Sarasota, Fla. — In all the winters of Orioles pitching prospect Keegan Akin’s blossoming career, he’s trained in a way that’s likely unique to the Michigan environs he calls home: a pole barn in his yard.
Without much access to year-round baseball facilities in his hometown of Sumner, Michigan, located about a two-hour drive northwest of Detroit, Akin built a facility replete with a mound, a painted tarp to serve as a strike zone and eventually lights and heat so that his preparations wouldn’t be affected by the brutal northern winters.
But when his first trip to big league camp was finalized when the Orioles added him to the 40-man roster in the fall, Akin’s preparations graduated as well. The starting pitching prospect — who, by virtue of a full season at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019, finds himself closer to the majors than any of his peers — moved on from the barn and worked at a, well, more modern facility that he believes has him primed to compete for a rotation spot on Opening Day.
“It’s nice, but to me, you can only make so many adjustments [yourself],” Akin said. “If you’ve got somebody who knows what they’re looking for or can help you out with that type of stuff, it makes life easier.”
It helped, too, that the Elite Baseball and Softball facility in Wyoming, Michigan, near Grand Rapids, where he spent this winter, had all of the technology that Akin got familiar with after the Orioles introduced it last year. The facility had Edgertronic high-speed cameras — which capture more than 1,000 frames per second — and coaches who could help refine the 24-year-old ahead of the biggest camp of his life.
Akin said it was an adjustment to leave the confines of his spartan barn, and he still used it on weekends when he’d be back home hunting and needed to get some work in. And once you get used to all of the technology and information available from every pitch, it’s hard not to have it. Outfitting the barn with that equipment would be “not cheap by any means,” he said.
The winter for Akin was one in which he had plenty to work on. He shared the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award in 2018 with a strong season at Double-A Bowie, and considering the hitting environment, his 2019 record at Norfolk wasn’t bad: he struck out a career-high 10.5 batters per nine innings but also walked a career-high 4.89 hitters per nine, with a 4.73 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP.
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Despite all that, he was ranked as the ninth-best prospect in the organization, according to Baseball America, and projects to be making his major league debut at some point this season.
A high walk-rate might be what prevents him from breaking camp with the Orioles as it is, though there’s not a lot of established major league starting depth in camp as workouts opened Wednesday. Akin’s initial bullpen session, under the watchful eye of one of those Edgertronic cameras, the team’s pitching coaches and manager Brandon Hyde didn’t reveal any issues with his control.
“It was what I’ve heard about — that he’s a strike-thrower that has got multiple pitches, not afraid,” Hyde said. “It’s such a small look — 15 pitches in a bullpen with no pressure. But I think we’re excited about Keegan and think he can be a quality starter in the big leagues.”
Akin, who wasn’t invited to camp last spring, spent the first day of workouts taking in his surroundings. He’d already been in Sarasota for a few weeks to get adjusted to throwing outside again and relished having a locker between veteran starter Alex Cobb and All-Star John Means. Such a placement, surrounded by two pitchers who can show him their daily routine first-hand, was something he was just as excited about as the pitching part.
“I don’t think I could be positioned any better by Cobb and Means,” Akin said. “I’m just going to be a sponge and absorb it and learn everything and go from there.”
Getting to spend his days around them after camp breaks in late-March, of course, is the ultimate goal.
“I think everybody should come with that mindset, but just going to play it by ear and go out there and compete when I can and go from there,” he said.