How do you improve on a solid rookie season? Just get angry.
The Oakland A’s found a keeper for their rotation last year in Cole Irvin, and the lefty is back for more — with his sights set even higher.
The A’s acquired Irvin quietly in a cash deal before last season, and he responded with a breakout campaign. He turned in a full workload of 32 starts, and posted league-average results while generally keeping his team in the game most days.
Irvin, 2021: 4.24 ERA, 178⅓ ip, 125 Ks, 42 BB, 23 HR, 4.30 FIP, 96 ERA+
Those numbers were enough to make him a reliably useful contributor in Oakland’s starting staff, and he’s a lock for the 2022 rotation. In fact, he might be the only guaranteed returner, as the group has already lost one star to a trade (Bassitt) with two more on the block (Manaea and Montas) and another starter injured for at least a month (Kaprielian).
After a sudden breakout at age 27, the natural question is whether Irvin can repeat his success. The question he’s asking is whether he can build on it and get even better.
During the game Sunday on NBC Sports California, broadcasters Glen Kuiper and Dallas Braden caught up with Swirvin’ Irvin during the bottom of the 4th inning. Irvin began the interview by talking about how this spring feels different for him than years past.
“For the past three spring trainings up until this one I’ve been fighting for a job, and fighting for an opportunity on the Opening Day roster. And this year I kind of get to relax a little bit and focus on what I need to, executing good pitches, and trying to work on some more swing-and-miss pitches like my cutter and my slider now.”
With that confidence in his back pocket, he can focus on areas where he wants to improve. One goal is to get more aggressive.
“I think it’s my aggressiveness. I said earlier in the week that I wanted to be a little bit more angry on the mound, but I think it’s just overall aggressiveness in the zone. I think my best games last year were when I was overly aggressive.”
As an example, he went on to reference his start in San Francisco on June 27 of last summer. That day he tossed eight shutout innings against the weirdly good Giants, allowing just three hits along the way. He liked the way he used his fastball, “in on guys’ hands, sank the ball away,” and also the effect of his changeup.
In addition to that adjustment in approach, Irvin is also experimenting with a new pitch.
The southpaw doesn’t have a power arsenal, relying instead on a wide array of crafty offerings. His four-seam fastball does have a little juice, averaging 91 mph last year and topping out just below 95, but he also regularly mixes in a sinker, slider, and changeup as secondary options. The sinker got beat up, while the slider and change worked more for inducing weak contact than missing bats.
Now he’s introducing a cutter into the repertoire. MLB insider Martin Gallegos has more details on that story, with Irvin trying different grips until he found one he liked from NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes in a Pitching Ninja video on YouTube. The cutter has already shown results this spring, and Gallegos also mentions that Irvin switched up his slider grip.
The cutter is more than just another tool for his bag of tricks, though. Irvin also sees it tying into his new overall game plan, as he explained Sunday.
“That’s the aggressive mentality that I want to have this year. Especially with the cutter, because the cutter if you back off it a little bit, it’ll back up and end up in the middle of the plate where you don’t want it. So just adding that to the repertoire too is gonna help with my overall aggressiveness. So that’s the goal for this year, and try to maintain my velocity too, so I’m doing a little bit more stuff in the training room, a little bit more stuff in the weight room to keep my body ready.”
On the topic of taking care of his body, he brought up a tiny piece of the sport’s human element that we might not always think to consider.
“Last year was the first time I actually had flown in any season. So flying was a new experience for me, being dehydrated, for a full year. I know guys play in the [Triple-A Pacific Coast League] and they have to fly everywhere, [in the Triple-A International League] I didn’t ever have to worry about that. So flying was kinda new for me for a full season, so that’s something I had to take into account.”
All things considered, Irvin summed up his spring goals in one sentence.
“Be aggressive, and take care of my body a little bit more.”
The A’s will open their 2022 season with three games in Philadelphia against the Phillies, who traded Irvin here 14 months ago. It would seem likely that he’ll draw one of those starts against his former club, and he expressed excitement to visit the city since he enjoyed his time living there.
Irvin had a banner year last summer, and it will be great if he can repeat that. But with a bit more anger radiating from his attitude, and armed with a new cutter to smash the catcher’s glove, it will be fun to see what incredible heights he can grow to this year.