Why Daulton Varsho is the next baseball unicorn you need to know

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When Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly landed on the injured list with a strained oblique last week, it made news for the top prospect summoned to take his place — outfielder Alek Thomas. But beyond the hype of an exciting young player, there was also something noteworthy in Arizona’s decision to call up an outfielder to replace a catcher.

That left the Diamondbacks with just one backstop on the roster, or so it seemed. But in reality, Kelly’s replacement was already on the team — playing center field.

Daulton Varsho started 22 of the D-backs’ first 27 games in center field, but originally rose to the majors as a catcher. With Kelly on the IL, he has pivoted back behind the plate.

Batting leadoff most days, the stocky but speedy Varsho is powering Arizona's surprising start. With six homers and a healthy walk rate, his wRC+ (a park-adjusted measurement of offensive output) shows that he’s been 34% better than the league average hitter so far. Add in elite defensive metrics in center field, and he’s been one of the 10 best position players in baseball, by FanGraphs WAR.

(If you play fantasy baseball, Varsho might be an even more notable unicorn since he's a catcher-eligible hitter who actually steals bases.)

By expanding the possibilities of the roster and allowing Arizona to call up Thomas instead of a backup catcher, Varsho is mining the benefits of multi-positional talent in a fairly unprecedented way. If not for Shohei Ohtani’s brain-bending ascension to baseball god status, he may be MLB’s new icon of versatility.

The Diamondbacks' Daulton Varsho is the next baseball unicorn worth knowing. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)
The Diamondbacks' Daulton Varsho is the next baseball unicorn worth knowing. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

A brand new form of super utility player

Perhaps the game’s wildest recent example of nominative determinism, Varsho is the son of former journeyman outfielder Gary Varsho, and named for famed Phillies catcher Darren Daulton.

The younger Varsho’s career has been one big interrobang over his bizarre dual citizenship in two of the game’s most difficult defensive positions. Even before he was drafted, Arizona’s scouts knew they liked him, but they weren’t sure where his future lied.

“I remember talking to one of our scouts who was in there and he was telling me he’s a slam-dunk center fielder,” assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye told The Athletic. “Then another would tell me he’s a catcher.”

Across stints in the majors in 2020 and 2021, and now full-time starter work in 2022, Varsho has started 47 games at catcher and 76 in the outfield, with 56 of those starts in center.

“He’s doing both,” Sawdaye said. “They’re both right.”

It’s hard to overstate how rare it is to find a player who can handle the physical and mental challenges of the catcher position … and also center field. Since integration in 1947, only nine players have ever played even five games at both positions in the same season. Varsho has now done it in all three of his seasons, a feat matched only by Ed Kirkpatrick of the late '60s and early '70s Royals.

The most recent examples of this particular form of multitasking are future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, who was looking to complete a transition away from catcher, and Eli Marrero, a Cardinals bench player who also pulled it off while shifting from catcher to a utility role in 2002.

In sustaining his dynamic dual duties even this long, Varsho is carving out a distinct niche for himself. By the end of the week, Varsho could become the first player in MLB history to play 10 games at each in three different seasons.

Of course, franchises aren’t making decisions for the novelty of it all. Varsho’s versatility is just plain useful.

The D-backs are an eyebrow-raising 17-14 thus far in a daunting NL West entering Wednesday's games. Bolstered by excellent pitching, their offense doesn’t have a lot of margin for error as they take aim at the wild-card race. Varsho is both one of the team’s best hitters and … pretty much a magic trick that allows them to roster more players at positions where offensive ability can be a bigger part of the equation.

That could make his novel skill set immensely valuable.

Can Varsho keep this up?

Under the watchful eye of big-league statistics and tracking technology, Varsho’s strengths and weaknesses have become increasingly clear. Despite relatively little experience in the outfield, the early returns say he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field.

Statcast’s Outs Above Average stat put him in the 92nd percentile for outfielders in 2022, and its outfield jump metric says he’s getting better initial breaks than 98 percent of major leaguers. Similarly, he scores extremely highly in older defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved. It’s always a little tricky to know when and how much to buy into defensive stats, but it makes it easier when they all agree on the general direction. It also helps when coaches agree on his ability and sky-high potential, and when he provides some highlights to prove it.

His catching stats are … not as pretty. The biggest part of a catcher’s defensive job (or at least the biggest part that can be quantified) is framing pitches to make sure pitchers get strikes they deserve and sometimes even steal strikes they may not have earned. Varsho is toward the back of the pack in that skill. Among the 78 catchers who received at least 2,500 pitches in 2021, his framing measured out as seventh-worst on a rate basis, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Put those assessments of his defensive capabilities together and the takeaway is obvious: He should mostly be playing center field. Still, those catcher numbers aren’t as bleak as they might seem, and it is almost certainly worth keeping him in the practice of catching for moments just like the one the D-backs face now with Kelly on the IL.

Varsho’s framing isn’t good, but it still rates out ahead of a few regular starters like the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Perez and has been comparable to the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras.

That stands in stark contrast to another recent super-utility player who could have had provided advantageous flexibility. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, now the New York Yankees’ starting shortstop, came up as a catcher with the Texas Rangers. His special extra skill was playing the infield, originally third base. But his catching duty was untenable, with framing rates were the worst in the sport in 2019, more than twice as bad as Varsho’s — which is a huge, multiple-wins-per-season level of bad. It’s hard to say if he would have progressed to something more functional since the Rangers quickly moved him to third base and then shortstop, where he is an excellent defender, but the point remains that Varsho is just good enough to keep the experiment going.

And the experiment could make a huge difference if the D-backs find themselves in the playoff hunt in 2022 or in some not-too-distant season.

Presumably, when Kelly comes back, Varsho will return to mostly playing center field with occasional catching duties to stay fresh. Over the course of the season, that stands to essentially buy the D-backs 150 or more plate appearances of production from an outfielder instead of a catcher, an edge that figures to outweigh whatever disadvantage Varsho might be while catching.

Since the start of 2021, MLB catchers are batting .226/.302/.382 as a group, where outfielders are slashing .245/.320/.415. That’s 11% worse than league average vs. 1% better than league average, per wRC+.

It’s not quite the two-way Ohtani show, but Varsho's multi-dimensional game is a box score talking point that could also pay serious dividends for Arizona.

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