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Irvin-Hernaiz Deal: Blogfather Reactions Are Selling Like Hot Takes

Oakland Athletics v Washington Nationals
Seemed like a good pitcher and a great guy.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Once again the Oakland A’s have made a trade that has caused valuation sites to cry and left A’s fans hoping the front office knows something the pundits don’t. Since Cole Irvin is a known quantity and Darell Hernaiz is a prospect with 13 games above A-level competition, clearly the answer lies in how much of a prize Hernaiz turns out to be.

Before analyzing and opining, I want to make what I believe to be the most essential point when it comes to judging prospects and that is: In the world of prospects there are lies, damned lies, and minor league statistics.

I am no better than any of you in rushing to MiLB to pore over all the numbers relating to a prospect I hadn’t thought about for 5 seconds if I had heard of them at all. But while stats only tell part of the story when trying to predict a big leaguer’s future, the tale stats tell in the minor leagues is even less reliable.

We all want the prospect we acquired to be tearing up his league, putting up gaudy stats across the board and being “just too good for his level”. This actually finally happened with Esteury Ruiz (.332/.447/.526, 85 SB) but just as often you look back at a star, or solid regular’s, history and see minor league seasons in which he struggled or put up stats that were “fine” but hardly eye-popping.

When the A’s acquired Josh Donaldson, he was batting .217/.276/.349 in A-ball. It’s not like he was hitting .343/.405/.499, the A-ball slash line once owned by Matt Murton — acquired in the same trade and quickly banished after going 3 for 30 with the A’s and fading into obscurity.

Nowhere is eyeball scouting more vital than in the lower minors, but the problem with eyeball scouting is that it’s extremely subjective. That’s why stats are more comforting, even if they are often misleading. At least they are facts.

Darell Hernaiz

Back to Hernaiz, what are the “facts”? We know he was not the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th SS on the Orioles’ depth chart but rather listed as #5. And as a result his placement on Orioles prospect lists generally found him around 14th. But the Orioles also have MLB’s #1 rated system, and their 10th best guy could be your 2nd best guy, so let’s not grade Hernaiz on a curve.

In 2022, Hernaiz started in A-ball at age 20. He batted .283/.341/.512 in 32 games, mostly notably flashing power that had been lacking in his first 2 minor league seasons (.364 and .358 SLG). He also stole 9 bases in 9 tries.

He was promoted to A+ ball where he, frankly, tore it up. In 60 games, Hernaiz batted .305/.376/.456 with 22 steals in 25 attempts. He also committed just 2 errors in 25 games at SS, 3 errors in 60 games overall at 2B/SS/3B.

Also noteworthy is that A+ Aberdeen is where many Orioles’ hitting prospects have struggled to put up good numbers, reportedly in part due to a poor “batter’s eye” and deep power alleys. That list includes the 4 shortstops rated above Hernaiz right now. Some comparing, with a huge hat-tip to HC510 for doing and posting the research:

Henderson (20 y/o) - .230/.343/.432, .202 iso, 109 wRC+, .341 wOBA, 13.8% bb/30.1% k in 289 PA

Cowser (22 y/o) - .259/.385/.410, .153 iso, 123 wRC+, .370 wOBA, 16.2% bb/28.4% k in 279 PA

Westburg (22 y/o) - .288/.380/.469, .183 iso, 133 wRC+, .379 wOBA, 12.3% bb/24.9% k in 285 PA

Mayo (20 y/o) - .251/.326/.494, .243 iso, 118 wRC+, .361 wOBA, 9.4% bb/21.5% k in 288 PA

Kjerstad (23 y/o) - .233/.312/.362, .129 iso, 86 wRC+, .310 wOBA, 8.6% bb/25.3% k in 186 PA

Norby (22 y/o) - .237/.311/.425, .188 iso, 99 wRC+, .331 wOBA, 8.6% bb/23.9% k in 209 PA

That makes .305/.376/.456 look all the more impressive, and it earned Hernaiz a late season promotion to AA as he turned 21, where he fell flat in his 13 game cup of coffee: 6 for 53 with a .113/.186/.189 slash line.

So he mastered A-ball young, elevated his game yet another notch in A+-ball before his 21st birthday, and then tanked in a taste of AA. Is he a good enough bet to serve as the return for Cole Irvin?

Cole Irvin

Irvin was a workhorse for the A’s and should, if nothing else, be appreciated for what he offered the 2021-22 Oakland teams. You could pencil him in for 30 starts, 180 IP, and a 4.00 ERA and you didn’t really need the eraser.

