Heading into the 2020 Orioles season, one of my hopes for the team is that as the season went along, we might get to see a glimpse of a better rotation in the future. When Opening Day finally rolled along for a shortened season in July, the fact that pitching prospect Keegan Akin was not on the roster while veteran journeymen like Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone were in the rotation was disappointing to see.
Unlike a lot of the O’s prospects who fans might have hoped to see in 2020, Akin pitched a full season at Triple-A in 2019. With how Akin performed for Norfolk, the argument for having him start out at the alternate training site in Bowie was solid enough. It takes a bit better than a 4.73 Triple-A ERA, with 61 walks in 112.1 innings, to get yourself lined up for the show.
Two weeks or so in Bowie was enough for the Orioles to either feel confident they had addressed some of the command problems, like they were guaranteeing an extra year of team control of Akin, or both. He got the call to head to MLB on August 8, though why they called him up right then when they didn’t end up using him until six days later remains a mystery. After he finally debuted, he was optioned the next day.
Ten days after that, LeBlanc went on the disabled list with a season-ending injury. The O’s also traded Milone shortly afterwards. It is not hard to imagine that it was always the plan to open up space for the young starting pitchers in late August. Akin made his first MLB start on August 31 after two relief outings and stayed in the rotation the rest of the way.
How you feel about Akin’s debut season probably depends on which one of his outings stands out most in your memory. If the thing you remember most is when he was chased out of a game by the Yankees before finishing the first inning, you might be a bit more down. If what you remember is his very next start after that, when he pitched five shutout innings against the Braves while striking out nine batters, you might feel better about him.
For the season overall, Akin had a 4.56 ERA over 25.2 innings. In the 2020 run environment where Akin faced only AL and NL East teams, that added up to an ERA+ of 100, or exactly league average. If you want to get even more excited, Akin’s FIP was 3.27, since he struck out 35 batters and only walked 10.
“Let’s go down to the park and watch the league average starting pitcher” isn’t going to result in many walk-up ticket sales when we can safely attend baseball games again, but after seeing a lot of recent Orioles rotations, league average is a drastic improvement. The 2019 Orioles had a starting pitcher ERA of 5.57. A team will win a lot more games by shaving a run off of its starting rotation ERA.
The thing about it is that it is a small sample size. It is boring to say this about every player’s performance in 2020, but there’s no getting around it. Even a pitcher who hung around for the full season would have only made 12 starts, and that’s a small sample size too. Akin made half as many starts.
Maybe over a larger sample size, Akin would have had better luck, because his 2020 BABIP was .358. That’s a high number, especially considering O’s pitchers overall had a .282 BABIP. Maybe he would have had worse luck if his strikeout rate and walk rate both regressed to what they were when he was at Bowie in 2018 or Norfolk in 2019. Maybe his good luck and bad luck evened out to get him right where he was, at that league average ERA.
It is not a bad outcome to end up with a pitching prospect as a league average pitcher. The Orioles in the later Dan Duquette years tried and failed to turn Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson into that type of pitcher, and signed free agent pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Alex Cobb - in each case surrendering a draft pick - thinking they’d be better than league average when overall they were worse.
At least one prospect writer liked what he saw from Akin in 2020 enough to improve his outlook. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs bumped Akin up from 40+ FV to 45. That’s his Future Value scale. For a pitcher, 45 FV translates to a #4 or #5 starter who probably is worth 1-1.7 WAR. If a Grayson Rodriguez-level prospect ends up there, that would feel disappointing. For Akin, it’s a fine outcome. That would be one fewer guy Mike Elias needs to sign later, when the team contemplates contending.
Before the season, Akin’s prospect capsule on FG included risk that he could end up as a reliever due to being too inefficient to stick in the rotation. Now, after seeing some of Akin’s MLB performance, Longenhagen writes:
... increased confidence that he can start based on his ability to attack righties with both his plus changeup and a back foot breaking ball. He’s either got two distinct breakers now or is adding and subtracting enough from his slurve to create a camelback velocity distribution for that pitch, but in either case he’s creating enticing angle on his glove-side breakers against righties and his slot helps him flummox lefties.
Longenhagen also noted that at the MLB level this year, Akin showed a spin rate improvement. That’s one of the magic phrases in modern baseball. Spin rate isn’t everything, but more is better. If the Elias development regime was able to make that happen, that’s a real plus.
Akin is not the only Orioles prospect to get a bump from 2020 performance. Fangraphs also moved up Ryan Mountcastle within the 50 FV prospect tier - for position players, an average every day player worth about 2 WAR per season - and increased Dean Kremer from 40+ to 45, a projected solid back end starter just like Akin. Hopes look better in the near future if Elias can get the most out of Duquette’s guys while waiting for his own drafted, acquired, and signed players to come up through the farm.
The Orioles have already squeezed out the seventh year of service time for Akin by how they handled him in this 2020 season. Between that and how he performed in his six starts, it seems safe to pencil him in for the Opening Day rotation in 2021, which we can all hope will be on April 1 as is currently scheduled. Here’s hoping nothing performance- or injury-related comes along to knock Akin out of the picture, and then some other pitching prospects can come along and join him in Baltimore soon.