Fantasy Baseball Takeaways: Cole Irvin, soft-rock in Oakland

·5-min read

It’s a time in baseball where the radar gun is almost always popping. Mid-90s fastballs are common, and it’s not unusual to see someone push it to three digits. Almost everyone is throwing with their hair on fire.

So what do we do when a pitcher finds effectiveness with an arsenal that’s much slower? Well, sure, we tread carefully. But we should at least take the case.

Consider Cole Irvin, Oakland’s left-hander

It’s his first year in the Athletics organization, after an undistinguished career with the Phillies. He’s sitting on a 5.15 career ERA, 1.36 career WHIP, and an average fastball a shade over 90. Nothing to see here, right?

For two starts, the story was ordinary, but Irvin’s found solid footing since. He threw six bagels at Detroit back on April 17 — okay, it's Detroit, big deal. Then he had a solid outing at Baltimore, beat the Orioles. He was effective for six innings against Tampa Bay (the reigning pennant holders), striking out eight. And his May 4 start against Toronto was his best yet: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 9 K.

The season totals are impressive: 3.09 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 34 strikeouts and just five walks over 35 innings. Buoyed by Oakland’s big park and solid defense, perhaps there’s a long-term story here.

Shrewd fantasy managers might have picked up on Irvin back in March when he collected 18 strikeouts against just three walks. Perhaps the 27-year-old has finally come into his own, figured out how to succeed despite eye-popping stuff.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 04: Cole Irvin #19 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays in the seventh inning at RingCentral Coliseum on May 04, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
After an ordinary time in Philadelphia, Cole Irvin is finding his footing in the Oakland rotation. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Irvin’s success has been sparked by a varied pitch mix — he alternates between a fastball and sinker, with a changeup and slider mixed in. He’s also got a curveball he shows every once in a while. Locating the fastball has been essential for Irvin’s tendency to control at-bats, while the change is a perfect pitch to use against right-handed batters.

Irvin's profile has a fly-ball tilt, but that’s not always a bad thing — the great Gene McCaffrey pointed out many years ago that a pitcher having a heavy batted-ball bias of all kind, ground or air, meant he was probably doing something good. And you know how Oakland’s park plays; it’s where fly balls go to die. And even if Irvin's early home-run fortune starts to level out, his xFIP is still a reasonable 3.72. That would at least put him in the preferred streamer conversation, and he'll also carry worth as a more dedicated starter in deeper leagues. 

Some of the sharpest baseball trades are ones that never make the headlines. The Athletics acquired Irvin for cash in the offseason, and it wasn’t clear if he’d be with the club when camp broke. He surely wouldn’t have started the year in the rotation if others hadn’t gotten hurt. But he’s here now, the backdrop is good, the K/BB ratio is validating, and heck, we’re all looking for solid starting-pitching depth. 

I’m going to start Irvin proactively against Tampa Bay on Sunday, and while I’m there, I’ll also get a look at Rays left-handed phenom Shane McClanahan.

Get your popcorn ready.

Beware the Miami Marlins

I’ll admit a soft spot for the 2021 Miami Marlins. Their pitching staff is a dream, a collection of young talent, and it will receive an immediate boost whenever Sixto Sanchez is able to rejoin the team. And some feel prospect Max Meyer will eventually be the ace of this loaded rotation. This staff is filled with lawnmowers.

Of course, there’s more to baseball than just the starting rotation, and Miami’s offense has been largely suspect this year, aside from some exciting Jazz Chisholm highlights. And Jazz is silenced for the moment, dealing with a hamstring injury.

That said, despite a team that’s 23rd in OPS and 19th in runs scored, the Marlins still have a plus-20 run differential, best in the NL East. I give them a puncher’s chance to steal this division. And I still expect the Fish to sail past the preseason over/under win total, which was in the neighborhood of 72. The eventual Chisholm return will spark these guys. Unfortunately, the rehab is progressing slower with Starling Marte (rib).

There are some fantasy values hidden in this lineup. You likely know about first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who has a .271 average, six homers, 24 RBIs, and a K/BB ratio just over 1. Anytime a player walks about as often as he strikes out, I can hear the angels singing. Plate discipline, controlling your at-bats — it’s a beautiful thing, especially when the contact you make is emphatic. Aguilar certainly qualifies.

Of course, Aguilar is long rostered in most competitive leagues. Perhaps you can kick some tires on shortstop Miguel Rojas, another K/BB ace who’s offering sneaky value (.280 average, three stolen bases). He’s even getting a chance at leadoff, given some of the current injuries.

I want you to try to keep an open mind to Brian Anderson, who returned Tuesday after missing two weeks with an oblique injury. Anderson’s seasonal stats don’t look like much, but that’s the injury talking. He did crank a homer Tuesday, for what it’s worth. He covers third and outfield in Yahoo leagues, and was a steady contributor the last two years (.810 OPS last year, .811 the year before, some pop, playable average).

Anderson is rostered in a modest 20 percent of Yahoo leagues. I’ll lean into his back class. And Rojas is even less appreciated, currently on a 10-percent roster tag.

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