There is a case to be made that Daulton Varsho is the best defensive outfielder in Major League Baseball.
The 26-year-old Wisconsin native, patrolling both right field and center field for the Arizona Diamondbacks, sits atop the Statcast leaderboard for Outs Above Average (basically a metric that scores players on the likelihood of making a play). He's tops in defensive runs saved among outfielders, too. And then there's the twist.
Anyone who has followed the former UW-Milwaukee player's path knows what it is. Varsho came to the big leagues as a catcher and has still been behind the plate for 30 games this year with the Diamondbacks. But in his third big-league season, he's not just a multi-positional curiosity, but an elite one.
"I take pride in being a great defensive player," Varsho said Monday before batting leadoff and playing center field for the D-Backs against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field. "It's pretty cool that my skills have kind of parlayed more to being an outfielder, defensively. Being able to take a lot of reads in the outfield for BP is kind of what I've done to try and get really good at it.
"(Arizona first-base coach) Dave McKay here (has helped) and my dad has had some resources to help me out on footwork positioning and seeing what I need to do to get better."
The work helps him get as good a jump on fly balls as anyone in the game.
"The Gold Glove means a lot to me," Varsho added. "I would really, really like to get one eventually in my career. If it's this year, it'd be great; if it's the years to come, it is what it is. All I can do is be prepared and play the position hard like I can."
The native of Chili, Wisconsin, near Marshfield hasn't been all defense this year, though the Brewers are already well acquainted with his ability in the outfield after he ran down a Tyrone Taylor drive in Arizona on Sept. 4. Varsho also hit his 20th homer in that game and entered the season-finale series with 27, good for second on the team. On Monday, he drove in a go-ahead RBI in extra innings, only for the Brewers to rally back and win, 6-5.
In his first truly full season at the big-league level, he's batting .239 with a .754 OPS. That coupled with his defensive contributions gives him a team-best 5.2 WAR according to Baseball Reference, ahead of even Christian Walker (36 homers, 5.1 WAR) and Cy Young candidate Zac Gallen (2.46 ERA, 5.0 WAR).
"When I was kind of doing both (catching and playing outfield) early on, it was kind of (about) being able to control my workload and understanding what my body can take," Varsho said. "Now being a full-time outfielder it's a little different; I can do a little bit more while just being able to prepare every game (in the outfield)."
Varsho hasn't appeared behind the plate since July 24 and hasn't started there since June; the unusual dual-threat ability of playing catcher and center field may not get used to its full capacity much longer. He experimented beyond the catcher position at UW-Milwaukee and in the Northwoods League when he played in Eau Claire, but he didn't start playing outfield professionally until Class AA baseball in Jackson, Mississippi.
School years in Marshfield were interrupted by long trips to spring training
Varsho's father, Gary, appeared in eight MLB seasons from 1988-95, playing for the Cubs, Pirates, Reds and Phillies, but shortly after Daulton was born, Gary was named manager of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, then affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.
The Rattlers made the playoffs both years before Gary moved on to the Phillies organization, where he moved up the chain to become the big-league club's bench coach from 2002-06 and even served as interim manager in 2004.
"I just remember being in the clubhouse with some great Phillies at that time: Jim Thome, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Kenny Lofton, Chase Utley ... there were so many great Phillies at that point," Daulton said. "It was just great being around those guys, learning a little bit and try to take it all in and understand how cool the lifestyle is and see how special it is."
Varsho was named after former Phillies catcher Darren Daulton, with whom Gary Varsho became close during his playing days.
Varsho's school years were chaotic once Gary returned to the big leagues as a coach. He would start school in Marshfield (also where Gary attended high school), fly to Florida for spring training and attend school there for two months, then fly back home for the end of school before returning to Philadelphia for the summers.
"It was kind of a different upbringing a little bit, but it was pretty cool to be able to do that and be around guys in the clubhouse and my dad that much," Varsho said.
Gary Varsho continued pro scouting until 2021 before returning to Wisconsin. Daulton's sisters, Andie (softball at Purdue) and Taylor (basketball at Colorado State before transferring to Sioux Falls) both had excellent athletics careers as well, and Taylor (Marshfield's all-time leading scorer) became Marshfield's head girls basketball coach in 2018.
Daulton didn't follow in his father's footsteps to play baseball at UW-Oshkosh, however, instead heading to UW-Milwaukee, where he became a second-team All American and starred for three seasons.
"I love football, so those are kind of my two main sports, but I knew with my size I wasn't really going to pursue much after high school with football because those boys are a little bigger than me," the 5-foot-10, 207-pound Varsho said "My dad didn't push any position on me, so it's pretty cool that I could choose myself.
"I chose UW-Milwaukee just because I liked (coach) Scotty Doffek. ... A lot of other coaches didn't want me to catch because they said I was too small and didn't have an arm for it. He trusted me to be the player that he thought I could be."
For now, Varsho is the only UW-Milwaukee player to have made the big leagues, but he hopes that changes soon. Fellow Marshfield graduate Trevor Schwecke reached Class AAA with the Toronto Blue Jays organization this year, and former Germantown standout pitcher Brian Keller reached Class AAA with the Red Sox organization.
As part of a bumper crop of Wisconsinites at the MLB level, Varsho regularly crosses paths with fellow National League West player Gavin Lux, a Kenosha Indian Trail alumnus whose Dodgers are among the favorites to win the World Series this year.
"He's put up some really good numbers for the Dodgers, trying to make himself an everyday guy over there," Varsho said, adding that he works out in the offseason with former Brewers (now Rays) pitcher JP Feyereisen of River Falls and often chats with Menomonie's Terrin Vavra, now with the Orioles.
JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Marshfield native has become elite MLB outfielder for Diamondbacks