Since he began playing baseball around his hometown of Batavia, Ohio — a village roughly 25 miles due east of downtown Cincinnati — Seth Varner has spent the crux of his playing days in Southwest Ohio. VarnerÃ‚Â played his high school ball at Clermont Northeastern in Batavia, suited up for the Miami Redhawks during his college days, and was drafted in the 10th round of the 2014 draft by the Reds. After a rookie ball stint last summer with the Billings Mustangs, Varner has been one of the Midwest LeagueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s top starters in 2015 for the Dayton Dragons. Through Tuesday morning, the 23-year-old southpaw was among Midwest League leaders in strikeout-minus-walk rate and regressed ERA as one of the stalwarts for a Dragon rotation that ranks third in the league in ERA.
I caught up Varner late last week and we covered a multitude of topics: his upbringing in the Queen City; how everything fell into place his senior year of college and resulted in All-American recognition; his draft memories; the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete; Major League BaseballÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s new pace of play regulations; and, of course, the Reds.
RN: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m guessing you grew up rooting for the Reds?
SV: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
RN: What do you remember about the Reds as a kid?
SV: I mainly went to (Reds) games with my grandpa when I was younger. My dad is usually busy this time of year, being in the pool industry. When I was younger, I was basically going with my grandpa.
RN: Are you old enough to remember Riverfront (Stadium), or do you just remember Great American?
SV: I just remember Great American. I think going there was the first time I went to a Reds game when I was younger.
RN: Do you have a favorite player or memory from going to Reds games?
SV: Growing up, I know both my grandpa and dad were both fans of (Tom) Browning, so itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pretty cool to have him as a pitching coach. Obviously, the Barry Larkins. The Ken Griffeys. The big-name guys.
RN: Now, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not only playing for the organization you grew up rooting for, but youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re playing about an hour away from where you grew up. WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s that been like?
SV: ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s definitely nice. So far, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had the luxury of playing college ball around the house, now IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m playing pro ball (close to home). ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nice. It allows my parents to come out and watch. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pretty cool.
I still remember in high school coming up to Dayton Dragons games and thinking about how cool it would be to play here, or to be able to just play against this competition. Then, I ended up getting drafted by the Reds and playing here a couple years later. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a pretty cool thing to say.
RN: I was looking through your college stats, and even a glance at them would suggest that things clicked for you your senior year? [Note: Varner was not a full-time starter until his senior season.] Before that, you had some rough patches.
SV: The summer after my junior year I got to go out to California and play in a pretty good league, the California Collegiate League. I just really harped on developing my off-speed (pitches). By the end of that summer, things started clicking, so I took that confidence into my senior year. We had new coaching staff my senior year and the pitching coach (Matt Davis) was really hands-on. He really helped me develop as a pitcher and kind of helped me develop a new mind-set. A lot of it was just confidence — confidence in my stuff, and my coaching staff trusted what I was going out there to do. Same with the position players. I just took that out there, laid it out, and good things happened.
RN: So it was more of a mental thing than anything physical?
SV: Yeah. Pitching is such a mental thing. Your bodyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to do what your mind tells it to do. If you trust your stuff, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most likely going to somewhere around whereÃ‚Â you want it to be.
RN: Were you not a starter last year at Billings?
SV: I was a on a piggy-back rotation with Wyatt Strahan. I was on the starterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rotation, but we were on a pitch and innings count. He would start and go three to four innings, then I would do the same right after him.
RN: What was it like living in Montana and playing your games in the northwest portion of the country?
SV: Beautiful scenery. Coming straight from college to that, it was definitely a long season. Overall, it was a cool experience, especially seeing the different talent level going from college to rookie ball.
RN: Back to your upbringing in Cincinnati. Are you a fan of the established hallmarks like Skyline, Montgomery Inn, GraeterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s — that sort of thing?
SV: Yeah, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m definitely a fan of Skyline, Gold Star, Penn Station — stuff like that. LaRosaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s too.
RN: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m ashamed to say — IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m from Cincinnati myself — that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve never had GraeterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s.
SV: Really? I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t had it many times, but I know of it and have had it at least once or twice.
