Even in the low minors, the tag of “lacking physical projection” can be a label a prospect can't shed. Because of that, polished pitchers such as Keegan Akin, the Orioles' 2016 second-round draft pick, can accumulate all kinds of success and end up having it met with skepticism.
So, can Akin, who works in the low 90s with a fastball that hitters just can't pick up out of his hand and two effective secondary offerings, pitch like this at the highest level?
It's worked for him everywhere else in his career, so once he crossed the threshold to Double-A Bowie this year and saw his results only improve, the question actually became, why can't it?
"He's a guy that gets a lot of swings and misses with [his fastball], and no matter what from this level on, if you're getting swings and misses with a pitch, it's usually pretty good," Baysox pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said. "Sometimes at the lower levels, you're getting swings and misses on pitches out of the zone just because of the hitters. Here, you're not going to get that too many times where you're out of the strike zone getting swings and misses. And he's getting a lot of them in the zone here. And that's good."
Ever since Akin, 23, entered the system as part of the first of three consecutive Orioles draft classes loaded at the top with pitching, his ability to pitch in the zone with his fastball has caused teammates to marvel and opponents to be flummoxed. Like many college pitchers, the Western Michigan product dominated at Short-A Aberdeen in 2016, but he ran into some problems early last year for High-A Frederick. He skipped a start in late May while carrying a 5.95 ERA, made a mechanical tweak having to do with his base leg on the mound in his delivery, then saw his career take off.
He had a 2.97 ERA from that point on in the season and pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. More recently, even as he acknowledged his most recent start Friday against Double-A Portland was a "battle" that didn't exactly fit with the season he's having, he left it having struck out seven in six innings of two-run ball and with a 2.65 ERA anyway.
And though he didn't command the pitch as well as he typically does Friday against Portland, his fastball has been an undeniable weapon for him this year.
"A well-located fastball is probably the hardest pitch in baseball to hit, to be honest with you,” Akin said. “You've just got to trust it and make them hit your pitches — don't try to be too fine and pitch around them. I'm a fastball pitcher, so I try to challenge the guys with that."
Said Steenstra: "He's done a really nice job of being able to both locate his fastball down in the zone and be able to elevate it at times to get swings and misses.
"He's one of those guys who has a little bit of a jump, a little bit of hop to his fastball. He's kind of got that sneakiness to it that makes it tough on hitters to square up."
And manager Gary Kendall said part of the effectiveness of the pitch is that he simply uses it.
"I see a lot of pitchers with this league that will throw strike one with a fastball, then all of a sudden, whether it's taken or swung at, they'll go to a secondary pitch," he said. "Keegan pitches very well with his fastball. He changes speeds with his fastball."
On Friday against Portland, even without the command he wanted, Akin got eight swinging strikes and plenty of weak contact on a fastball that was often around the zone and topped out at 94 mph, settling in at 91-92 mph later in his start. He complemented that with a low-80s changeup that came around later in the start and a mid-80s slider he showed a real aptitude for challenging right-handed hitters with.
Steenstra said the book on Akin coming into the season was that his changeup was farther ahead of his slider, but Akin said coming up through the amateur ranks, the opposite was true.
"A changeup is a really hard pitch to hit if you can locate it, so I just kind of spent my offseason really focusing on that and knowing that I needed three solid pitches to have success," Akin said. "My slider I thought had always been one of my better pitches. Last year, I was in a funk and my slider just wasn't really good last year so I had to go to something else."
That he's using both to combat the right-handed-heavy lineups he'll face climbing the ladder is an asset. But because Akin is physically so close to the finished product at 6 feet and 225 pounds, he'll need to be at his best once he advances past the Eastern League to show that the whole package works beyond Bowie.
None of that takes away from the past year he's had. He's solidified himself as part of the Orioles' blossoming mid-level pitching depth, occupying the tier below projectable top picks such as Hunter Harvey, DL Hall and now Grayson Rodriguez, and living in the same caste as fellow polished and sneaky left-handers Alex Wells and Zac Lowther. Each will face the same prove-it-at-every-level questions by virtue of their repertoire and the perception that it's maxed out but can be a mid- to back-end major league starter if they can avoid hiccups.
Akin has already learned that, with the work that needed to be done to his delivery last summer and the physical attention to his craft that's required sticking with him a year later.
"I did learn to keep up on my mechanics and really kind of focus on those things in between starts, because you can get into a funk mechanically and it's not fun, I can tell you that," Akin said.
That's helped him become one of the Orioles' most consistent high-minors pitchers this year, with the emphasis on actually pitching being what's carried him to this point.
"He's got a really good pitchability, and he's very confident out there," Kendall said. "He pitches deep into games. He manages to get out of trouble. He minimizes damage. He doesn't walk a lot of people, but since early in the year when it was cold [when] he did have a couple tough starts, he's really got it in gear."