First Pitch: Phil Irwin a Serious Contender For the Rotation?

Heading into Spring Training, the 5th starter battle seemed to be a two-man race. There was Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, with guys like Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez competing, but both having an outside shot of making the team as a starter. So far Locke and McPherson haven’t stepped up, and neither have Sanchez or Gomez. One pitcher is stepping up with the numbers, and that’s Phil Irwin.

Spring Training numbers shouldn’t mean much. Irwin has only thrown eight innings. In that time he has a 2.25 ERA and nine strikeouts. But seven of those strikeouts came today in 3.2 innings. So he’s had a few good outings, and one really good appearance today. On that same note, Locke has thrown 13.1 innings and McPherson has thrown 7.2 innings. So no matter which player we’re talking about, we’re looking at the equivalent of 1-2 starts during the regular season. You also have to consider the quality of opponents. Locke and McPherson are starting games, so they’re theoretically going up against the best hitters. Irwin has pitched early in two of his appearances, and the other two have come later in the game when the starters were removed. So it’s not totally comparable to what Locke and McPherson are doing.

But what if we looked at something other than Spring Training numbers? How about a few blind comparisons? Take this one:

Player A: 2.57 ERA, 28:7 K/BB, 21 IP

Player B: 0.98 ERA, 17:4 K/BB, 18.1 IP

One of the knocks against McPherson is that he doesn’t have a lot of time above Double-A. Last year he made three starts in Triple-A, posting the Player B numbers. He went to the majors and pitched 26.1 innings, with good results.

Irwin is Player A, and the numbers are from Triple-A in 2012. This is another pair of small sample sizes, but that’s the point. McPherson hasn’t had a lot of time above Double-A. He’s only pitched 44 innings, with 26 of those coming in the majors. Irwin also hasn’t had a lot of time above Double-A, with 21 innings and none in the majors. I get why McPherson is a serious contender for the rotation. But why is Irwin an afterthought?

There are some differences between the two. Both have amazing command, but McPherson has the better fastball. They both have good curveballs, with the edge possibly going to Irwin. I’d give the changeup edge to McPherson. I think McPherson’s three pitch mix makes him a number three starter at best. Irwin’s stuff makes him more of a back of the rotation starter at best. That’s about where Jeff Locke is. I see Locke as a strong 4th starter at best. And Locke is the favorite for the 5th starter spot.

So again, why isn’t Irwin a serious contender?

On to the next comparison:

Player A: 3.45 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 597.2 IP

Player B: 3.60 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 799 IP

Player C: 3.02 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 413.2 IP

All three pitchers have good career strikeout rates in the minors, along with good control. They also have good overall results. Guess which one is Irwin. If you guessed Player C, you’d be correct. McPherson was Player A, and Locke was Player B.

That’s not the best way of comparing them. McPherson was horrible in his early years before turning things around in 2009 and breaking out in 2010. Locke had some struggles in A-ball. Irwin was a college pitcher in A-ball, and didn’t really see a challenge until Double-A. So what if we compare the Double-A numbers?

McPherson: 3.39 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 139 IP

Locke: 3.89 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 182.2 IP

Irwin: 3.33 ERA, 7.1 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 191.2 IP

Once again, Irwin’s numbers are comparable. He was 1-2 years older than McPherson and Locke, respectively, but the numbers are the same.

When it comes to career results, I think the numbers tell us a lot. What these numbers tell us is that Irwin should be a serious contender, just like Locke and McPherson. He doesn’t have a lot of upper level experience, but neither does McPherson. He doesn’t have a huge upside, but neither does Locke.

When it comes to Spring Training results, I don’t think the numbers tell a lot. I think it’s more about how the players are looking, how they’re executing, and how ready they will be for the season. So far, Irwin has looked great. I’m not saying that should make him the favorite for the job. I’m just saying that if this was once a two person race, it should now be a three person race with Irwin considered a serious contender.

Links and Notes

**Two updates on the site. First, the 2013 Annual will be shipping this week…finally. There was a delay getting the book from the publisher, and I found out today that this was because FedEx had suspended shipping in the Northeast and Midwest. The shipping resumed today, and the book is scheduled to arrive here by the end of the week.

**Second, the site content will start picking up this week. So far it has been shit, to put it bluntly. I’ve had a few articles, but nowhere near the coverage we should have for Spring Training. And don’t be like “Oh no, it’s been great, keep up the good work Tim!” Nobody likes a liar. I’ve been totally exhausted and burnt out between the move, finishing the book, hiring new people, and covering major league and minor league camp. Fortunately, if there’s a second wind for bloggers, I got it today. I feel good, I feel ready to start the season. My fastball was a little up, but I executed my other pitches…sorry. Got side tracked there. Anyway, games at minor league camp start this week. I’ll have an article on Clay Holmes coming up, and I’ll be giving you my thoughts on some of the players who are standing out. Be sure to check the site tomorrow morning for a new player who I noticed in camp today. I’ll also have thoughts on big league camp, since I’ll still be covering both. It should be the start of a fun and busy couple of weeks. Now for the recent links.

**Pirates Notebook: Locke Gets Hit Hard, Irwin Drawing Some Attention.

**Injury Update: Charlie Morton Throws His First Bullpen.

**Neal Huntington Reacts to Jameson Taillon’s WBC Start.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Four Recap.

**WBC Notes: Rodriguez Starts, USA Wins.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Judge Starting To Impress.

**WBC Notes: Taillon Looks Good Against Team USA.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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