When baseball got shut down in April over the pandemic, a lot of Orioles fans feared 2020 would be a lost season. So considering that actual baseball was played for 60 games, things could have been worse. And, considering that Orioles GM Mike Elias had made a point to insist on slow and gradual prospect development, the fact that several top Orioles prospects made their major-league debuts was a bright spot. And that some of these debuts went well . . . even better! You might have heard: Ryan Mountcastle can hit, and his defense looks fine. Meanwhile, three Orioles starting pitching prospects got their turn on a big-league mound for the first time: lefties Bruce Zimmermann and Keegan Akin, and the righty Dean Kremer. The results were mixed, but there were positives to draw from all three.
Maryland native Bruce Zimmermann was something of a surprise promotion in 2020. The 2018 pickup from Atlanta was not one of the O’s higher-ranked prospects (he cracked the Top 30 in 2019, according to MLB Pipeline, but the 2020 draftees bumped him off again). He’s not a velocity guy, as Mark Brown described in September, with a fastball averaging 91.4 mph this season, so “pitchability” and craft are what he has to rely on. Zimmermann’s 2019 debut with Bowie was good (a 2.58 ERA and nine strikeouts on average over 101.1 innings), but he got hit up pretty badly once promoted to Triple-A Norfolk (with a 4.89 ERA and 44 hits allowed in 38.2 innings). Then, on top of everything, his arrival at the Orioles’ secondary camp this season was delayed because he got COVID-19.
Be that as it may, Zimmermann got called up by Baltimore on September 17, just in time to make two appearances. In the first, a shaky three-inning start against Tampa Bay, he allowed five runs on two home runs, a walk, a HBP, and a pair of singles. Zimmermann struggled to fool Rays hitters, though, as Alex Church astutely noted, “any guy with a mustache like that doesn’t just give up and call it quits.” The next time, on mop-up duty with the Orioles down 8-0 to the Red Sox, things went better for him: he allowed just one run in four innings on a walk, single, and a wild pitch while racking up five strikeouts.
Seven innings is the tiniest of sample sizes to go on, and a 7.71 ERA and 6.62 FIP are far from encouraging, Yet Zimmermann did miss MLB bats, with a strikeout rate of 9.0 batters per game. Plus his slider, considered his best pitch, drew an absurd whiff rate of 53.8%. Batters will adjust. But this wasn’t a total wash.
Next there was Keegan Akin. The lefty from Michigan is imposing neither physique- nor stuff-wise, but “he can pitch,” as they say. After 2018, when he was dubbed the team’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year at Bowie, Akin had a somewhat disappointing 2019 at Norfolk, going 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA and no big-league call-up. Even so, the powers-that-be decided to roll the dice with him in 2020 after pitchers Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc exited due to trade and injury, while righty Asher Wojciechowski struggled with command.
Akin’s debut season was a mixed bag. When Akin was good—five shutout innings against the Yankees here, five more against Atlanta there—he was really good. Akin has no trouble missing bats, with 35 strikeouts in 25.2 innings, good for an eye-popping strikeout rate of 12.3. Unfortunately, when Akin was bad, he was bad. He walked too many people, 3.5 per nine innings, and his exit velocity and hard-hit percentage ranked among the league worst. High strikeout numbers and high batter exit velocity may seem a weird combination, but as these Baseball Savant heat maps show, the issue is, as scouts have said, one of “control and command.” Akin gets hit when he leaves the ball on the outside third of the plate, especially to righties. He needs to be able to find the inside strike in order to avoid sustained damage.
Last and definitely not least was Dean Kremer. The owner of what the 2020 MLB Pipeline and Jonathan Mayo deem the best curveball in the Orioles organization, the former Dodgers prospect got the call-up on September 6, and wowed right out of the gate. Making his debut against the Yankees, Kremer allowed one run on one hit in six innings, striking out seven. He’d make three more starts after that. Two were great (five innings of one-run ball against NYY and Tampa Bay, respectively). One was horrific (a ghastly seven-run outing against Boston on September 23). It was too bad. Kremer’s ERA was a sparkling 1.69 before that last outing, and 4.82 after it.
Reality, as people will often tell you, is somewhere in between. Like Keegan Akin, Kremer proved a high-strikeout/high-exit velocity guy. His K% ranked in the 66th percentile, even while a hard-hit percentage of 46.9% (way above the 34.9% MLB average) gives cause for concern. Kremer misses bats, yet he gets hit hard and he walks too many batters. As CC’s Tyler Young noted, you can’t hand out 5.79 free passes a game and expect to stick around in the majors for long. Again, like Akin, Kremer, possesses swing-and-miss stuff, but he needs to control it (in Kremer’s case, making sure to keep the ball down in the zone, especially against lefties).
Anyone who feels that these are all excessively small sample sizes is completely right. But, while Zimmermann, Akin, and Kremer all struggled with control, the fact that the three rookie starters all showed an ability to miss bats is absolutely something to build on. On Wednesday, MLB’s Jonathan Mayo released a piece on the state of the Orioles’ farm system that, in a nice change of affairs from the Dan Duquette days, was full of positive news. Mayo especially praised the Orioles’ “serious left-handed pitching depth.” There’s a lot we don’t know about baseball in 2021, but if we shake our Magic 8-Ball and ask about the future starting pitching corps, the answer, for now, is: outlook good.