Over the past two seasons, few starting pitchers in the majors have thrown more innings — or more strikes — than Cole Irvin.
For the veteran left-hander, who the Orioles acquired in a trade from the Oakland Athletics on Thursday, being an innings-eater and filling up the strike zone are key parts of his identity as a pitcher. In a sport that has become fascinated with velocity, expected metrics and Statcast data, Irvin knows what he is — and, just as importantly, what he isn’t.
“I know who I am, I’ve always known who I am. And that’s a starting pitcher who eats innings and gets outs,” Irvin said during a video call Friday. “I may not be fancy, I may not be lighting up the radar gun a lot of the time. But what I do is I think through my pitch selection, where I want to be, and I know how to get hitters out. At the end of the day, that’s all my job is to do is to get those guys out.”
Irvin has averaged about 180 innings for Oakland the past two seasons while recording a 4.11 ERA and an elite 5.2% walk rate. With experienced starting pitching a need for Baltimore entering the offseason, Irvin now joins a long list of rotation options.
As starter John Means continues to recover from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, Irvin is expected to be the only lefty in the rotation to begin the year. Means’ absence will also likely make Irvin, who turns 29 next week, the second-most experienced starting pitcher behind only Kyle Gibson, a 10-year veteran who the team signed to a $10 million contract in December.
“There’s so much talent when you look around the field,” Irvin said. “You’ve got Adley [Rutschman] and Gunnar [Henderson]. … There’s so much good here with this team and this organization just to look forward to this season coming off a very successful season last year. It wasn’t where the team wanted to end up I’m sure, but there’s a lot of potential to turn some more heads in our direction.”
Irvin, a fifth-round draft pick by Philadelphia in 2016, also knows what it’s like to be traded to a team on the opposite coast. Before the 2021 season, he was traded from Philadelphia to Oakland, where he got his first shot at being a regular starter in the big leagues.
While he led the American League in losses (15) and hits allowed (195) in 2021, he still posted 15 quality starts (six-plus innings, three or fewer earned runs) and a 4.24 ERA. He registered another 15 quality starts in 2022 — a number that would have led all Orioles pitchers, ahead of Jordan Lyles’ 13 — while his numbers improved across the board. Opposing hitters slashed .251/.293/.416 against Irvin in 2022 compared to .275/.322/.424 in 2021. His ERA fell to 3.98 as he averaged slightly more than six innings per start.
His 181 innings would have also led the Orioles last year, ahead of Lyles’ 179. In fact, the last time an Orioles pitcher topped the 180-inning mark was Kevin Gausman (186 2/3) in 2017.
“At the end of the day, it’s about throwing strikes and getting outs and getting your team in the dugout to score some runs,” Irvin said. “Every start you want to be quality. That’s my focus, to put up a quality start every outing, even if that’s five innings, no runs or one run. I just think that there’s a lot of things overlooked in today’s game and strikeouts and all that. I think at the end of the day it’s all about getting outs and doing your job. That’s what I got traded to do.”
Loading up the zone as frequently as Irvin does has its drawbacks, though. With a fastball that averages barely over 90 mph and a lack of a put-away pitch, Irvin’s 6.4 strikeouts-per-nine innings ranked third-worst among qualified starting pitchers last season. He’s also struggled away from the Athletics’ pitcher-friendly RingCentral Coliseum. Last year, Irvin was excellent at home with a 3.07 ERA and 1.02 walks and hits per innings pitched, but those figures ballooned to 5.26 and 1.35, respectively, on the road.
Whether or not the small sample of his home-road splits are indicative of anything, pitching in front of Camden Yards’ new left-field wall will help Irvin significantly compared to Oriole Park’s previous dimensions.
“I’m excited. I love Camden Yards, it’s one of my favorite ballparks to visit,” Irvin said. “I’m excited to call it home, that’s for sure, with the left field being pushed back a little bit — or a lotta bit.”
Irvin is one of several pitchers who are rotation candidates heading into spring training, and both he and Gibson are seemingly locks to fill up two of the five spots. Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish, Tyler Wells, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and a few other starters on the team’s 40-man roster are up for the final three spots.
To acquire Irvin, who is entering his final pre-arbitration year and is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2026 campaign, the Orioles gave up infield prospect Darell Hernaiz. Baltimore also received minor league right-hander Kyle Virbitsky in the deal.
Hernaiz, 21, hit .273 and stole 32 bases across three levels of Baltimore’s minor league system last season, ending in Double-A. Hernaiz, who is now ranked as Oakland’s No. 18 prospect on MLB Pipeline, was behind several top infield prospects in Baltimore’s system. Additionally, he will be Rule 5 eligible next offseason, meaning the Orioles would’ve been faced with the decision to add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
For Irvin, the trade to Baltimore is an “exciting” opportunity to be on a young team hopeful of competing for a playoff spot. But it’s more so just “nice to be wanted,” he said.
“I feel like I was wanted and feel like this organization saw value in what I can do,” Irvin said.
Pitchers and catchers report: Feb. 15
First full-squad workout: Feb. 21
Grapefruit League opener: Feb. 25 vs. Twins