Preparation is key, especially for a big-league pitcher — something left-hander Keegan Aikn realized when he took part in his first major-league spring training with the Orioles earlier this year.
“The routine side of things, I knew that going in I didn’t have the best routine,” Akin said on the Glenn Clark Radio May 26. “I was fortunate enough that my locker was beside John Means and Alex Cobb, two very good pitchers. I just kind of soaked in everything and just talked to them and watched how they went about their business and took notes.”
Means was named an All-Star last season with a 3.60 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 155 innings. Cobb is an eight-year major-league veteran who spent time with the Tampa Bay Rays before signing with Baltimore in 2018. He only played in three games last season but has a 3.85 ERA in 800-plus major-league innings.
Now, Akin wants to join his mentors in the big leagues. Akin is hoping to make his big-league debut this summer at the age of 25, the same age Means was when he made his major league debut in September 2018.
Entering spring training, the 6-foot, 225-pound Akin wanted to improve his command after struggling in that regard at Triple-A last season. Akin finished second in the International League with 61 walks as a member of the Norfolk Tides, but he also led the league in strikeouts with 131. Baltimore expected Akin to have some command issues in 2019 because the club wanted him to incorporate his slider and changeup more often.
“It was just better for me as a pitcher to become better with all my other pitches. I was pretty heavy on the fastballs, which can get you into trouble the higher you go,” Akin said. “It was just to challenge myself and use my other pitches in places and spots I probably wouldn’t have used them before in the past.”
As a competitor, Akin wants to cut down the number of walks even if the Orioles aren’t as concerned. He’s had trouble with allowing walks before Norfolk. He finished fifth in the Eastern League in 2018, when he allowed 58 at Double-A Bowie.
“You’re always hard on yourself and you always want to do better, but it made it a little easier that in the end it was going to help me and make me better,” Akin said. “But it was a little hard to swallow and deal with that.”
Akin also had to adjust to a new baseball. Big-league baseballs were used at the Triple-A level in 2019. The seams were lower, affecting Akin’s ability to throw his off-speed pitches.
“Pitchers always say it’s harder to spin stuff, so it’s harder to throw your sliders, your curveballs, things of that nature, just because the grip wasn’t there,” Akin said. “You don’t have anything to kind of snap or pull through onto get that good spin for your slider or curveball, so it was about making adjustments.”
Home runs soared at the Triple-A level as well. Akin was told by other players that he would never see a home run hit anywhere but down the lines at pitcher-friendly Harbor Park, but his experience didn’t match his expectations. Akin jokingly blamed the wind for it.
“I saw a couple balls go over the center fielder’s hitter’s eye,” Akin said. “… I’ve seen some balls leave the yard there that I just couldn’t believe.”
The focus is now squarely on ensuring players like Akin have a chance to play in the big leagues this year. MLB recently made health and economic proposals to the MLB Players Association to address returning to play amid the coronavirus pandemic. Negotiations are ongoing.
MLB has also proposed an expanded active roster (up to 30 players), universal designated hitter and a 14-team postseason as part of a 2020 season. An expanded roster could increase Akin’s chances of getting called up this season, and he believes a 30-man roster is necessary.
“Obviously, the expanded rosters, they’re going to be needed, just because guys aren’t going to be ready to go,” Akin said. “You can’t just come back and give guys two or three weeks in spring training and then say, ‘Here you go, here’s ballgames every day.’ It’s going to probably ruin some arms. It’s unfortunate but it’s just the [nature of the beast]. It’s going to happen, kind of rushing into it.”
Akin could potentially make his big-league debut in front of an empty stadium if fans aren’t allowed in, and he believes that could help him ease into the majors.
“In my position as a rookie and having not debuted yet, it’ll probably help me if I came in and the stands were empty,” Akin said. “If I have to come in with 30,000 in the stands, that might be a little eerie on my part, [but] it might be in my favor with no fans.”
For more from Akin, listen to the full interview here: