Chris Holt’s take on a few minor league pitchers

In this entry recently, I interviewed Orioles director of pitching Chris Holt. He was promoted to that position on Oct. 11 after serving as director of minor league pitching for the 2019 season. We addressed several topics earlier with Holt, and today we get his take on a few minor league hurlers.

In 2019, four of the O’s top six farm teams led their respective leagues in team ERA. The overall strikeout rate of the six teams increased from 8.18 in 2018 to 9.26 last season.

Today Holt provides his take and insights on lefties Keegan Akin and Alex Wells, and right-hander Leonardo Rodriguez.

Akin, who turns 25 next April 1, was the Orioles’ second-round pick in 2016 out of Western Michigan University. In 2018 Akin went 14-7 with a 3.27 ERA at Double-A Bowie. He was named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year and was the O’s co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year, sharing the Jim Palmer Award with Zac Lowther.

Akin-Throws-White-Bowie-Sidebar.jpgIn 2019 for Triple-A Norfolk, Akin went 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA in 25 starts. Over 112 1/3 innings, Akin allowed 109 hits with 61 walks and an International League-leading 131 strikeouts with a WHIP of 1.51. He ranked tied for first in the league in average against at .252. Akin is rated as the Orioles’ No. 11 prospect by both Baseball America and

Holt on Akin: “Keegan did a great job taking some things into his work this year in terms of being able to throw his off-speed pitches more and get comfortable throwing all pitches to both bat sides. A high-strikeout-rate guy and also had an increase in walk rate. But honestly, with what I was asking him to do - throw off-speed pitches behind in the count to be able to attack the zone - he took on that work. It did cost him some walks, but really I don’t care. I want him to throw the pitches and get comfortable doing the things he’ll have to do on TV (in the majors).”

I asked Holt which Akin pitches improved at Norfolk?

“Definitely the changeup,” he said. “He threw changeups more this year than in the past and he also threw his slider to right-handed batters as well. In terms of improving the off-speed weapons and how and when he was going to use those, that was a nice piece of his work this year. He’s also improved his delivery consistency quite a bit. There is still some work to be done, but overall, the work he put together on the year was very, very solid.”

Did Holt and the Orioles have to take all the offense at Triple-A this year into consideration? For the first time in 2019, the Triple-A teams used the major league ball, and scoring was way up. Last year there were 3,652 homers in the top minor league. This year: 5,749. And homers were up 57 percent in the International League.

“Sure. The bigger picture here, though, whether it’s Keegan or anybody at Double-A - and they’re going to use that same ball at Double-A this year, from what I understand - is when you make good pitches, you will get batters out,” Holt said. “When you make mistakes or poor pitches at Double-A or Triple-A, and the batter doesn’t miss it, it teaches you exactly what will happen on TV nightly.

“When you make a bad pitch and get away with it, it’s not necessarily a good thing for your development. You can get away with some pitches, but the fewer that you do, the more reality sets in that ‘This is what I have to do to get the best hitters in the world out consistently.’ So when guys make mistakes at Triple-A and they pay for it, I encourage them to use that as a learning moment to improve the focus level, the attack plan and all the things that go into the focus level they’ll need to win in the big leagues.”

Rodriguez, the 21-year-old from Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, went 2-2 with a 2.65 ERA in 14 games this past season for short-season Single-A Aberdeen. Over 71 1/3 innings, he allowed 47 hits with 25 walks, 80 strikeouts, a .183 batting average against and a 1.01 WHIP. That average against ranked second in short-season ball, and Rodriguez was a key member of an Aberdeen staff that led the league in ERA, at 2.38, and also in average against, WHIP and shutouts, with 12.

While Rodriguez is not currently listed among the O’s top 30 prospects, he was ranked after the season as the No. 10 prospect in the New York-Penn League by Baseball America. He throws a fastball that can touch the mid 90s.

Holt on Rodriguez: “Leo made some really nice improvements, both with his delivery and strike-throwing. It was really no surprise, to be honest with you, to see him perform the way he did. He largely was a fastball-slider mix and at the New York-Penn League level that was certainly effective.

“He was a guy that, on certain days, really tallied up some strikeouts. But he also got some early weak contact and got some ground balls. Performance-wise, there were so many good things about his year compared to where we saw him come in, even in spring training. He did a lot of good quality work down in extended spring with Rob Aviles and then was able to carry that into the Penn League.”

Rodriguez gives the Orioles a pitcher to dream on a bit due his size at 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds. Maybe he grows more into his frame, adds strength and velocity and becomes a top prospect over the next season or two.

“It’s tough to say this early,” Holt said. “You never really know who’s going to be a starter and a reliever in the big leagues until they can prove their durability over the long haul, so right now, with Leo, could he start in the big leagues? Perhaps. Could he be a reliever, a multi-inning reliever in the big leagues? Perhaps. It’s tough to say. But certainly, you like the frame, you like the ability to move well overall with a guy like him. So, there’s a lot to like.”

Lefty Wells went 8-6 with a 2.95 ERA for the Double-A Bowie Baysox. He ranked among Eastern League leaders in WHIP (5th, 1.07), ERA (6th), innings pitched (7th, 137 1/3), and batting average against (9th, .236). He was named a Mid-Season All-Star for the fourth consecutive year. The 22-year-old from Australia was the O’s minor league Pitcher of the Year in 2017 while with Single-A Delmarva and pitched in the All-Star Futures Game in 2018, representing Single-A Frederick. Wells is ranked as the club’s No. 16 prospect by Baseball America and No. 20 by

Holt on Wells: “He’s a pitcher. He really works to execute with a plan. He does his homework, he knows the hitters and he knows what his strengths are. And he has zero fear. He just is 100 percent attack. And those are the things that jump out at me when I think of when I watch him pitch. He also has the ability to create swing-and-miss at times, frozen takes. He creates weak contact. So, he does a little bit of everything, but the number-one thing is he attacks.”

Wells has his doubters among some scouts because of his below-average velocity. Is that a concern for Holt?

“Well, like I mentioned before, it’s the total repertoire,” Holt replied. “We’ve certainly seen guys pitch at 88 to 91 (mph) in the big leagues because they had other pitches that are quality pitches and helped the fastball play up. He’s no exception to that. It’s really a matter of him continuing to develop the quality of his other offerings and then we continue to give him every chance to go out and attack with his plan.”

Coming soon, Holt with his take and insights on more O’s pitching prospects.

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