Keegan Akin was the best pitcher in the Eastern League last season, and shared the distinction of being the best pitcher in the Orioles’ minor league system as well.
Those honors might have one day earned him a quick promotion to Camden Yards. Instead, he’s spent the year at Triple-A Norfolk trying to refashion the pitcher who dominated the lower levels into one who can succeed at the highest level.
“I don’t want to say I’m necessarily changing the pitcher I am, but you’re never going to get by with one pitch, no matter who you are,” said Akin, the owner of a fastball that’s long flummoxed hitters and earned the “invisi-ball” nickname on his way up the ladder.
“Last year throwing my off-speed stuff was almost nonexistent, to be honest with you. I threw it, but I didn’t live or die by it. I’d just live or die by the fastball, and if it gets hit, it gets hit. I would say I’m more comfortable throwing those off-speed pitches in counts that I normally wouldn’t, but it’s definitely not where it needs to be, I guess, when it comes to the result-based side of things. I’ve had flashes where it’s been good, and flashes where it’s been really bad. You’ve just got to kind of get consistent with it, and that’s the hardest part about this game, just consistency.”
Even when that eluded Akin before, his low-to-mid-90s fastball was enough to have him shoot through the minors. After dabbling in short-season ball in his draft year of 2016, when the Orioles selected him in the second round of the draft, he had a 4.14 ERA in 21 starts in his first full season at High-A Frederick. He was honored alongside fellow lefty Zac Lowther as the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2018 for going 14-7 with a 3.47 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 137 2/3 innings at Double-A Bowie.
But with a regime change in baseball operations, the express route to the majors as a homegrown, high-round draft pick was rerouted this offseason. Akin wasn’t invited to major league spring training and essentially went to Triple-A Norfolk knowing that’s where he’d be all year.
While he’s striking out batters at a higher clip than he did at any point in his career — 10.3 per nine innings — he’s also had a career-high 4.76 ERA with a 1.555 WHIP. That’s a symptom of having to throw what are still developing sliders and changeups in all counts, no matter what it means for the results.
“I kind of had that idea coming in, especially coming out of spring training, that I was basically coming here to develop,” Akin said. “I obviously wasn’t going to get by on one pitch, so I accepted that and totally understood that. I didn’t have three pitches in any count coming out of spring training. It was, basically, if it was 3-1 or 2-0, you might as well just sit fastball because you’re going to get a fastball. And I knew that.”
While he says he’s still in the “development stages” of being comfortable with all that, pitching coach Mike Griffin said the way he’s approached the season makes the results far less meaningful than the work.
“He doesn’t get too excited about the high ups, and doesn’t get too down with the lower part of the game,” Griffin said. “He just stays even, and he continues to do his work on the plan that’s being put in front of him. He just moves forward the way Keegan does.”
On the slider, Griffin said he’s “seen everything that you want to see moving forward with that pitch,” while his changeup has also had a “very good developmental year.”
“It’s been a very successful season for Keegan in working on his secondary stuff, his slider and his changeup,” Griffin said. “Predominantly last year he was using his fastball and now this year, we are installing new use of the slider and changeup more into his repertoire, to get it more basically into the mix. He has done a very good job of that.
“Now, Keegan basically has a three-pitch mix that he has shown that he will go to at any point, in any time in the counts."
When the longtime Tides pitching coach and one of his youngest arms meet between starts, they look at video and data that reinforces that. They’ll compare his pitch-usage in certain counts over his last few starts with what it was when he first arrived in Norfolk, and the results, he said, are “exciting.”
“No one gets to the big leagues as a starter with one or two pitches,” Akin said. “You’re going to need at least three of them, and you’re going to have to throw them whenever you want. That’s kind of been the focus, and trying to work towards that and be able to do it is fun, but challenging at the same time. Hopefully, it all pans out and works out in the long run.”
To Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, nothing happening in Akin’s season at Norfolk so far has discouraged him from believing they have a future rotation fixture in waiting with the Tides.
“He’s one of the guys that we’re counting on here, and counting on to be here pretty soon,” Elias said. “He’s slowed down a little bit the past month, but I think that’s just an aberration. When you look at the season that he’s had in the context of what’s going on that league this year with the new baseballs and the numbers that are being put up, it’s even more impressive. It’s terrific, and we view him as a future member of our starting rotation.”