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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Cole Irvin

The Orioles parted with a lower-ranked infield prospect to get four years of an innings eater

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics
Cole Irvin, coming soon in orange and black, or grey and orange, or white and orange.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

How he arrived: Acquired from Athletics for IF prospect Darell Hernaiz, 1/26/23

Who left: LHP Darwinzon Hernandez designated for assignment, 1/26/23 (cleared waivers/outrighted to Norfolk)

When the Orioles offseason began, with GM Mike Elias’s months earlier “liftoff” comment still feeling fresh in our minds, it wasn’t hard to think that the team was going to do something aggressive this offseason. I was not immune to this feeling, writing for this website about why the team should sign Justin Verlander. I also spent time on my own pondering whether or how the O’s might acquire good pitchers in trade.

The reality was significantly less exciting. The guy the Orioles signed was Kyle Gibson. They did not trade for Pablo López or Corbin Burnes or anyone who might have significantly moved the needle. When the trade happened, the O’s sent infield prospect Darell Hernaiz - their fifth- or sixth-best infield prospect, depending on who you ask - to Oakland for major leaguer Cole Irvin and minor league pitcher Kyle Virbitsky. This did not immediately move the excitement needle very much.

Irvin’s biggest selling point as a pitcher for the Orioles right now is that he’s started 30+ games in each of the last two seasons, and along with those starts he’s racking up innings, too. For 2021 and 2022 combined, Irvin was 14th among all MLB pitchers in innings pitched, less than three innings shy of being in the top 10.

With a rotation mix full of pitchers who either do not have a full season’s track record of MLB success, or will probably be on some kind of innings limit to stop them from pitching as long as they are effective in a given game, or both, that is bulk with some potential value to the Orioles right now. Add in that Irvin is a left-handed pitcher, which the Orioles didn’t have in the rotation last year after John Means got hurt and Bruce Zimmermann flunked out, and that’s another thing that Irvin brings that they didn’t already have.

Irvin, who turned 29 last week, is able to do this because he’s a pitch-to-contact kind of guy. His strikeout rate is low for a modern pitcher, with Ks in only 17.3% of plate appearances. League average last year was 22.4%. However, he also has a low walk rate of just 4.9% against a league-wide average of 8.2%. That pitch efficiency allowed Irvin to average just 14.4 pitches per inning last season. Compare that to since-departed Jordan Lyles, who threw 16.7 per inning, and this is something that adds up.

These are the things that one must focus on for positives about Irvin because his actual results weren’t great. Though Irvin’s season ERA of 3.98 - like his 4.24 the year before - is superficially fine, park/league-adjusted numbers like ERA+ tab him as below-average due to the benefit he got from pitching half of his games in the cavernous Oakland stadium.

Consider his home vs. road splits just from last year: Irvin held batters to just a .581 OPS at home but gave up an .874 OPS on the road. That road number included 19 of the 25 home runs he allowed on the season.

In any year before last year, the idea of adding a homer-prone pitcher to the mix at Camden Yards might have seemed more like the team was tanking, rather than improving. The no-longer-brand-new left field dimensions change this picture substantially for a lefty like Irvin. Righties he faces at Camden Yards, who have the platoon advantage against him, have to aim over Walltimore. This can be done, but not nearly as easily as it used to be, as every Orioles righty batter from last year is well aware.

Irvin, for his part, seems excited to be joining the Orioles right now. In his remarks to O’s reporters shortly after the trade, Irvin said his first thought upon hearing of the trade was how many plays he felt like Gunnar Henderson made against the Athletics last year. He noticed how different things were from 2021 to 2022 and added, “It’s going to be a lot of fun. There is so much young talent.”

Orioles fans are simply not used to quotes like this. Only within the last six or seven months could there be excitement about the direction of the franchise. This is a place that is interesting for some players to be, even if as yet this combined with whatever dollars the O’s have offered to free agents haven’t gotten any big fish here yet. Irvin’s glad to be here because the team is going places, not because this is his last opportunity to try to prolong his career, as it was for so many players over the prior five years.

Irvin acknowledged that a lot of his problem last year was falling apart at the end of the year. After pitching seven shutout innings on August 24, he had a 3.14 ERA for the season. Over his next seven starts, his ERA was nearly 7, leading to his finish just shy of a 4 ERA. Irvin had similar struggles starting in late August in 2021 as well. He told reporters that he’s adjusted his offseason routine this year with more focus on “the longevity of the season.” If those efforts pay off, there’s a lot of upside in this trade for the Orioles.

In general, I am skeptical of claims that amount to, “If you take out all of the games where this guy sucked, then his numbers look a lot better.” A player is the sum total of all of his games. If he sucks sometimes, that’s part of his story. You can’t just hand-wave that away.

If there’s a plausible story of improvement, as in this case where Irvin was specifically challenged with late-season performance and he’s made an effort to address that, that does make it a bit easier to latch onto the hand-waving theory as a realistic possibility. I hope that the 2023 Orioles season plays out in such a way that it matters to us whether or not Irvin is able to overcome this last month challenge he has had.

In the absence of that improvement, it seems like Irvin will still be a pitcher who Orioles fans can be glad we’ve got around for five months. That’s better than nothing, but at season’s end it might leave us wondering why the Orioles just didn’t keep this spot open for someone like Kyle Bradish or Tyler Wells instead, or even whether Mike Elias will prove any better than Dan Duquette at acquiring pitchers to help keep the good times rolling.

Unlike the hypothetical trade targets that were more big league-experienced, closer to ace-level pitchers, Irvin has not even entered his arbitration years yet. That means that in addition to this season, the Orioles will hold his contract rights for the next three years. If we are on the cusp of an era of O’s greatness, as we all hope, then Irvin is positioned to be around for a lot of it. All that he has to do is pitch like he did before, except better in September.

Still to come: That’s all, for now