It took Keegan Akin a moment before he decided to amend his choice of words. The Orioles left-hander had acknowledged his past issues putting the ball in the strike zone, a side effect of trying to be too fine, too perfect, when on the mound.
“It’s kind of gotten me in trouble,” Akin said. Then he paused and reconsidered. “Actually, it’s gotten me in a lot of trouble.”
He realized that in the moment, with ballooning pitch counts leading to high walk rates and more than 1.5 walks plus hits allowed per inning in his first two major league cameos. As Akin rehabbed this offseason from a core injury that interrupted the end of his 2021 campaign, he took a closer look at the numbers, and they validated his suspicions.
Across his career, the slugging percentage against him when in a 2-1 count is .733. In 3-1 counts, it dips to .600, but the on-base percentage soars to .870. By comparison, opponents’ slugging percentages against Akin sit at .348 in 1-2 counts and .366 in 0-2 counts.
Seeing it so plainly, Akin made a resolution. His perfectionist streak on the mound? The one that causes him to nibble at corners and prolong at-bats? That would become a thing of the past. Akin has since adopted a new mentality to live by, and it has led to two standout long relief outings to begin his 2022 season.
“For me, it’s kill mode,” Akin said. “Go, go, go. Two, three pitches and get them out of there.”
To get here, though, back in Baltimore’s clubhouse with the trust of manager Brandon Hyde, he needed to recover from a core surgery he underwent in September. That turned his offseason into a rush to be ready for spring training.
Akin extended the physical therapy sessions near his home in Michigan an extra month and a half, still feeling the lasting effects of a hip adductor strain and his abdominal surgery. And when he arrived in Sarasota, Florida, for spring training, he still wasn’t fully fit.
He felt it on the field, a lack of game shape. And he felt it in his mind, the lingering thoughts of his injuries and a tendency to be overly precise leading to the opposite — missed spots.
“The injury was kind of in my head in camp, trying to get over that little hump and feel healthy again,” Akin said. “The main goal was just to feel healthy again.”
He knew he needed to perform well enough, too, if he wanted to carve out a spot on the Orioles’ season-opening roster. Even with his rocky outings in Grapefruit League exhibition games — he gave up five runs and six walks in 5 1/3 innings — an expanded roster to 28 players in April helped earn him a big league spot.
And his performances to begin the year with Baltimore could help keep him around for the long term, with the young left-hander adapting to a bullpen role after periodic starts in 2020 and 2021.
“I’m glad he didn’t let his spring roll into the season,” left-hander Paul Fry said. “I had a bad spring last spring, so I understand what that can do to you mentally. But I think he’s just attacking the zone.”
There’s plenty of downtime for relievers in the bullpen. That’s time Fry and Akin take advantage of, discussing the mental side of pitching. Akin and Fry have both dealt with the tendency to be too fine on the mound, leading to walks.
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So Fry first broached the topic in the bullpen during the season-opening series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s one pitch at a time,” Fry said, as much to counsel Akin as to remind himself. “Execute this and results are what they are. You can’t control what happens when it leaves your hands. So go from there. Execute the pitch.”
With those words ringing in his head, Akin took the mound at Tropicana Field for his first appearance of the season last weekend. He promptly delivered three scoreless innings, allowing one hit while striking out three. He only threw four balls in the 31-pitch outing.
Three days later, Akin returned for 2 2/3 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, allowing one hit while throwing 24 strikes among his 35 pitches. In two outings to begin this season, just 37.9% of his pitches were thrown outside the zone, according to MLB Statcast data. Across his 2020 and 2021 seasons, he threw 46.6% of his pitches outside the zone.
“Maybe he got caught up in trying to be too perfect [in the past], trying to show what he can do rather than just doing what he can do and letting that be good enough,” Fry said. “I think attacking with strike one is huge for him.”
It’s all part of Akin’s new mentality when he’s on the mound, loosening his desire to pick corners in favor of going right after a hitter.
“Be on the attack,” Akin said. “Just attack.”