Rotation candidate: Irvin looks to bring command, pitch efficiency to O's

It’s been less than a month since he was traded to the Orioles. But over the next month we’ll see lefty Cole Irvin pitch in spring training games for his new team as he hopes to make a mark in the Orioles rotation this year.

On Jan. 26 the Orioles traded minor league infielder Darell Hernaiz, their No. 16 prospect at the time via, to the Oakland Athletics for Irvin and A-ball right-hander Kyle Virbitsky.

Irvin went 9-13 with a career-best 3.98 ERA and 15 quality starts for the A’s in 2022. He threw 181 innings – the 12th-most in the American League – and recorded a 1.16 WHIP with a low 1.8 walk rate and low 6.4 strikeout rate. His ERA was 17th-best in the AL among qualifying pitchers.

Irvin’s command and control are very good and his walk rate was the sixth-best among AL qualifying pitchers. And among pitchers that threw 100 innings or more last season, his walk rate was 18th-best. In 2022 he walked two batters or fewer in 29 of 30 starts, and eight times he didn’t walk a single batter.

And his 14.4 pitches per inning, which would be 86 for six innings and 101 pitches over seven frames, ranked second-best in the AL last season and third in the major leagues. He needed just 15.0 pitches per inning during the 2021 season. He's the model of pitch efficiency.

Irvin uses his fastball more than average, although the velocity on the pitch is below average. His combined two-seam and four-seam fastball usage added up to 59 percent in 2022, as he threw the four-seamer 36 percent at an average of 90.7 mph and his two-seamer 23 percent at 90.3 mph.

He has averaged nearly 180 innings per season over the last two years for Oakland, going a combined 19-28 with a 4.11 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 62 starts. His WHIP is 1.244 in that span, with a 2.0 walk rate and 6.3 K rate.

Irvin once threw harder. And that was when he went 12-3 with a 2.48 ERA as a University of Oregon freshman in 2013, when his fastball was touching 93 or 94 mph. But he had Tommy John surgery and missed the 2014 collegiate season. In 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies selected him in round five, No. 137 overall, and he signed for $800,000. He was the Phillies’ No. 19 prospect in 2019 and No. 27 in 2020.

One concern has been his stats away from Oakland’s home ballpark. In home games only in 2022 for the Athletics, he went 5-5 with a 3.07 ERA and a 0.51 homer rate and .581 OPS against. But in road games he was 4-8 with a 5.26 ERA, 2.27 homer rate and .874 OPS against.

Irvin struggled late last year, posting a 6.24 ERA over his last 10 starts. Even as he had a solid overall year, it was going even better when his ERA was 2.92 before those 10 starts.

During a Zoom interview in January with O's media, he talked about his late-season struggles.

"It wasn’t a fitness issue," he said then. "But I think a lot of it had to do with getting ready too early (last offseason). The past four or five spring trainings, I’ve gotten up to, like, three innings pitched coming into spring training facing live hitters. A little overworking it. This year I’ve taken the approach to stay in the weight room a little longer and focus more on long toss and the longevity of the season in preparation for October. Because, at the end of the day, we all want to pitch in the playoffs. I want to pitch in the playoffs. That is the most important thing for me, being healthy for the postseason.”

Irvin said the workout changes have him throwing harder this spring and he would not be surprised if he were to touch 95 or 96 mph at times in spring games in Florida. We'll see if that uptick materializes for him and if he can carry it into the season.

But the Orioles have a pitcher here that will not even be arbitration-eligible until after the 2023 season and has four more seasons of team control. If he can find his place in the Baltimore rotation, he could stay there for a while. For now, while they wait for John Means’ return, he gives them at least one lefty in the starting five.

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