In fact his 2021 and 2022 stats wound up eerily similar in these 3 basic areas:

2021: 32 starts, 178.1 IP, 4.24 ERA
2022: 30 starts, 181 IP, 3.98 ERA

With 4 years of contract control, the ability to eat innings and generally give you a chance to win, Irvin indisputably has some value. Although when you go “inside the numbers” they do tend to go “ruh roh” in trying to answer the question of whether Irvin’s success his first 2 seasons will be sustainable over time.

- Irvin’s K-rate (per 9 IP) has been consistently very pedestrian: 6.31 and 6.36.

- The spin rates on Irvin’s fastball and curve rank among the very lowest in MLB.

- Considering he has pitched in an extreme “pitcher’s park” at home, Irvin’s home/away splits are cause for some alarm as he switches teams. At the Coliseum, Irvin has enjoyed a career 3.64 ERA with opponents batting .245/.292/.359 against him. But away from “the friendly confines” it’s the hitters who have done the enjoying: Irvin has a career 5.23 ERA with opponents batting .292/.337/.500.

What does all this add up to? baseball-reference does “similarity scores” based on comparable outputs at the same ages. Irvin’s #1 match is an obscure LHP who pitched for the Twins in 2011-14, Scott Diamond.

#s 2-4 are SPs with whom you are likely more familiar: Andrew Heaney, Wade LeBlanc, and Mark Redman. Those are the pitchers Irvin is — based on lies, damned lies, and statistics — most likely to emulate on a career basis based on his body of work so far through age 28.

What stands out to me is that this quartet of LHP hurlers mostly had some success and hung around in the big leagues for quite a few years — and are pretty fungible, especially to an A’s team whose specialty has been finding back-end rotation pitchers who can perform surprisingly well. Guillermo Moscoso, Travis Blackley, Edwin Jackson...I could go on and on and on.

Hot Taek

Just as you can’t overlook Ruiz’ garish stats from 2022, in context Hernaiz’ performance in Aberdeen has you wondering if he is a “breakout prospect” the A’s swooped in and got at the right time before his value soared with a good 2023 AA season for an encore.

At the same time, Hernaiz is a prospect who has never had any success above A-ball and in an industry where most prospects fail you can’t give Hernaiz terrific odds before he even masters the second highest level before the big leagues.

That’s why it’s so crucial to have scouts on the ground who watch the player and can report back, “This one’s for real” vs. “Yeah he put up some good numbers for sure, but...” The track record of A’s scouts in this area is mixed — partly because it’s such an inexact science and also because the A’s employ smart folks but do it on a shoestring budget.

So as for the A’s “get” in the deal I am going to say they succeeded in getting someone athletic (clearly a focus right now in what figures to be the next “small ball era”) and whose stock is on the rise, and I am also going to characterize it as a choice that comes with significant “bust risk”.

Which means that ironically, in targeting Ruiz and Hernaiz the front office is going precisely what so many fans have urged them to do and that is to focus less on quantity spread across a deal and more on that one guy they think can really be something.

It’s just that when you put all your resources into one player then you have to be right most of the time, and with these two trades Oakland has gone against industry rankings to select someone they believe in more than the industry seems to. But it’s still exactly what so many of us want: one Starling Marte and not a Dana Eveland and a Greg Smith, with a Zach Logue to complement your Kirby Snead!

As for what the A’s gave up, I think there’s value in an “innings eater” but Oakland dealt from a position of strength and depth and we need to see more of Kyle Muller, Ken Waldichuk, J.P. Sears — the lefties who may be part of a better A’s future and who will probably get the innings Irvin leaves behind.

I also suspect that while Irvin will stick around in the big leagues for some years to come, in all likelihood his future performance will be a tick down from his 2021-22 seasons. Don’t be shocked if he throws 180 IP but also gives up 90 ER. He’ll still have a job — after all, Jordan Lyles keeps getting work for some reason — and he’ll still have some value.

But I don’t think the A’s gave up all that much, objectively, considering they will wind up replacing Irvin with a SP who is younger and probably better, for whom they have just opened up room.

Put this trade down as one with a 2/3 chance of looking disappointing in hindsight and a 1/3 chance of looking like a really shrewd move. And after exactly 1,600 words I should probably mention that Kyle Virbitsky was also involved. Seems like a nice guy, certainly tall.