Buried in the boxscore from the Pirates' comeback walkoff win over the Orioles yesterday is this line:
Irwin: 3 2/3 IP 3 H 1 R 1 ER 0 BB 7 K
In other words, Phil Irwin came into the game in relief of Jeff Locke, faced 14 hitters, and struck out half of them. Spring training games are full of meaningles stat lines (Jared Goedert's hot spring, for example), but every once in a while something happens that catches the eye. Irwin's dominating performance yesterday makes that list, I think.
Irwin was part of Neal Huntington and Greg Smith's infamous class of 2009, though he wasn't one of the more highly regarded pitchers in the group. He was picked in the 21st round out of Mississippi; the Pirates took his teammate Nate Baker in the fifth round. It's possible that he lasted that late because of his age; he's a year older than college juniors like Baker drafted that year and was 22 at the time of the draft. I don't think he was a senior in college in 2009 though Pirates Prospects does mention a Tommy John surgery in 2006, which likely set him back a year and is the reason for
One way to tell how highly this front office in particularly values a player is how they move through the system, and so you can see that Irwin really wasn't really handled much like a prospect in his early time in the minors. He went to State College after being drafted, then spent all of 2010 in West Virginia. He put up good numbers in West Virginia (3.35 ERA, 8.8 K/9 1.6 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9), but didn't move beyond the level despite being old for the level (23) when the season started. He should've been dominating Single-A at that point in his career. The read on him at that point was that he was succeeding on control without great stuff, so you could be forgiven for expecting Irwin to to fall apart in the upper levels of the minors because it seems like the Pirates probably would've shared that opinion with you.
It never happened, though. Irwin went to Bradenton for 2011 and put up a great ERA in 10 starts with slightly worse peripherals than he'd had in State College or West Virginia, which earned him a promotion to Altoona. He kept up the great control act in Altoona with a 6.9 K/BB ratio thanks to his very low walk rate (just 10 walks in 87 1/3 innings), though his home runs peaked a bit after the promotion. He went back to Altoona last year after missing the first part of the season with forearm trouble and did pretty much the same thing, though with a decreased walk rate. Then he got promoted to Indianapolis late in the season and went wild in four starts, striking out 28 hitters in 21 innings over four starts.
When the season ended, Irwin got put on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft — a pretty good sign that the Pirates have a good opinion of him. His work this spring has done nothing to dissuade that opinion. Most of the talk surrounding the last one or two rotation spots has centered on Locke and McPherson, so should we be talking about Irwin, too? What sort of big league pitcher might Irwin make?
As a general rule of thumb, a right-handed pitcher that can't crack 90 mph like Irwin isn't likely to find much more success than Josh Fogg. There are exceptions, of course, and the Pirates do have one in their rotation right now in Jeff Karstens. Karstens doesn't throw hard, but between his good control, his ability to change speeds, and his ridiculous looping curveball, he's become a pretty solid mid-to-back-end MLB starter when healthy (which is its own story). Doug Fister's another example. His fastball has only averaged more than 90 mph once in his career, but because he's got four pitches and he keeps the ball on the ground, he's evolving into a very solid starter.
If anything, Irwin's profile does remind me of Karstens quite a bit. Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs noticed his curveball earlier this spring (via Bucs Dugout) and while four .gifs do not a curveball make, those are also four pretty nasty curveballs. It's funny that piling up strikeouts in Indy and this spring is what is getting Irwin noticed, since he's probably never going to be a strikeout pitcher at the big league level. That being said, I do think that there's some room for him to turn into a Karstens-type pitcher at the big league level. It's hard to gauge his minor league numbers, since he's been old at every level he's pitched at, but the consistent way that he's succeeded is encouraging to me. If he is developing a sharp curveball to pair with a fastball that he can place anywhere any time he wants, he'll be on his way to having some level of big league success. It's certainly not a traditional route to the majors and so that makes it still not quite a sure thing, even for a 26-year old in Triple-A, but he's definitely worth paying attention to now.
All of that being said, it's probably too soon to start wondering if the Pirates should have Irwin in the rotation. He came through the minors slowly, he's been old at every level, and he's only made four Triple-A starts. There's definitely a chance we see Phil Irwin in a Pirate uniform, maybe even starting games in 2013. I just wouldn't count on it happening in April.