From DII to Professional Baseball: Feature Interview with Minor Leaguer Gus Varland

Going from receiving only one Division II offer out of high school to dominating in his first season in pro ball, Gus Varland has quite a unique story when compared to many of his peers in professional baseball.

Varland was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the 14th round of the MLB draft in June and finished his first minor league season with a 0.95 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP in 38 innings. The right-handed pitcher also struck out 50 batters and walked just eight in his first stint in professional baseball, and was listed as the A’s prospect with the best pro debut by Baseball America. In his collegiate season with Concordia-St. Paul in the spring, Varland was an All-American, going 7-1 with a 1.04 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 60.1 innings pitched.

I was able to sit down with Varland recently, and asked him about what life is like the minor leagues, his many superstitions and preparations, and his journey to professional baseball.

Cole Schuessler: What are your main goals for this offseason or what are trying to work on the most?

Gus Varland: This offseason I’m just really trying to learn the ins and outs of how pro baseball works and what are the best ways to go about and do things. I’ve been trying to get bigger in the weight room and get stronger. [I’m] also working on the pitching craft side of it, working on throwing strikes more and my breaking ball stuff.

Cole: You mentioned getting used to what professional baseball is like. Are there some people this offseason who have helped you learn about that a little bit more?

Gus: Joe Hoffer, an athletic trainer [at Concordia-St. Paul]. He has had a lot of experience over the years with pro guys at Alabama. He has been giving me tips, like “Hey you should probably be doing this, you should probably be doing that.” For all the workouts and the throwing program I get, I go through him to make sure it is all good.

Cole: You started pitching in the minors in mid-June. Take me through a day in the life of Gus Varland when you are on the mound.

Gus: I usually wake up and make myself some sausage and eggs. I go to Starbucks and get a coffee, it has to be a coffee place, I can’t make my own, it’s a routine thing. Usually I’ll get Jimmy Johns or Subway, something quick and easy, but also like somewhat healthy to sustain [me] through the game. I get to the field to the field a couple hours before gametime, I go through my stretching, my mental game, just listen to music. I chew a lot of bubble gum, that’s for sure. I’ll go through a whole pack every start.

Cole: What’s your go to music before the game?

Gus: My playlist has like 1000 songs so I’ll just hit shuffle, because I like all types of music. I like the variety really, but if I had to [pick favorites] I’d say rap or heavy metal.

Varland’s preparations and superstitions were effective over three levels of minor league baseball in 2018. Photo by Greg Bessette.

Cole: Comparatively, what does you off day look like?

Gus: Well, I pitched every five or six days. You pitch one day and the next day is light, strictly cardio. The day after that is heavy lifting day. Then the [next] day is a bullpen, and after that is an upper body and then you start again. And you can also switch it up too. I like throwing my bullpen two days before my start instead of three days, just because my arm gets really sore and needs a little more time to recover before I can through again.

Cole: So on off days, do you still get the park the same time before the game?

Gus: Off days, I get to the park earlier. When you’re pitching you only need to be there two hours before the game, off days I get to the park five hours before to do all my running and workouts. There is a lot of down time too. You sit around and then you do something else and you sit around some more, it’s kind of boring sometimes. You can only go on your phone for so much and you’re like “What else is there to do?”

Cole: So you’re just sitting around the facility then?

Gus: Yeah it’s especially bad when you’re on the road because you’re in the visiting clubhouse. There is no ping pong, there are no TV’s. At the home clubhouse, you get all the fun games and stuff.

Cole: Have you met any of the Oakland A’s big league players or front office?

Gus: I have met Daniel Mengden.

Cole: The guy with the mustache, right?

Gus: It’s the truth. I just said “Hey I’m Gus Varland”, he probably doesn’t even remember me, we didn’t really have much conversation. [I also talked] to the opening day starter, Kendall Graveman. I met him, he was a cool dude. When he was injured and on rehab, he bought everyone in the locker room Chick-fil-A once, which was really cool. I met Rickey Henderson, which was pretty cool.

Cole: Really? Did he come around your minor league facility?