RN: How did you get your start in baseball? You mentioned your dad and your grandpa, was it those same guys that got you playing the game?
SV: Yeah, our family has always been a baseball family. I started back in first or second grade with coaches’ pitch. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve loved the game ever since then. I think probably around fifth grade or so is when I started playing select ball. So I started playing a whole lot more, and it never got old to me.
RN: How did you fall in love with the game? Were you a fan of other sports?
SV: In high school I played soccer my junior and senior year, and all four years I played basketball. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always loved being active and competing against other people. BaseballÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just always stood out more, so I concentrated more on that than other sports.
RN: ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s kind of shame that the idea of being a multi-sport athlete is going away. I think — especially in baseball where itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s possible to play year-round — guys get burnt out.
SV: Yeah. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m a firm believer that (being involved in multiple sports) made me a better athlete.
RN: You also use muscles in otherÃ‚Â sports that you don’t use in baseball.
SV: It got me in shape in a lot easier than just going out and running for 20 minutes or anything like that. You got cardio in without thinking about it.
RN: Any favorite memories as a baseball player?
SV: My freshman year of college was a great learning experience. We had a really good team. We ended up losing in the championship game of the MAC tournament to Kent State. I wasÃ‚Â able to experience that with Adam Weisenburger and Tyler Melling, both of whom got drafted after that year. It gave me an idea of what I needed to do. Adam Weisenburger definitely helped me a lot as a pitcher my freshman year. Senior year we finally pieced it all together, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when I had my good year, and it was a lot of fun. We ended up winning the MAC East that year, which led to me getting drafted — which always the goal and was a dream come true.
RN: Changing gears a bit: At Single-A, you guys donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have to deal with the new pace of play regulations, but what are your thoughts on the new rules? ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been a big story all season.
SV: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not a huge fan of it just because some guys may take longer than others. I honestly donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s between innings is what is slowing the game down; itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all the media-related stuff and things like that. I can understand completely where theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re trying to keep fans there longer or trying to get more people involved. But I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think it affects the players or pitchers too much.
RN: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m guessing players that have been dealing with it for over two months now have mostly stopped noticing it.
SV: I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s anything too out of the ordinary. When IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m pitching, I get out there as quick as I can sometimes because I want to get to my team back in the dugout.
RN: The draft is approaching. What kind of memories does that bring back for you?
SV: It was definitely an awesome experience — and nerve-racking. At this time last year, a buddy of mineÃ‚Â was getting married and I was in the wedding. I had that going on. I was getting fitted for tuxes and talking to scouts. It was a wild experience. Luckily I was taken on Day Two, because if it was Day Three, I mightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had to answer a phone call during the wedding.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m definitely excited to see it. I know there are some local guys with (Andrew) Benintendi and with guys at Miami, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m interested to see if Ryan Powers, Matt Honchel or anybody like that gets picked up. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m definitely interested to watch.
RN: LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wrap up by talking about your current team, the Dragons. How are things going? A glance at the numbers would suggest the pitchers are holding up their end.
SV: The pitching staff is throwing really well. For the most part, we all understand who we are. We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t try to do too much and let our defense work for us — weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got a pretty good defense. When theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re on and weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re on, usually pretty good things happen.
RN: Do you guys follow the Reds at all?
SV: When weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re at home weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have Fox Sports Ohio on. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be in the lobby watching them play. Usually the coaches watch them in their office, so if we get a chance, we follow them. Being a Reds fan, I get updates on my phone and follow along on Twitter. I try to keep up.
RN: Hopefully it gets turned around for them. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had a rough go of it lately.
SV: Yeah, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re trying to do a bunch of different stuff, so weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had a lot of injuries; they havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t had the best luck with that the past two years.
RN: Anytime you lose Homer Bailey, Devin Mesoraco, and Marlon Byrd, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a hit on your depth.
SV: Yeah, losing a catcher is really tough. A lot of times pitchers and catchers are on the same page, and if you bring somebody new in or whatever, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s kind of hard to get familiar and comfortable.
This interview has been edited. Photo used with permission of Michael Murphy.