In a season where his ERA ballooned to over 8.00 and ended up at 6.63, the strides lefty Keegan Akin made late last season might fly under the radar, but also should give him reason to be encouraged about his 2022 Orioles rotation chances.
Akin didn’t make the 2021 opening day roster after a rough spring, but he was pitching for the Orioles by May 12. And because the minor league season didn’t start until May, he wound up throwing 97 innings last year - 95 for Baltimore and just two for Triple-A Norfolk.
He was not really on the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle at all and spent most of his time with the Orioles in the big leagues. Over 24 games, including 17 starts, he went 2-10 with that 6.63 ERA. In 95 innings, he allowed 110 hits, including 17 homers, with 40 walks and 82 strikeouts. He posted a 1.579 WHIP, 3.8 walks per nine, 7.8 strikeouts and an ERA+ of just 69.
But after he gave up six runs over three innings Aug. 10 versus Detroit, his year finally took a turn for the better. Over his last seven starts, he allowed three earned runs or less five times and exactly one earned run three times. He went 2-3 with a 4.21 ERA over those starts. In 36 1/3 innings, he allowed a .205 batting average and .692 OPS. It was encouraging.
But then he ended the year on the injured list with a left hip adductor strain that required a minor surgical procedure. The Orioles announced in mid-November that surgery went well and that Akin would resume a normal offseason in just a few weeks.
When Akin pitched better late in the year, he slightly altered his pitch mix to include greater slider usage. For the entire season, he threw his fastball 57 percent with an average velocity of 92.1 mph. Good spin rates could make that velo play up for Akin and sometimes he also pitched up in the zone. He used his changeup 20 percent, slider 19 percent and curveball 4 percent.
Whether we can read much into it or not, Akin did use his slider 20 percent or more in five of those last seven games and 22 percent or more four times. In his final three starts, his fastball use dropped to 50, 53 and 54 percent.
Akin spent the 2019 season with Triple-A Norfolk, working hard to improve his secondary pitches to produce less fastball usage and provide him more weapons to attack big league hitters. Akin would sometimes use his fastball as much as 80 percent in his first three pro seasons.
Heavy fastball use was his focus during his very strong 2018 season at Double-A Bowie, where he went 14-7 with a 3.27 ERA over 25 starts. He produced a WHIP of 1.249, allowing 1.0 homers per nine with 3.8 walks and 9.3 strikeouts. Akin was named the co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year that season, sharing the Jim Palmer Award with Zac Lowther. He was also the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year, finishing the season first in the league in wins and strikeouts and third in ERA.
And even though Akin’s pitch mix was a bit different late last year, his farm success could lead one to wonder whether he actually use his fastball more and not less.
He pitched so well with it during that 2018 season. It makes sense that the club would feel a fastball that topped at 94 and 95 mph was going to need some complimentary pitches maybe especially so with some of the big, strong, right-handed bats in the American League East. It adds up that he would need a three- or four-pitch mix. But he also was so good when just pumping a great majority of fastballs.
Late in the 2021 season, manager Brandon Hyde discussed Akin’s year.
“I thought Keegan had a rocky start, but improved over the course of the year,” Hyde said. “Credit to him is that he has been pitching with fatigue, the core (adductor) thing was something he’s been dealing with for a while now and he posted for us. Give him and our medical staff a ton of credit for getting him out there every fifth day for us.
“We feel like now is the right time to kind of shut him down and get him ready for next spring. But especially the last couple times he took the mound, I thought the off-speed stuff improved, especially after the first or second inning. I think he learned a lot this year, dealt with some adversity. It was more of a normal year than what he experienced last year. He was able to pitch against AL East teams as well as teams from outside our division and learn how hitters are going to react to his stuff, understand what he needs to improve on going into next year. So I think there’s a lot of positives from kind of an up-and-down season for him.”
Camp note: An Orioles minicamp, featuring 14 pitchers, is taking place in Sarasota this week and will run through Saturday. The pitchers taking part were 2021 draft picks and 2021 undrafted free agent signings. The staff working the camp includes farm coaches Justin Ramsey, Joe Haumacher and Ryan Goll. The Orioles are expected to have others camps throughout this month. and with a lockout ongoing, those camps cannot include players currently on the 40-man roster.