Gus: That was in the September/October instructional league. He was just walking around one day, and [some of the guys] were like, “Hey, go introduce yourself to Rickey,” almost like a dare. I just walked up and was like “Hey man what’s going on?”

Cole: How did the fall league go for you?

Gus: They were kind of like controlled scrimmages. Score doesn’t matter at all, I think we’ve played like 10 innings and 8 innings [depending on the day]. That instructional league was a big help. I developed a lot more as a pitcher there than I did the whole season. [It was] just because you have more coaches on you, watching you and breaking it down with you, it was a treat.

Cole: If you could face one MLB batter who would it be? Who would like you like to go up against and try to strikeout?

Gus: Mike Trout. It would probably be the scariest, but if you think about it, if I face him, I have nothing to lose. If he hits bomb off of me, he’s the greatest hitter in baseball right now, so it’s fine. But if I get him out, I can say that I got Mike Trout out.

If Varland can reach the big leagues with the A’s, he will likely have the chance to face baseball’s best hitter, Mike Trout. Photo by AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Cole: Do you believe you will continue your trajectory as a starting pitcher? Do you think you will have an opportunity to go deeper into games?

Gus: For sure deeper into games, because a lot of times when you first get drafted, they don’t want to injure you because you played during the college [season], so they limit your innings. They limited me to four innings, so this year I will for sure be going deeper into games. [As for] trajectory as a starter, I’m not sure what they want to do with me. I would be fine either way though. I do like starting more, but whatever gets me to the bigs, I’ll do. whatever.

Varland worked as a starter Concordia-St. Paul, throwing three complete games in eight starts in 2018. Photo by Kris Fasnacht

Cole: What is your favorite or best pitch to throw? If you were going up against yourself as a pitcher, which would be your least favorite pitch to see?

Gus: (Laughs) Well if I was facing myself I wouldn’t be able to hit anything over 82. Probably, my slider right now, this summer I really got it dialed in [it’s] my best out pitch as of right now. That or the fastball.

Cole: I think I saw an article that you had added a cutter to your repertoire too?

Gus: Yeah I started a cutter, but it turned into a slider. It was moving, but not much, so they were like “Hey, throw a slider”, but throw it like a cutter. So it was like a true slider, but it was just harder.

Cole: So you have a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup?

Gus: Yeah the curveball needs a lot of work, I just learned it in instructs. It was kind of just a whatever pitch, to show [batters], hey I have something else.

Cole: What is your key to your success on the mound? For some pitchers, it is throwing the breaking ball effectively, for some guys it’s getting ahead in the count. Would you say there is one area that if you are doing “this” well, you are pitching well?

Gus: Just throwing strikes. Some of the best hitters on the team are going to get out 7 out of 10 times on a good day. So if you just throw it in there and make them hit it and trust your defense, everything else will come a lot easier.

Cole: Who is the best pro hitter or hitter that you have?

Gus: Well, I faced Joey Bart, who was second overall in the draft, he was a tough out. He should have hit one 400 feet off of me, but he barely missed it. It was really lucky, I got him to pop up.

Cole: I saw you also faced the Twins top draft pick, Trevor Larnach?

Gus: Yeah I faced him. He was 1-4 against me with a single and I struck him out twice, and I think I got him to ground out. He is a free swinger, but he can hit some bombs. If you just live away and don’t let him touch it, you’ll be just fine. If you go inside though, he just waits on it. Huge dude. I was like dang, this kid’s a monster.

Cole: How have improved since you got to pro ball?

Gus: There were some mechanical issues that they smoothed out, it wasn’t anything major though. I added another pitch to my arsenal, and perfected some of my other pitches, and also the whole mental side. You may not be the best, but you have to think that you are. You have to think that you are better than every single hitter on the other team. Just like a different mental approach, that’s what they have taught me a lot about.

Cole: Does everyone there has that kind of mindset?

Gus: They should, if they don’t they’re going to get [hit hard]. If they don’t and one thing goes wrong, they are going to crumble. It sounds cocky, but that is how you have to think I guess.

Cole: What are the biggest adjustments from college? How big is the scouting differential?

