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.

Tim Williams

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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  • James Santelli

    I cast my vote* for Phil Irwin, if for no other reason than the “wild eroticism” of his curveball. http://www.fangraphs.com/not/index.php/five-notes-on-milb-tv-which-the-author-has-just-purchased/

    * I do not get a vote.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.sweetnich Joe Sweetnich

    Ca-Ca would have been a much better description, Tim.

    Only joking…

    • John Dreker

      It did scare me a little yesterday when I saw I wrote all of the last six articles posted. One of those “Wait, why is no one else posting” moments. It looks like I brought rain to Bradenton with me, so blame me if there is no news from camp today

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.weible.5 James Weible

    Hopefully he gets a chance to start once or twice before Spring Training is over, I’d like to see him go against the big boys

  • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

    “So far it has been shit, to put it bluntly.”

    Flagging Tim for using bad words!

  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    Probably well worth noting that Baltimore ran out a AAA/bench lineup yesterday and Irwin came in to face even lower level guys for most of his stint.

    • leadoff

      It did not matter who Irwin was pitching to, it was how he pitched that counted, even if he would have gotten hit, which he did in one inning. Also the O’s did not do much substituting at all when or before Irwin came in, it was much later when they did their wholesale subbing.
      No one that I have seen does more subbing than Hurdle. He took Marte out in the 4th inning for a double switch, ouch!

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        It matters tremendously who he was pitching against.
        He faced Alexi Casilla, Jason Pridie, Ryan Flaherty, Conor Jackson, Lew Ford, Trayvon Robinson, Brandon Waring, Chris Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Russ Canzler, Danny Valencia, LJ Hoes, Yamaico Navarro, and Luis Exposito. Not a MLB starter or even a good prospect in the bunch.

        Come back in off the ledge leadoff. ST stats are meaningless for reasons like this.

        • leadoff

          I was using no stats to make my case, I said it was “how” he pitched that counted, I don’t care if the opposition was a bunch of little leaguers, his delivery, his demeaner, his pitch selections and his control, the sound of the ball coming off the bat, all of which had little to do with who he was pitching against. Incidently that same bunch of AAA players was knocking Locke around pretty good. I am not saying it never matters who a pitcher is pitching against, just in this case my point is more concentrated on what the pitcher is doing not the opposition, as you said St stats are meaningless and to a degree they are.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            Nearly everything you mention changes when a guys is facing top MLB talent (demeanor, pitch selection, control, sound of contact).

            Irwin is barely a prospect while Locke has the better talent. Locke getting shelled by AAA is not particularly heartening, but I will take his body of performance over Irwin by a mile.

            Last spring Danny Moskos was pitching lights out against minor leaguers late in games. Its critical to understand the the limitations of basing much of anything on these spring games. That is what leads to thinking that Matt Hague is an answer at 1B.

  • leadoff

    Since I have seen all three of these guys pitch, this is how I would rank them without using any stats, because stats are hard to use when trying to separate them.
    1. Irwin
    2. McPherson
    3. Locke
    I also think Irwin and McPherson throw hard enough and have enough overall stuff that is hard to predict how far up the their ceilings are, Locke is easier to figure out.
    I am kind of disappointed that Irwin is not getting the same chance as Locke and McPherson, he is a starter he needs to prepare like a starter, he has been a starter every where he has been. I would like to see how he does with a proper start.
    If you go by the competition that these pitchers are pitching against, Taillon should make the starting rotation, nobody on the Pirates pitching staff has faced tougher competition this spring.

    • http://www.facebook.com/james.weible.5 James Weible

      I agree, especially after seeing Locke get rocked by that “AAA” lineup!

      • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

        I think all of them have knocks against them. At this point, I think I would still have Locke at the top of the list. He’s done the most to prove himself at the upper levels, I believe he has the most experience in the majors so far, and while he’s had a couple poor starts so far this spring, he’s also had considerably better starts than McPherson. If I was ranking them, I’d probably say that Lock has had a couple really good and a couple really bad starts so far, whereas McPherson has been consistently blah so far. I think McPherson would ultimately benefit from getting at least 10-15 starts in AAA this year before anyone starts to think about where he should fit in. As far as projection is concerned, I just think Locke is more or less where he’s going to be for his career, while McPherson still has room to grow.

  • cpc

    Not for nuttin’, but there’s that Chris Leroux dude everyone seems to enjoy ignoring. Phil Irwin is a pup and could stand some more seasoning at AAA. Let’s see what Leroux is made of over the first 20 games of the season

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I’m not sure what Leroux has to do with any of this.

  • cpc

    Just that he’s taking space on the 40 man, is pencilled in as the long man out of the pen pending Karstens return, and maybe should be considered for the 5th man rather than Irwin, who likely needs time at AAA, and either Locke or McPherson, who each could maybe be better served initially with the role as a long man