Keegan Akin is looking forward to starting his big-league career over again, this time sharing the experience with thousands of fans.
Akin’s first start in the majors came last August when he pitched for the Orioles in an empty stadium in Buffalo. Akin said teammate John Means told him the experience will be decidedly different in front of a crowd.
“It’s going to be a two-for-one type of thing,” Akin said. “I am waiting for that. Hopefully, that will be even more exciting.”
Akin was called up from the alternate training site at Double-A Bowie Aug. 8 and made his debut from the bullpen six days later against the Washington Nationals. The left-hander pitched well enough to make his first career start Aug. 31 against the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing two runs and three hits with six strikeouts and two walks in 4.1 innings.
Overall, Akin appeared in eight games, including six starts, and went 1-2 with a 4.56 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. He struck out 35 hitters in 25.2 innings while allowing 27 hits and 10 walks.
His parents were able to watch him perform on the MLB app.
“I was pretty happy with it,” Akin said of his performance. “You’re just trying to get your feet wet. You have to figure some things out. Obviously, it’s different than the minor leagues. Really, the only way you’re going to learn is by experience.”
Akin, who turns 26 in April, entered spring training in position to be a part of the 2021 rotation. With Alex Cobb traded to the Los Angeles Angels, Akin could be the team’s No. 3 starter behind John Means and Dean Kremer. Felix Hernandez, Wade LeBlanc, Jorge Lopez, Mac Sceroler, Tyler Wells and Bruce Zimmermann are among those who will compete for the final two spots.
“I set myself up pretty good to compete for a rotation spot this upcoming season,” Akin said. “I’m just fine-tuning some mechanics and stuff. I am just trying to perfect those things to help with the command and the pitch development type of things. Really just being more consistent is kind of my model [for] 2021.”
Optimism is starting to build around the organization’s young pitching, especially given how Akin and Kremer performed in 2020. Means has confidence in the upside of these young starters. The Orioles’ investment in these young arms could start paying off this season, and the fan base would be elated to see the next step in the organization’s massive rebuild.
“We’re going to be pretty good coming up this year,” Means said in December. “We really have high hopes for a lot of guys on the team. Just talking starting pitchers with Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer, those guys came up and were able to have some success.
“I was really impressed with the mentality these guys came up with. They just had no fear. They were going right at guys, punching tickets. That’s the biggest thing about being a big leaguer: mentality.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde agrees with that sentiment. He plans to give Akin and Kremer every opportunity during spring training to show they can make an impact in the starting rotation. Hyde has not been reluctant to give young pitchers the ball the past two seasons, and that won’t change in 2021.
“I thought they put themselves in position the way they threw the ball their last four or five starts in the big leagues,” Hyde said in December. “They threw the ball outstanding against playoff clubs. To go in against the lineups they faced on a nightly basis, [it] was really, really impressive how they handled that. They gave themselves every opportunity to win a starting job next year.”
The club’s young pitchers already have a strong rapport because they’ve come up together through the Orioles’ minor-league system. The camaraderie extends beyond the clubhouse, which is also helpful when navigating through the long, arduous MLB season.
“I would say we’re all very close,” said Akin, the 2018 Eastern League Pitcher of the Year. “It helped coming up through the minor leagues with all of those guys. At the end of the year, the only two starters that didn’t come up through the Orioles’ minor-league system were Cobb and Jorge Lopez. Even a lot of guys in the bullpen, we’ve all played together in the minor leagues and we’ve all known each other for a very long time.”
Akin didn’t have the luxury of having a minor-league season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he still managed to find success when he was promoted to Baltimore. He relies heavily on his four-seam fastball and changeup, but he also has an effective curveball and slider.
Akin understands he’ll have to make constant adjustments as he faces more major-league hitters. Right-handed batters hit .269/.337/.474 against Akin in 2020, marks the left-hander will work to improve.
“One through nine can hurt you,” Akin said. “You have to be at your best at all times. That’s the biggest difference I noticed [from the minors]. The defense is better behind you and things like that. So, it all kind of evens out, in my opinion. Just throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count makes things a lot easier.”
In addition, the Orioles’ young pitchers already have familiarity and a comfort level with Chris Holt, who became the club’s primary pitching coach during the offseason. Holt replaces Doug Brocail, who held the job for the past two seasons. Holt worked with many of the team’s young arms the past two years as the club’s director of pitching.
“We’ve got a pretty good history. In the last couple of years, we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well,” Akin said. “I think we work really well together and that’s the case with a lot of other guys. It should be an exciting year with him up there.”
There are more young pitchers on the way, including top prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, who like Akin were drafted by the previous regime led by Dan Duquette. General manager Mike Elias has added to the organization’s stable of arms since taking over in November 2018. If everything goes according to plan, these young pitchers will be throwing to 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman for many years to come at Camden Yards.
Akin is excited to be part of the future. He envisions the day when the Orioles are competing for a World Series with a group of players who came through the system together.
“It just shows you the kind of trust Mike and Brandon have in us,” Akin said. “They want to see what we can do. That’s exciting because there’s a lot of motivation there from where I am just trying to get my foot in the door — and then the other guys going from Double-A to Triple-A. It’s exciting because there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of guys see that. It’s motivating.”
It’s not clear when fans will be back in big-league parks, but Akin is looking forward to that second debut.
“It should be fun getting back to normal,” Akin said. “The rumor is we’ll have some fans there. That will add more energy to the ballpark. I am just looking forward to the 2021 season.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox