Zero. It is the only number on the mind of a pitcher in each of his outings. No walks, no hits, and most importantly no runs affixed on the scoreboard. The role of every hurler is being the first line of defense. Strikeouts, walks, and home runs are the outcomes he controls. Victory lays in his hands while momentum is only as good as his next start. Pressure intensifies and every pitch stands between triumph and defeat. Seldom can a pitcher attain flawless dominance, but Cameron Varga, a twenty-year-old kid from Bradenton, Florida came as close as any pitcher in recent memory, pitching a no-hitter on the same day he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the second round of the 2014 draft.
Originally from Bradenton, Florida, Varga became on the top shortstop prospects in the state before he reached puberty. On the cusp of high school as an 8th grader, Varga committed to the University of Florida, five years before eligibility. After his freshman year at Sarasota high school, it was at IMG Academy where Varga developed an appreciation for pitching when he was converted from the shortstop position and named his team’s closer, saving seven games. Varga would develop three pitches, a mid-90s fastball, a changeup, and a late-breaking curveball, enabling him to have a future as a starting pitcher. Varga’s immediate future, however, would be in Cincinnati, where his family relocated before his senior year of high school.
Pitching at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Varga left this competition in dust, putting together one of the best single season performances for a pitcher in Division III history. In eight starts, Varga pitched 44 consecutive scoreless innings, collecting eight victories and finishing the season without yielding a single run. Varga’s final high school outing before the draft would result in a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts on the same day the Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the second round of last year’s draft. Entering his second year of professional baseball, as the ace the Hudson Valley Renegades staff, Varga has continued to display flashes of dominance, pitching to a earned average around 2.50 in both the Gulf Coast League and the New York Penn-League. Varga recently sat down with Baseball Essential as he begins the ascension up the prospect ladder in the Rays farm system.
Baseball Essential: You originally grew up in Bradenton, Florida. What initially drew you to baseball?
Cameron Varga: “Growing up, my dad played professional basketball so I was always around sports. I grew up playing basketball and baseball. By the time I was 10, I told my dad I wanted to focus completely on baseball and put my focus into that.”
BBE: In your senior season in Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy you were the Gatorade Ohio Baseball Player of the year and did not allow a single run all season long. What was the key to your success and were you amazed that you had the best season in school history?
CV: “It was surreal. It was so much fun. I went out there every day and just had a good time and enjoyed every minute of it. I actually did not know I broke the record until I actually broke it. The record was 22 innings and I believe I was at 24 or 25, so I did not have much pressure and just went out and pitched like normal and once I found out so I tried to keep it going.”
BBE: Before stepping on the mound you were a shortstop and committed to Florida as an eighth grader. How long have you been pitching and what difficulties did you face changing positions?
CV: “It was a unique situation. I was a shortstop growing up. I would close games. I really did not put any thought into pitching. I committed young and that was my focus. After my sophomore season in high school I started throwing harder and I fell in love with pitching and being on the mound with that one versus one competition. I felt like the competition was better, so I switched from shortstop to pitching. This is what I wanted to do. I loved it so much. I told everybody, “I was going to be a starting pitcher” and ended up being drafted by the Rays which is an awesome opportunity.”
BBE: The Tampa Bay Rays drafted you in the second round in the 2014 draft on the same day you pitched a no-hitter to conclude your high school career. What do you remember most about being drafted and what steps did you take to avoid thinking about the future while on the mound that day?
CV: “It was an incredible day. I am not going to lie. I was thinking about it all day. Pretty much the only thing I was thinking about and once I headed on the bus that morning to pitch, I did not think about it. I completely forgot about the draft. I was like, “after this game is over I will think about the draft”. I ended up doing great. We won. I threw a no-hitter and after that it was all about the draft.”
BBE: Coming from a Division III school facing lesser completion, what has been the biggest challenge for you playing in the New York-Penn League against some of the top prospects in baseball from recent drafts?
CV: “I actually enjoy it a lot coming out of high school and making the jump to professional baseball. It is not as much about velocity or stuff because everybody has good stuff. A lot of it is more location and being smarter and mentally trying to push yourself every day to be the best you can be”.
BBE: For those of you who have yet to see you pitch, what pitches are a part of your arsenal and which ones do you have the most confidence throwing in a game situation?
CV: “I’d say going into this year, my curveball is my best pitch and during extended Spring Training, the Rays had a whole month dedicated to changeups, so I really worked on my changeup, but honestly I would say it is my best pitch”.
BBE: Scouts have mentioned that despite having two quality pitches you have had trouble repeating your delivery at times, affecting command. What steps have you and the coaching staff in the Rays organization taken to simplify your mechanics?
CV:“They are really monotonous with mechanical issues and just working on little things every time after a game or something and watch film and look at certain things and try to correct my mechanics. When I went to the draft I was more of a thrower and after being here with the Rays for a year now in professional baseball, I feel like I really developed into a pitcher.”
BBE: How beneficial has it been for you to be drafted into an organization which has developed some of the best pitching in baseball over the past decade as you make your way up through the system?
CV: “Honestly, I think it was such a blessing from God to be in an organization that is so pitcher-heavy and they really care about other pitchers and workouts and everything they do is incredible to be an organization where they care about young pitchers and develop them to one day pitch in Tropicana Field. That is just an awesome thing”.
Adapting to an unfamiliar position is an arduous pursuit. A regimen becomes second nature and old habits are difficult to break. Transitioning from the batter’s box to the mound creates similar challenges. Velocity, control, and command become the primary benchmarks for success. Training and preparation develops within a fixed five-day window and the efforts made during those separate intervals reflect in results.
After just a handful of seasons on the mound, Cameron Varga is quickly developing into one of the more intriguing pitching prospects in baseball. A three-pitch arsenal featuring a power fastball, curveball, and changeup are beginning to show signs of growth in a system seeking another homegrown arm akin to Alex Cobb or Nate Karns. Pitchers such as Varga and 2012 4th round pick Nolan Gannon are hoping to be among the next wave of Rays pitching prospects as the club begins to rebuild a recently stagnant farm system and eventually return to the penthouse of the American League, but the ability to repeat past success will decide their ultimate destiny.