Dean Kremer vs. Cole Irvin: Who is next on the Orioles' rotation chopping block?

For years, the Baltimore Orioles' achilles heel was a lack of quality starting pitchers to fill out a five-man rotation. That has all been turned on its head, as the Orioles have one of the top rotations in baseball and seven pitchers who are more than capable of churning a quality start at the big league level.

With the impending return of Grayson Rodriguez from the Injured List, one of either Cole Irvin or Dean Kremer will lose a rotation spot despite churning stellar outings over the past couple of weeks.

But who will it be?

Baltimore Orioles v Cincinnati Reds
Baltimore Orioles v Cincinnati Reds / Dylan Buell/GettyImages

The Baltimore Orioles had an historic weekend in America's second favorite Queen City over the weekend. Not only did the Orioles sweep the Reds en route to an AL-best 23-11 record, Orioles pitching continued a prolific stretch as they have allowed two or fewer runs in seven consecutive games. The last time the O's had a stretch of such length was in 1980, when the team went eight consecutive games of the same feat.

Over the weekend, the Orioles started their three most inconsistent starters over the past two seasons, but Cole Irvin, John Means, and Dean Kremer each shut out the Reds through at least six innings of work, turning that preconceived notion on its head. Of course, Means was returning from injury and immediately returned to vintage form, while Irvin and Kremer each built off of strong starts of their own. It is fair to say that both Irvin and Kremer are in the midst of the best stretches of their Orioles career, as both have had multiple quality starts strung together.

For Kremer, he finished the week strong with a six-inning shutout performance on Sunday. The righty did not allow a baserunner until Christian Encarnacion-Strand lined a single into left-center field with one out in the fifth. The next batter, Jonathan India, walked, and that was it for any damage accumulated on Kremer on the afternoon. Along with only allowing two baserunners, Kremer struck out six batters and improved his season ERA to 3.57.

This built off another strong outing earlier in the week when Kremer helped a depleted Orioles bullpen by pitching seven innings and allowing only two solo homers. His stretch of 13 innings with only two runs allowed was good enough to win the prestigious Birds Watcher Player of the Week award, his first of the season. This stretch also came at an opportune time, as he has now gone four consecutive starts of at least five innings and allowing three or fewer runs, following an abysmal start against the Brewers in early April.

After numerous struggles in his first season with the Orioles, Irvin has turned a corner and then some. Similar to Kremer, Irvin is in a prolific stretch of his own, as he pitched 6.1 shutout innings on Friday night while allowing two hits and no walks. Over his last three starts, Irvin has pitched 20 innings and not allowed a run. In those three starts, the Orioles have outscored their opponents 15-0, as Irvin has been involved in team shutouts in each of those three starts.

Needless to say, Irvin is in a stretch that absolutely no one expected out of the pitcher who lost a rotation spot early in 2023, and seemed on his way out after a tough start in Boston on April 10. The last three starts certainly are not sustainable long-term for any pitcher, but it is certainly a sign that Irvin has turned a corner and gives the Orioles a legitimate chance to win every time he toes the bump. After all, the Orioles are 5-0 in Cole Irvin starts this season.

Will Cole Irvin or Dean Kremer keep Orioles rotation spot when Grayson Rodriguez returns?

All this being said, both Kremer and Irvin belong in a big league rotation, and there are roughly 25 other MLB teams who would happily take either. However, the Orioles only have five rotation spots to fill, and four of those will be occupied once Grayson Rodriguez returns from injury (assuming Corbin Burnes, Kyle Bradish, and Means all remain healthy until then). This leaves only one spot for either Kremer or Irvin, while the other will be pushed to the bullpen alongside Albert Suarez.

Historical precedent favors Kremer, since he has been a consistent member of the rotation since 2021 and has been a solid MLB starter since '22. Kremer also started Game 3 of the ALDS last season and beat out Irvin, amongst other options, for the third rotation spot in the Postseason. At his peak, Kremer had a career year in 2022 capped off by a complete game shutout against the Houston Astros on September 23. That season, Kremer finished with a 3.23 ERA and 121 ERA+.