Gus: From college, I knew some kids that I had faced before, but I didn’t know what pitches to throw them or watch video on them or anything. Whereas in pro ball, the coaches will take you into the video room and watch every hitter and go over them and say, “this is how you attack this guy in this situation.” You’re pretty much prepared for the game, but the hitters are doing the same things against you too, so it evens it out.

Cole: You kind of already touched on this one a bit, but do you have any pregame superstitions that you do before a game or to keep a scoreless inning streak going?

Gus: If I start off the game well and I’m not giving up any runs, I’ll go in the dugout and put my glove to my right, and sit next to it. I put a towel around around my arm. I have a cup of water, I put my gum on the [cup], I drink the water, and then I put the gum back in. Then I just sit there, but it has to be in that order every single time. And then, as soon as there are two outs, I pick up my glove and put it on. If you pick it up before that, you are going to give up a run, that’s just how it goes.

Cole: Do you have a favorite baseball memory?

Gus: I would say when I was on the Beloit Snappers and we clinched to go to the playoffs. You always see it on TV, all the beer showers and stuff. And we did it and that was so much fun, that was unbelievable, it was a blast. Pouring champagne on the clubhouse guys and the pitching coach, oh it was just a blast. I pitched the game to get into the playoffs, so that was cool.

Varland was able to help the Beloit Snappers clinch a Midwest League playoff berth with four innings of one-run ball. Photo by Beloit Snappers

Cole: So have you faced any of the same of the guys you faced in the Northwoods league in the minor leagues? How has that league prepared you for professional baseball?

Gus: Well, playing in the Northwoods league is a huge learning curve, because all these guys have played DI for one to three years. They’ve seen guys like [me] the whole time, so you’ve got to figure out a new way to get these guys out. Then when you go down to a DII, it just makes life easier from there. It really has prepared me for the pros as well. You can tell what hitters are different, who got drafted and who didn’t just based on the swing that you just can’t teach.

Varland started gaining some serious attention from MLB scouts pitching for the Willmar Stingers in the Northwoods League. Photo by Curt Hogg / Tribune

Cole: You and your brother Louie pitched together for CSP. How are you guys similar and different in your pitching styles?

Gus: I have a max effort kind of delivery, and Louie has a lower effort delivery. It looks like he is throwing at 60%, but he is actually throwing at 100%. Whereas for me, it looks like I am going at 100%, because it is. But we have a similar arm slot, his may be a little higher. We have similar pitches, he’s got a better curveball than I do and I’ve got a better slider, but we’ve both got a pretty high spin rate fastball, I know that for sure. He’s a little bigger than me in height and weight and everything, so that should help him out for the draft. I think we are more different than we are similar though.

Cole: Going into next season, do you know what level or team you will start on?

Gus: I don’t know what level I’m going to start on. I’m just going to go into spring training and give it my all and see what happens, and hopefully I’ll start higher than where I was, but if not, I’m just going to keep working hard every day.

Cole: Do you when you find that info out?

Gus: I report in the middle of February and then we depart April 1st, we get shipped off around then.

Cole: What are goals going into you first full season?

Gus: One of my main goals in to get my change-up down, throw it more in the zone and get some swings and misses on that. And then also perfect my curveball.

Varland is pictured here in his freshman season at CSP’s Bob Barnes Field. Photo by Kris Fasnacht

Cole: You come back to workout out at Concordia in the offseason. Talk a little bit about the what CSP has meant to you, and what the benefits of working out there?

Gus: Coming back [to Concordia], it felt a little weird, because I haven’t been in school with the guys and everything, but they treated me like I was here the whole time. So that’s been a real blessing. And Joe Hoffer the trainer and Rich White the strength coach have been very nice to me, and I’ve been blessed to be able to use the facility for free. What this school has given me, well, they they were my only offer out of high school. Without them I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. Without the coaches like Neil Lerner, Joe [Hoffer], Marcus [McKenzie], [John] Gaub, and Lunch [McKenzie], I wouldn’t be where I am today. They have just given me a world of opportunity and I took it.

If you would like to keep up with Gus on social media, you can follow him on twitter @GusBusVarland. If you would like to hear more from Gus, you can listen to a Concordia-St. Paul podcast he was on this fall.

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