Daulton Varsho Believes His D-Backs Future Is Behind The Plate
As the son of a former major league ballplayer and coach, Salt River Rafters catcher Daulton Varsho had plenty of role models to follow during his youth. In addition to his dad, he got to be around the ballpark when his dad, Gary Varsho, was coaching first in Philadelphia and later in Pittsburgh, working out on the field with players like Jim Thome, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
But in reality Varsho learned as much, if not more, from the women in his life while growing up in Wisconsin. With dad on the road much of the baseball season, it was his mom, Kay, who helped instill in Varsho the grinder mentality that is so obvious to those watching him playing in the Arizona Fall League.
“She really pushed us forward, taking every day one step at a time,” Varsho said. "Take every day as your last and try to figure out what you can do better every day to get you to where you want to be.”
But it wasn’t only his mom who influenced him. Varsho grew up with two older sisters, both of whom went on to be college athletes. Oldest sister Andie played softball at Purdue before one season in a professional league, while the next sister in line, Taylor, played college basketball first at Colorado State and later at the University of Sioux Falls.
“Growing up we had a really competitive household,” Varsho said, adding that both sisters were actually stronger than him at that point and admitting that they were kind of like the big brothers he never had. “I tried to follow in their footsteps and they taught me a lot of lessons along the way.”
That family support is just one of many reasons why Varsho is moving quickly through the Arizona Diamondbacks system, having reached the high Class A level and now the Arizona Fall League just over a year after being drafted in the second compensation round from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Varsho is one of the trio of Diamondbacks catchers on the Salt River roster. It’s uncommon for an organization to send more than one catcher to the league, much less three. In addition to Varsho, who gets the biggest chunk of the playing time for the Rafters, Renae Martinez and Dominic Miroglio are also participating in the league.
“We’ve really harped on a lot of receiving here with the Arizona Diamondbacks,” Varsho said, “so with three catchers … we’ve all kind of made each other better, made each other accountable and trying to get each other better with everything we do with catching. We really work on receiving.”
That’s in line with what the organization is trying to accomplish with this rather unique arrangement, according to Arizona’s minor league field coordinator and catching coordinator J.R. House.
“First, all three of them deserve to be out there,” House said. “They had incredible years and they’re talented enough to showcase their abilities on that platform … It’s all the tools of the trade that they’re working on. We’re trying to get game-calling --- ability to call the game, putting down the right fingers, and know the pitchers. (The latter) is one of the more difficult things in the Fall League because everyone’s new.”
The fact that AFL catchers are required to work with 20 pitchers, most from different organizations, is what makes it hard for pro scouts covering the league to be able to adequately evaluate the core skills of the catchers, according to a veteran scout from an American League organization. But that’s why it’s such a great environment for young catchers, and Varsho is seizing that opportunity.
“You can take a little bit from this learning experience,” Varsho said. “As much as you can take away from this, trying to be able to work with guys. I try to meet the guys and learn their personalities real quick to get that trust factor going.”
“The sooner you can get that learning curve the better off you’re going to be as far as game-calling,” House said, “and that runs into receiving as well. When you know your pitcher, what they like to do and how their ball moves, then you can receive their pitches better and more properly.”
One of the other primary development goals for Varsho is to continue to work on his throwing mechanics. The pre-draft reports on Varsho pointed to his below-average arm possibly forcing him to another position at some point in his career, but he’s made up for any deficiency in arm strength with a quick release and good footwork. Over the first two years of his pro career, Varsho has consistently thrown out 37 to 38 percent of runners attempting to steal.
“He’s controlled the running game and thrown out his share of runners,” House said. “When you put the clock on him, his times are good. He’s in the 1.9’s (pop time) consistently and that's the most important thing. The cosmetic visual appearance of it isn’t nearly as important as what the time is getting it down there.”
Believing that he can get even better on defense, Varsho has identified issues that he’ll continue working on.
“We’ve really worked on my footwork and exchange,” Varsho said. “I’ve always had really quick feet so that I kind of lag back with my arm a little bit. (I’m) just trying to slow my feet down a little bit to get my arm in a really good position to throw, and just trusting my arm strength because it is there … I just need to trust it with my feet and not have to hurry up on throws, and really take my time and make the really good, accurate throw that I need.”
It’s not all about defense with Varsho, as he has hit consistently well since turning pro. In his first full season, which was marred by a mid-season hamate injury, Varsho posted a .286/.363/.451 slash line with 11 home runs in 304 at-bats at high Class A Visalia. He’s got a solid line drive stroke to all fields and is an above-average runner. Despite being on the smaller side, at 5’10”, 190 pounds, Varsho shows some over-the-fence pop but will likely make his reputation slashing line drives around the field.
Varsho believes that playing college ball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee helped him develop his mature approach at the plate, despite not playing in one of the more noted baseball conferences in the nation.
“We still played really good teams,” Varsho said. “In the Horizon League there are a lot of good pitchers … It’s a “pitching backwards” type of league, and when you get to the big leagues you need to learn how to hit backwards pitching. I feel like that’s a big step in a professional career for a lot of baseball players.”
The reports that he may someday move out from behind the plate are now mostly in the past, with Varsho emphatically stating where he’s best suited on the playing field.
“I truly think I’m a catcher and I think I’m able to be successful at that position,” Varsho said. “J.R. (House) all of the front office believe I can stay there, and I feel like that’s a very good positive thing for me. I’m just going to keep working and trying to get my way up to the big leagues.”
While J.R. House is not working directly in the Arizona Fall League this year, the former big league catcher has made his mark in the league, first as a player for two years early in his pro career and then last year as a manager. He’s also occasionally stepped in as the color commentator for AFL radio broadcasts. But House once had a day to remember during his first year as a player, one that few observers witnessed and even fewer know that it ever happened. On November 11, 2003, as a member of the Mesa Solar Sox, House celebrated his 24th birthday by going 5-for-5 at the plate and hitting for the cycle.
“You and I are definitely the only ones that remember that,” House said when reminded of his special moment. “That was a real good day.”
House recalled getting the triple to complete the cycle in his last at-bat, with that hit coming off southpaw pitcher Lenny DiNardo, who would later be a one of House’s minor league teammates.
“If you remember, I was extremely slow-footed as far as a baseball player. I was a slow catcher,” House said. "I’m going around (the bases) and I don’t know if the right fielder fell down or what, but it was an opposite field line drive that I got the triple on. I never let him (DiNardo) live that one down.”
Surprise third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) and Scottsdale right-hander Forrest Whitley (Astros) received Player of the Week and Pitcher of the Week honors, respectively, for Week One of the Arizona Fall League season. Guerrero has kept his batting average above the .500 mark through the first two weeks of the season, while Whitley has fanned 14 batters in his first 7.1 innings.