So far this season, Kremer has had his best season in terms of strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and hits allowed per nine innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has steadily improved over his five big league seasons, as he currently sits at a career-best 3.36 rate, up from 2.85 in 2023. Kremer has never been a huge strikeout pitcher, and walks were a major concern early in his career, but his command has gotten much stronger since.

His 8.3 Ks per nine is a modest improvement over the 8.2 clip he posted a season ago, but his success has stemmed from his ability to avoid baserunners. In a small sample, the hits per nine innings rate has decreased drastically from previous seasons. Thus far, Kremer has allowed 6.2 hits per nine innings. His previous career best in a full season was 8.8 in 2022.

The peripherals are not nearly as kind to Kremer; he has allowed eight home runs this season, which is the most of any pitcher in the American League. Home runs have always been an issue for Kremer, and the new dimensions at OPACY do not seem to make that drastic a difference. Throughout his career, Kremer has allowed 63 home runs in 77 starts, and allowed 27 last season.

The high home run numbers have negatively impacted many of his predictive stats. For one, Kremer's FIP is more than a run worse than his ERA so far, as he has a 4.72 FIP compared to a 3.57 ERA. Hitters also have hit Kremer hard in a small sample size, despite a relative lack of production. He ranks in the seventh percentile for barrel % and is in the 20th percentile for expected ERA, according to Baseball Savant. Additionally, Kremer ranks in the bottom four percent of the league for max exit velocity, and the bottom three percent for expected slugging percentage. Put simply, Kremer's luck may turn soon, and it might not be pretty.

For Irvin, his limited sample thus far is one of the best stretches of his major league career. In six starts, Irvin has a 2.86 ERA with a 129 ERA+ and 1.07 WHIP. Similar to Kremer, his walk rate ties a career best rate at 1.8 walks per nine innings, which he achieved in 2022 with the Athletics. Unlike Kremer, Irvin has kept the ball in the yard, allowing only two homers in 34.2 innings pitched.

Irvin's command has always been a strength, as he acts as a much craftier pitcher than Kremer, but has still proven to be tough to hit. Irvin's curveball has been his best pitch, which he uses 30% of the time. He ranks in the 91st percentile for run value on the pitch. Along with the curveball, Irvin also commands three variations of the fastball, including the sinker. This repertoire has allowed Irvin to rank in the 82nd percentile for groundball rate and 84th percentile for walk rate.

While command is certainly a strength, his inability to miss bats could still haunt him. Despite the low walk and home run rate, Irvin's FIP is nearly half a run worse than his ERA. Irvin simply does not miss bats, as he ranks in the second percentile for whiff percentage. He also ranks in the bottom 25 percentiles in strikeout percentage, fastball velocity, and chase percentage. Continuing to allow batters to make contact can eventually turn his fortunes, even if most of the contact he allows is weak.

In all, both Kremer and Irvin are in the midst of prolific stretches, but there are areas of concern for both. The best news for Irvin is that he has returned to form in not allowing walks, which made him so successful in Oakland. Kremer also is commanding pitches at a career best clip, but has had issues allowing hard contact. That's troubling, as balls continue to leave the yard despite his success.

Based on historic precedent and current trends, it seems that Cole Irvin is a better option to remain in the rotation long-term than Kremer. However, it might be difficult to convince Brandon Hyde to remove Kremer from the rotation while he is pitching well. It seems that the floor for Kremer is lower than Irvin's, as long as Irvin is commanding his pitches. During this stretch, Irvin has been better than Kremer - both statistically and in the peripherals.

The only caveat is that Kremer might also have a slight advantage since he is a right-handed pitcher and Irvin is a southpaw. Moving a lefty into the bullpen may be advantageous, given that you can never have too much lefty help in a bullpen. Regardless of the decision, the Orioles' rotation should remain a significant strength.