They combined to make 10 starts for the 2020 Orioles, and rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer made strong impressions. They showed talent, promise and poise and made strong major league debuts. A guy who knows both pitchers very well and worked closely with both this year was probably watching somewhere and nodding his approval.
Kennie Steenstra was the pitching coach at Double-A Bowie in 2018, when Akin went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA in 25 starts. He was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year and the Orioles’ co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year with Zac Lowther.
For the 2020 Orioles, Akin went 1-2 with a 4.56 ERA in eight games, making six starts in which the team went 4-2. Akin went 1-2 with a 4.03 ERA in the six starts. If you take away a first-inning knockout against the Yankees, he posted an ERA of 2.49 as a starter. He allowed zero earned runs three times in the six starts, including once in 5 1/3 innings against New York.
He showed some swing-and-miss stuff and a fastball with late life. He averaged 12.27 strikeouts per nine innings, which was fourth among American League rookies that pitched at least 25 innings. Akin got a 28 percent whiff rate on swings against his fastball and 36 percent rate against his changeup.
Steenstra was one of the pitching coaches at the Bowie alternate camp this year. So he worked with Akin closely again, helping him put the finishing touches on before he got his big chance with the call to Baltimore.
“I originally had Keegan in Bowie a couple of years ago and he was 75 or 80 percent fastballs and dominating the Eastern League,” said Steenstra. “When he went to (Triple-A) Norfolk the next year, the priority was put in place that he needed to make sure he could throw any of his pitches in any count. To make sure when he was behind in the count, he could throw his slider or changeup. He struggled with it a bit in Norfolk at times, but I think he started to see the benefit of that this year.
“He continued that work at the alternate camp this season, and when he went to the big leagues, he wasn’t afraid to throw those pitches in those counts. Those are the kinds of things he’s going to continue to have to do to be successful. That fastball really played in Double-A and it’s still a tremendous fastball. But he has to have the other pitches to keep hitters off-balance.”
In his big league outings this season, Akin threw his fastball 62 percent of the time and it averaged 92 mph. The late life and good spin rates could make the heater look faster to the hitter.
“I think it’s a combination of the type of fastball that he has and he has a little deception to his delivery,” said Steenstra. He is a little bit of a short-armer and he works underneath the ball a little bit, and that gives him a little bit of late hop and late life as well. That is something we saw in Double-A early on, that guys didn’t catch up to it real well. They started fouling him off the second and third time through the lineup. But he still was able to get a lot of quality outs with that pitch.”
Kremer got his call-up and made his major league debut Sept. 6 against the Yankees and he gave up just one run over six innings. He posted a 1.69 ERA and an opponent average of .145 in his first three starts, where he fanned 20 in 16 innings. He showed a cutter that was a real weapon, getting a whiff percentage of 35 percent on that pitch.
Kremer’s final ERA in four starts was 4.82 after he gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings in his last outing at Boston. But for the four starts overall, he used his fastball 51 percent of the time and it averaged 93 mph. He threw his curveball 27 percent, the cutter 19 percent and his changeup just 3 percent. Lefty batters hit .152 off him and right-handers batted .270.
Steenstra was Kremer’s pitching coach in both 2018 at Bowie after he was acquired in the Manny Machado trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers and again in 2019. He went 13-6 with a 2.84 ERA in 24 starts. Steenstra also coached Kremer at the Bowie alternate camp before his call-up this season.
“Dean came to us from the Dodgers and was predominantly fastball-curveball,” Steenstra said. “I believe he led all of the minor leagues in strikeouts that year, over multiple levels. Obviously, he had a lot of success with those two pitches. But he was another guy that we knew had to have something else, especially against the left-handers to be able to get some outs. He bought in. And the time that he was home over the pandemic period, he put in a lot of time and effort with both his cutter and his changeup. When he got to Bowie and started back up with us again, both of those pitches had improved, especially the cutter. You saw that in the big leagues. He was able to use that pitch both to righties and lefties to get outs and keep guys off his fastball a little bit more.”
The cutter almost has become Kremer’s top non fastball pitch, although his curveball remains an at times plus offering.
“We had talked to him about it the year before and in spring training this year. But when he went home he really honed in on it and he was able to manipulate that ball a little bit more and start working with that pitch consistently,” Steenstra said of Kremer’s cutter. “And I think sometimes getting away on your own and being able to get that feel without the pressure of getting outs, sometimes that helps develop that pitch even more,”
Both Akin and Kremer showed some impressive poise in the majors as well.
“I think a lot of that comes naturally to those guys,” Steenstra said. “You know, there are things you can talk about and discuss with pitchers to help them with that, but of a guy doesn’t have a natural tendency to that it’s going to be very difficult. I feel like both of those guys are mature for their age and have some tremendous natural poise to them.”
“I think they obviously have the ability to do it. It’s taking that next step and kind of turning the corner like Keegan and Dean did,” Steenstra said. “They were able to refine their stuff and their ability to make sure they were consistent enough to do it. Mike had a tremendous season and was looking so very good this summer until he got injured and hopefully he comes back strong. But all three of those guys you mentioned are very capable of being big league pitchers in the future.”
I recorded a Zoom interview with Steenstra. Check it out here.