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A tale of three second-year Diamondbacks: Daulton Varsho, the budding star

Daulton Varsho has been one of the most productive position players through the first quarter of the 2022 season.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Earlier this year, I listed three second-year players on the Arizona Diamondbacks to keep an eye on going into the 2022 season. All three were guys who finally were able to get regular playing time at the end of the 2021 season, so 2022 was a chance for them to build on that first season. As we’ve seen this year, all three players have had completely different directions in their second full year in the majors. We’ll start with a player who has taken off running in Daulton Varsho, who has emerged as a potential All-Star candidate as a multi-positional asset on pace for a 6-WAR season. The last D-back position player to put up 6.0-WAR season was Paul Goldschmidt back in 2017, Daulton Varsho’s draft year.

The first thing I mentioned in the preview, perhaps something I should have elaborated more on at the time, was finding a long term position for Varsho in order to maximize his offensive tools. Despite a slow start due to the lack of opportunities at catcher, Varsho had hit his way back on the active roster. After being called up for good on June 20th, Varsho spent a month at his first position of catcher while Carson Kelly was on the injured list. Once Kelly returned, the team moved Varsho to the outfield. While only limited to 106 chances in the outfield, Varsho converted 93% of them for outs vs. an estimated 90% success rate (+4 outs above average). The strong showing in a small sample gave the team confidence they could regularly deploy him in the outfield in 2022.

Early in the season, Varsho has primarily played in center field, starting 23 games in his first 27 games of the year at the position. In the outfield, Varsho has played well in his opportunities. In 68 fielding opportunities Varsho converted 64 of them into outs (94%), three outs better than the average center fielder would convert. He showed the ability to be able to play the cavernous gaps of Chase Field as well, not only scoring well in moving laterally but also going back as Justin Turner found out the hard way.

Despite being a catcher first, outfielder second type player, Varsho has shown to be able to get tremendous jumps off the bat in the outfield. He ranks in the 97th percentile on Statcast in outfielder jump. Varsho isn’t a burner, ranking in the 76th percentile in sprint speed at 28.1 ft/s, but certainly has enough wheels to play any outfield position. We may see a return to the outfield soon, when the team is healthy enough at catcher to be able to play him in the outfield.

An oblique injury to starting catcher Carson Kelly plus backup Jose Herrera out with COVID has forced Varsho to become the team’s regular catcher. Prior to May 7th, Varsho made only two starts behind the plate but has since made 9 of his next 12 starts behind the plate and the DH for the other three. In those games, I’ve seen noticeable improvement in both receiving and being able to throw out baserunners attempting to steal on him. While Varsho lacks a strong throwing arm, he is able to compensate that with really good footwork and a lightning-quick release to get some really fast pop times down to 2nd.

Last year Statcast ranked him at -1 catcher framing runs for 1070 pitches, but he has since improved to +1 in 358 pitches. That pushes him to the 64th percentile for framing, which is a welcomed development for a bat-first catcher. His positive performance behind the dish should be something to note when considering the catcher depth in the organization is pretty bare. With the implementation of automated strike zones, I won’t rule out catcher as a potential long term position for Varsho if choices made by the organization necessitate him to stick there.

Regardless of what position he makes the majority of his starts at, the most important facet of his game to look at will be the bat. While Varsho’s 2021 season statistics didn’t jump off the page, one noteworthy split was his second half performance. After the All-Star break Varsho hit .290/.349/.530 with 10 home runs, a 19.6% strikeout rate, 8.2% walk rate, and a wRC+ of 128, performing 28% better than the league-average hitter, over 219 plate appearances. In that time period he recorded an average exit velocity of 87.6 MPH and 92.4 MPH on fly ball/line drive contact, with a hard-hit (95+ MPH exit velocity) rate of 41.7%, and 12 of those batted balls classified as barrels (6.0%). When putting together his batted ball profile Statcast gave him an expected wOBA (xwOBA) of .343 while his wOBA came in at .357. Regardless of what metric you want to use, Varsho ended the season much better than he started and was primed to be a key regular in the lineup in 2022.

Even though were only at the one-quarter pole of the 2022 season, it’s clear that the gains he made at the plate in 2021 has carried over to 2022. On the season to date, Varsho is hitting .262/.327/.468 in 162 PA with 7 homers and a wRC+ of 121. He currently ranks just outside the Top 10 in WAR amongst National League position players and 2nd on the team behind Zac Gallen’s 1.8 bWAR, according to Baseball Reference. Combine that with the strong second half finish, that gives him 381 PA with a combined wRC+ of 125. With a sample size that large, we can feel more confident that that’s the level of production he’ll bring at the plate moving forward. Varsho still has another 450 or so plate appearances left in the season to continue that trend, so it will be something to revisit in the end of season review.

Varsho is making better contact, even compared to his productive second half in 2021, seeing both his pull and fly ball percentage increase on both Statcast and Fangraphs. On Statcatst, his fly ball rate has increased from 26.8% in the second half of 2021 to 33.3% in 2022 as a result of fewer ground balls and pop-ups. His hard-hit rate has increased to 42.2% and his fly ball/line drive average exit velocity has increased to 93.6 MPH. The improvement in quality of contact has also translated to a better barrel rate, jumping up to 7.0% that ranks in the 76th percentile amongst MLB hitters. On the season as a whole, his wOBA is .349 vs. an xwOBA of .350, so his results are right in line with what is expected based on the quality of contact and on-base ability.

The one negative is his strikeout rate has climbed to over 25% and his walk rate has dropped to 8%. It’s not too worrisome because Varsho isn’t chasing balls out of the strike zone or swinging through pitches at an exceptional rate. I do believe the strikeout rate will drop as he gets more experience and a better understanding of what pitches to drive and which pitches to spit on. Based on Varsho’s 15-game rolling average on chasing outside the strike zone, we could expect that strikeout rate to drop somewhat.

Varsho profiles as your prototypical leadoff hitter, a guy who can either hit or steal his way into scoring position, although he will need to make pitchers work harder to get him out. The final step in his development as a hitter for Varsho will be to put together more consistent at-bats and be able to battle back when behind in the count. Improving in that facet will be the difference of developing into a good hitter vs. developing into a great hitter. Should Varsho develop into the latter category, All-Star selections probably won’t be the only accolades he receives in his career.