He’s got a good clubhouse locker spot. He sits between 2019 American League All-Star John Means and right-hander Alex Cobb, a veteran of eight major league seasons and 146 starts.
“That’s a great seat. Can’t get much better in my mind,” Akin said. “Rookie All-Star and a vet like Cobb. I’m just a sponge. Absorb everything. Talk to those guys about their careers and how they go about their business. Just a big learning curve for me and it’s going well.
“It’s exciting. I’ve come all the way through the organization and now it’s exciting, knowing I could get my shot.”
He could. After a full year at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019, the Orioles’ second-round pick in 2016 could push for a rotation spot this season. He’s even in the hunt to make the rotation to begin this year.
On the surface, his 2019 Triple-A stats look pedestrian. He went 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA over 25 games. But that ERA actually ranked sixth in the International League among qualified pitchers after a year where scoring was up with use of the major league ball. Homers were up 57 percent in the league in 2019. He led the International League in strikeouts, becoming the first Tide to do that since right-hander Manny Hernandez in 1990. He finished tied for first in the league in average against at .252.
Akin, who was added to the 40-man roster in November, throws his fastball often at 92 or 93 mph, touching 95 mph, and mixes in a slider and changeup.
But he spent the 2019 season learning to throw fewer fastballs and more secondary pitches. Pumping fastballs would not work in terms of pitch development.
The Orioles wanted him to throw secondary pitches in all counts and become comfortable being uncomfortable. He estimates he threw nearly 80 percent fastballs in 2018 at Bowie, when he was co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year in the organization. That number was closer to 50 percent last year. And it led to an increased walk rate of 4.9 but he also posted a career-best 10.5 strikeout rate.
“It was a rough patch in the road, you know, in some aspects with walks,” Akin said. “It was frustrating mentally trying to do things I had never done before at that level against some of those hitters. I was playing against guys that had seven years in the big leagues. Some real good ballplayers, but kind of at the back end of their career.
“It was frustrating some times to experiment with new pitches and new strategies, I guess. The biggest difference was kind of to talk yourself through it. Essentially kind of a don’t worry feeling. Don’t worry about walking guys. You are here to work on things. It wasn’t as results-based as you would think. It was a pitch development thing, to get more comfortable with all my pitches and it helped.”
Akin admits it felt like culture shock the first few times he threw a 2-0 changeup or 3-1 breaking pitch. That used to be an automatic fastball.
“Oh, for sure. I would say so. Different. But they have the stats to back it up so it’s easy to buy into it to do it,” he said. “The end goal is to be a good major league pitcher not a good minor league pitcher. That is how we go about it.”
Akin has been ranked among the club’s top 11 prospects since the Orioles selected him No. 54 overall out of Western Michigan. He was No. 6 at the end of 2016, No. 11 a year later, No. 6 again after the 2018 season and is No. 9 now.
I asked Akin if his 2019 stats would have been better had he just kept pumping fastballs. Maybe so, but he might be a less complete pitcher today.
“I don’t know. I can’t make predictions on that. It could have been worse,” he said. “It is what it is. It worked out and we’re here.”
So after a season of work on his secondaries, which is his best right now?
“It depends on what day, to be honest with you,” he said with a laugh. “I think my fastball is my best pitch, but the slider and the changeup have seen good adjustments and they are going in the right direction. So to keep those going in the right direction and make those even better is kind of the goal of spring.”
As he waits to get into his first spring game, the usually low-key Akin is continuing to soak up some clubhouse knowledge and is not feeling any pressure as he anticipates game action.
“No. It’s fun. There is no pressure. We are all here and have the same goal to make the team. Just go here, have fun and go about your business,” he said.