Phil Irwin is set to make his major league debut today, getting the spot start in place of Wandy Rodriguez. Irwin hasn’t been talked about as much as top guys like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, mostly because he was a 21st round pick and has kind of flown under the radar in the minors. His numbers last year were excellent, but were over-shadowed by Gerrit Cole, who put up almost identical numbers at the same levels. Irwin has gotten some attention early this year, in part because of his Spring Training results, and also in part because of his curveball (which I’ll get to in a bit). I started “The Book” series earlier this week with Justin Wilson, giving a closer look at what to expect from prospects who are just cracking the major league roster. With Irwin making his debut today, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a look at what you should expect from him.
Irwin uses two different fastballs. He throws his four seamer, which can work in the low-90s, getting up to 93 in the past. He also throws a sinker, which he uses to get quick outs, and to get ahead of aggressive, upper level hitters. In terms of how frequently he uses each pitch, it’s pretty much an even split. When he’s throwing a fastball, he doesn’t really show a preference to either one. That hasn’t always been the case. When he made the initial jump to Double-A, he leaned more on the sinker. But he was more of a 50/50 split in Triple-A. His fastballs really play up due to the command. They’re not over-powering pitches, and while the four-seam can have good velocity at times, Irwin has success more because of his control rather than the fastballs being dominant.
Irwin has some of the best control in the system. Last year he combined for a 1.7 BB/9 ratio over 130.1 innings, which was second best in the minor league system behind Kyle McPherson. Irwin throws his fastball for strikes, attacking the zone and getting ahead in the count. Because he’s got good command of the pitch, he can place it wherever he wants. A lot of Irwin’s success has come from his approach of attacking hitters, which he describes as “strike one them to death”. By getting ahead in the count, he sets up his best pitch, the curveball.
Phil Irwin goes by @FilthyPhil36 on Twitter. That name is very fitting, and to understand why you just need to watch his curveball. He throws a big breaking curveball which starts high, then at the last minute drops off the table right into the strike zone. Irwin has amazing command of the pitch, considering how much movement it has, and it’s safe to say that it’s a plus offering due to the movement and the command.
I could describe the pitch all day, but you’d probably be better off with an early preview. Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs has been posting GIFs of Irwin’s curveball from his minor league starts. His first post was back in February, when he first noticed the curve. He had an update and a few more GIFs during Spring Training. Earlier this week, Cistulli had another update from Irwin’s first start in Triple-A this season. That last one includes three strikes looking. One came on an 0-0 count, one on a 1-1 count, and one on a 2-2 count. Irwin is clearly comfortable throwing the curve in any situation, as he should be based on those GIFs.
Where Did Phil Irwin Come From?
We’ve been high on Irwin in each of the last two years in the Prospect Guide. He was the number 39 prospect in the system heading into the 2012 season, and that was before his big upper level breakout season. This year he was ranked 23rd overall, and I noted that he could be in the major league rotation by the end of the season. It looks like that happened much earlier, although it’s not a long-term thing at this point, since Wandy Rodriguez should be back for his next start.
The 2009 draft has received a lot of criticism. There were two main parts to that draft. One part was the selection of Tony Sanchez in the first round. The other part was the selection of several over-slot prep pitchers in the middle rounds. But no one talks about Phil Irwin, who was taken in the 21st round of that draft, and might be the best prospect from that draft. That’s not just because the results are weak, but because Irwin has developed into a good prospect.
I wrote about Irwin’s transformation from a 21st round pick to a prospect back in Spring Training. His development has been a result of adding pieces to his arsenal as he moved up the system. In 2010 he made an adjustment and took his 87-88 MPH fastball to the 92-93 MPH range. In 2011 he added a sinker, and leaned on the sinker more after making the jump to Altoona. From there he’s just been mixing up his four pitches well, and throwing with good control.
The Pirates get criticism for their drafting and developing of the 2009 draft class. Irwin doesn’t counter the rest of the class, but he is a success story for the development team, since he’s come a long way from when he was a 21st round pick in 2009.
And What Is His Upside?
Irwin has the plus curveball, and great control. His fastball for a right-hander is average at worst, and plays up due to that good control. But he doesn’t really have overwhelming stuff. He just knows how to pitch, which is a good thing. Because of this, Irwin has a shot at being a starter in the majors, but his upside is more a back of the rotation starter. There are some similarities to Kyle McPherson, who I feel has the ceiling of a number three starter when he’s healthy and at his best. I could see a small chance of that happening with Irwin, but he’d need to carry his excellent control over to the majors. He’s done well in Triple-A, but it might be a little more difficult for him to dominate MLB hitters with his command and amazing placement of the curveball. He’s also dealt with some minor injuries in 2010 and 2012, so I’m not sure he could be a 200 inning per year guy. That said, he could have the upside of a very strong back of the rotation starter. If that doesn’t work out, his fastball/curveball combo would make him a good power reliever, since his fastball adds velocity out of the bullpen.
I wouldn’t expect all of this from day one. Not a lot of pitchers make the seamless transition to the majors. You hope that Irwin comes up and impresses in his first start in the same way he’s been impressing in Triple-A. But I think a more realistic, and probably a fair approach would be to hope for a “quality start” in Irwin’s debut, keeping the Pirates in the game while giving him something to build on.
Average four-seam fastball and sinker that gets a boost from above-average-to-plus control and command. Plus curveball that he throws in any count with great command. Potential to be a back of the rotation starter due to control, command, and the curve. Has dealt with injuries. Not exactly injury prone, but probably not a 200 inning guy. Fallback is a power reliever, with his four-seam playing up in shorter outings and his curve being used as an out pitch.