SARASOTA, Fla. — By virtue of his experience and what it took to acquire him, it’s difficult to imagine left-hander Cole Irvin not opening the season in the Orioles’ rotation.
That’s true for everybody but him.
After making his first start in an Orioles uniform in Wednesday’s spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Irvin said he believes Baltimore’s only guaranteed rotation spot belongs to veteran Kyle Gibson, a 35-year-old right-hander whose one-year, $10 million deal was the Orioles’ largest free-agent guarantee in five years. The acquisition cost for Irvin was high in another fashion, with the Orioles sending well-regarded infield prospect Darell Hernaiz to the Oakland Athletics for Irvin and a pitching prospect. Over the past two seasons, Irvin ranked 14th in the majors in innings pitched, excelling at throwing strikes.
His experience is only lengthy by the Orioles’ standards; of Baltimore’s 12 rotation candidates, only Gibson and Austin Voth, who pitched behind Irvin on Wednesday, are older or have more major league service time. Irvin is well aware the Orioles could choose to have him start the year in Triple-A, given he still has a minor league option remaining.
“There’s a lot of talent here, so my job is never going to be secure,” Irvin said. “I think the only secure job is really Gibby, and he’s the vet and he deserves it, and for me, I’m still kind of earning my way in the major leagues. I gotta earn the respect of my teammates, earn the respect of the guys that were here before me, and so that’s my job.
“There’s a lot of guys that we have that can be in the rotation, so my job is definitely not set over the course of the year, and I know that.”
Irvin has quickly melded into the Orioles’ clubhouse, saying he learned from Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas in Oakland the importance of “taking care of your business but being who you are.” Almost daily, his clubhouse attire has featured Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray or Camden Yards. He said he and his teammates bonded by watching the Daytona 500 last month, and now, they’re making plans for a beach day.
“Ultimately, I just want to do my job and be a part of a winning ballclub, which we’ve got here,” Irvin said. “The culture is good, so it makes it easy just to kind of get in with the group.”
After Irvin’s two scoreless innings, Voth allowed a run in two frames. He posted a 3.04 ERA for the Orioles last year, mostly as a starter, after they claimed him on waivers from the Washington Nationals, for whom he had a 10.13 ERA in 19 relief appearances. Manager Brandon Hyde said Voth’s relief experience — only 22 of his career 92 appearances with Washington were starts — could factor into Baltimore’s relief competition, but the team will view him as a starter until decisions are required late in camp.
“I feel like I’m along with any one of them,” Voth said of the rotation competition. “We all are very talented, and there’s a lot of us, and so whoever’s going to be in the rotation, they’re going to help us out a lot.”
No umpire? No problem.
Maverick Handley saw the video going around social media Tuesday evening, and he wanted to make something clear.
“No-doubt strike,” the Orioles’ catching prospect said with a laugh of the borderline pitch he pulled to the middle of the zone and — without an umpire to rule otherwise — deemed a strike in what was technically the bottom of the ninth inning of Tuesday’s exhibition against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The game officially ended with the Orioles, the road team, losing after 8 1/2 innings, meaning the bottom of the ninth wasn’t needed, but Baltimore had another pitcher, Ofreidy Gómez, it wanted to give work, and the teams agreed to one more half-inning. But umpires had met their quota for the day and elected not to continue for three unofficial outs.
So after Hyde conversed with Pirates manager Derek Shelton, he let Handley know he was responsible for calling balls and strikes. Despite the weird circumstances of opposing teams facing off without umpires, it was nothing new for Handley, having called balls and strikes throughout spring training in backfield work. He did, though, yell out, “Play ball!” as the make-believe inning began.
“What’s funny is it really wasn’t that odd for me,” he said Wednesday morning. “We’ve been doing a lot of backfield games, live [at-bats]. I’ve been calling balls and strikes, knowing there’s an [automatic balls and strikes] system, so I feel like I have a pretty good awareness of the strike zone and I was gonna be fair, so honestly, wasn’t that strange for me.”
The ABS system, more casually referred to as “robo umps,” will reportedly be used in every Triple-A game this season, with half exclusively using an electronic strike zone while the others will feature a challenge system. After Handley spent last year with Double-A Bowie, he expects he’ll get to experience ABS in 2023, and although it’s believed the system will minimize the value of pitch framing — a skill Handley showed off while making calls himself — he believes another trait he displayed Tuesday will remain valuable.
“As a catcher, I think there’s going to be a skill in having somebody that’s really well versed in what the strike zone is and how it varies player to player and having just a good concept of this magical, invisible zone,” Handley said. “For me, it’s something I take a little bit of pride in.”
He said he makes sure to study his calls on backfields, comparing his rulings to TrackMan measurements. He called the borderline pitch, a slider from Gómez that Handley pulled from the outer edge to the middle of the zone, an “80 percenter,” referring to how much of the ball was in the strike zone. After throwing the ball back to Gómez, he pointed to his right, signaling a strike to “let the people know.”
Although Baseball Savant offered pitch tracking for the official part of the game, readings for the bottom of the ninth weren’t available. Handley said he got “100%” of the calls he had to make correct, but he was nervous about one pitch that Pittsburgh’s Mason Martin put it in play, saving the catcher from making a ruling.
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“I’m trying not to have the one where I ring the guy up,” Handley said. “It worked out.”
A day after playing half an inning without umpires, the Orioles went eight innings without a hit.
Lewin Díaz’s single to right field with one out in the ninth was the Orioles’ first hit of the game. Before it, Ramón Urías’ second-inning walk accounted for their only base runner. Heston Kjerstad doubled their total with a single to score Díaz, but the sudden life in their bats ended there in a 2-1 defeat.
“Just didn’t get anything going offensively,” Hyde said.
Orioles at Tigers
Thursday, 1:05 p.m.