit than walking him,” he said. “To me, first priority is throwing strikes. I think strikes come over everything. Just makes pitching life easier.”
In addition to focusing on pitching more up in the zone, especially with two strikes, Varland has made adjustments to his mechanics and his pitching repertoire over the past eight months. One of the first changes he made was to his throwing motion from the stretch.
“When I got to Vermont, they were telling me my leg kick was way too high,” he said. “I was probably a 1.6 to the plate. They said, ‘If you want to pitch in the big leagues, you’re going to have to be a 1.35 or lower.’ That was a big adjustment I had to make there, but I feel like with the shorter leg kick, I can generate more power quicker and hold runners a lot better and make better pitches too.”
Like many pitchers in the A’s system working with minor-league pitching coordinator and cut-fastball guru Gil Patterson, Varland tinkered with adding a cutter last fall. However, during Instructional League, Varland and Patterson decided to ditch the cutter and turn it into a hard slider. Patterson said via email that Varland’s slider is already “a swing-and-miss pitch to go with along his 92-94 mph fastball.”
The last piece of the puzzle for Varland is the changeup, a pitch that has always been a point of focus in the A’s pitching development program. Varland, who is currently in Mesa as part of the A’s minor-league spring minicamp, has put a significant amount of work into the pitch but says there’s more to be done to get it on par with his fastball and slider.
“Right now, it’s kind of 50-50,” he said. “I just want to feel comfortable throwing it as I am with my fastball. I feel like if I keep working on it this whole season, I think I can get there.”
Lee sees a big-league future for Varland.
“I think he’s got the makeup and he’s got the stuff (to be a big-league pitcher),” Lee said. “He’s been blessed with a great arm and he’s an outstanding young man. He’s not arrogant or cocky, but he’s confident in his ability and he’s a great kid.”
(Photo by Greg Bessette)
Melissa Lockard is a Staff Writer/Editor at The Athletic Bay Area. She focuses her coverage on professional baseball, a sport she has covered since 2004 for outlets including OaklandClubhouse.com, Scout.com and FoxSports. Follow Melissa on Twitter @melissalockard.