Being recently married with a baby girl on the way sets Taylor Varnell apart from his teammates. Perhaps that level of responsibility is what differentiates him on the mound as well. The 24-year-old left-hander out of Oral Roberts oozes maturity not typically seen in Low-A. Through nine starts at Kannapolis, the southpaw has been lights out shutting down opponents with command and control of a complete set of pitches. With a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, Taylor doesn’t overpower hitters but keeps them off balance with a solid changeup, slider, and knee-buckling curveball.
“The curveball may not be my best pitch, but it’s my favorite pitch. I grew up watching Barry Zito, and he had this big curveball, I tried to replicate it,” Varnell told FutureSox in a phone interview. Thus far in his White Sox career, Varnell has put up numbers worthy of the former Cy Young award winner. With 49 innings under his belt this season, he has maintained a WHIP around 1 (the threshold for excellence) only walked 12 batters while striking out a whopping 60 and a 2.94 ERA.
“His curveball is something that is very impressive. He’s got that heavy bite on that slow breaking pitch,” said Trevor Wilt, radio broadcaster and baseball ops executive for the Kannapolis Intimidators in a phone interview with FutureSox. “It backdoors those righties, they just can’t stay in there long enough. It almost looks effortless.”
Varnell isn’t shy about using his pitches; he’s earned a reputation of going straight at hitters. “I’ve always tried to attack people and be aggressive in the zone. I don’t try to nibble, I go right at guys,” said Varnell. If the low walk rate wasn’t enough supporting evidence for that approach, Trevor Wilt attempted to get some empirical data during a recent start. “The kid just pounds the zone. I was tracking how many batters he started off with a strike. I stopped counting because it was almost every single batter. The cool thing was it wasn’t just his fastball; he was throwing for a strike first pitch. It was his slider, his change-up, his curveball,” said Wilt. “He’s got some really good stuff, and he’s not afraid to use it any time throughout the at-bat.”
Varnell has been pitching with the confidence that goes with putting up such insane numbers. “Once I get ahead right now, I feel really confident in all four of my pitches, my change-up, my slider. I feel like I can throw that any time. I’ve been locating the fastball really well. I can put it where I want on either side of the plate,” said Varnell.
“He doesn’t care who’s at the plate. He’s going straight at him,” said Wilt.
Despite having command and control of all four pitches and a strong body of work, Taylor hasn’t stopped trying to improve his game.
“One of the biggest changes I made, since entering pro ball is my approach. I was reading up on it. That was one of the things that really hit me was the approach part. In college, I used to stress out, but I figured out, I needed to be more laid back and relaxed. I do better that way”, said Varnell.
In addition to his personal mental development, he’s working on getting into the minds of the hitter. “Right now, I’m working on how I sequence my pitches and read swings while I’m on the mound.”
Taken in aggregate, those two comments indicate a maturity level not typically seen at the level. Having just turned 24-years-old, Varnell is a couple of years older than most players in Low-A. “I had an extra year in college due to my injury. I was out for about a year and got a redshirt. I had a labrum and rotor cuff tear”, said Varnell.
He feels the injury may have been the impetus for going later in the draft than he anticipated. “From people I talk to, my injury history might have tanked me.” “The draft was the most stressful day of my life. I was hoping to go in the first ten rounds. I was waiting for that call for three days. It was really stressful, but I’m appreciative of the chance to go out and prove what I can do. I’m back to where I was pre-injury.”
The Next Step
“I think that Taylor Varnell could be one of those guys that we look back on and go why was he not on a prospect list” said Wilt. “Scouts have come up to me and asked me who is that little lefty on the mound.”
“He kind of reminds me of Laz Rivera. No one gave him a shot, and now he’s doing well and is in Double-A. I think Taylor Varnell is that guy in 2019. The numbers are gonna speak for themselves. If you can put up numbers, they’re gonna move you up.”
His success, development, and advanced approach are reliable indicators that may prove the young broadcaster prescient. It’s a good bet that the team wants to see if Varnell is able to maintain that level of success after facing opponents multiple times. His numbers have dipped a bit of late but are still solid. If he continues to get guys out, he’s a strong candidate for a move to Winston-Salem at some point this season.
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