Hey, remember spring training? Seven months ago, as the Orioles gathered in Sarasota for the season to come, fans and media tried to puzzle out what the club’s Opening Day roster would look like. Plenty of spots were up for grabs, perhaps none more so than in the starting rotation, where veterans like Matt Harvey and Felix Hernandez were in camp on minor league deals, while fringy swingman types like Bruce Zimmermann and Jorge Lopez tried to make their case to start. Up until the final week of camp, there were about 50 possible permutations for how the five-man rotation would shake out.
Most of those permutations, though, seemed certain to include rookie left-hander Keegan Akin. The Orioles’ 2016 second-round pick had made his MLB debut in 2020 and, while he didn’t blow anyone away (4.56 ERA in eight games), he had flashed enough potential to make him a near-lock for the 2021 staff, slotting in somewhere behind ace John Means. Only a horrific spring training for Akin would change those plans.
Welp. Akin had a horrific spring training. In four outings, Akin was torched for 15 hits, seven walks, and 10 runs in nine innings of work. While exhibition stats don’t necessarily tell you the full story, Akin looked so unimpressive, particularly with his command, that the O’s decided they couldn’t subject him to major league hitters. In the final week of camp, the Orioles optioned Akin to the minors to get himself straightened out.
With the minor league season not starting until May, Akin spent April at the Orioles’ alternate site in Bowie, trying to figure out how to throw strikes again. He suffered a minor setback when he sliced his finger in a kitchen accident in late April, eliminating any possibility of a promotion to the Orioles that month, but he was back on the mound in May. After a two-inning tune-up for Triple-A Norfolk, Akin was fast-tracked to the bigs to help a struggling Orioles staff.
Turns out he wasn’t much help.
Those command problems that plagued Akin in spring — and that have nagged at him off and on throughout his pro career, evidenced by his 4.1 career walk rate in the minors — reared their ugly heads again. Soon after joining the O’s rotation May 30, Akin proved to be overmatched. In a particularly brutal seven-start stretch from June 11 to July 16, Akin coughed up three or more runs each time, issued three or more walks four times, and failed to get through five innings in all but one start (and in the one he did, he gave up eight runs). His ERA during that span was 11.44.
Despite Akin’s continuing struggles, the Orioles planned to keep him in the rotation — until fate intervened. Akin was placed on the COVID-19 injured list July 21, hours before he was scheduled to start against the Rays. Whether Akin tested positive for the virus was not publicly disclosed, but he missed 10 days of action. When he returned, he pitched in relief twice before rejoining the rotation, where he’d make nine more starts.
His second go-round as a starter wasn’t great, but there were flashes of potential. Akin tossed his only two quality starts of the year, including a seven-inning, one-run gem against the Angels on Aug. 26 to finally pick up his first victory. The second of those two quality outings, though, had a sour ending. Akin had dominated the Blue Jays for six hitless innings — three outs away from tossing a seven-inning no-hitter in the second game of a doubleheader — only for the Jays to begin the seventh with single, home run, single on their way to scoring 11 runs in the frame. The Orioles just can’t have nice things.
Even as his results marginally improved in the final months, Akin’s underlying command problems remained, as he averaged nearly a walk every two innings in that nine-start span. Combined with his brutal stretch from May to July, his overall 2021 statistics were cringeworthy: a 2-10 record, 6.63 ERA, 3.8 walks per nine, and a WHIP over 1.5. Discouragingly, his strikeout rate plummeted from 12.3 in 2020 (in a small sample size) to 7.8 this year, and his K/BB rate dropped from 3.50 to 2.05. Akin was putting way too many runners on base while not being able to rely on strikeouts to get out of jams. It’s a bad combination.
Akin ranked among the bottom 20-25 percent of MLB pitchers in a vast majority of Statcast categories, from strikeout percentage to opponents’ expected batting average, SLG, and OBP. Akin’s pitch selection might have been part of the problem. In 2021, he dramatically increased his use of the slider — throwing it nearly 20 percent of the time, as opposed to 10 percent in 2020 — despite opponents slugging .611 against it this year. He also junked the curveball that had been his most effective pitch in 2020 (with opponents slugging just .200 against it that year), throwing it for just 3.9 percent of his pitches in 2021. Again, we’re talking about small sample sizes here, but it might behoove Akin to give hitters more of the curve and less of the slider.
If you’re looking for a reason why Orioles starting pitchers posted an abysmal 5.99 ERA — the worst full-season mark for an MLB team in 16 years — Akin was far from the only culprit, but his struggles at the major league level threw the Birds’ pitching plan into disarray. The O’s were hoping that Akin and fellow rookie hurler Dean Kremer, who also debuted in 2020, could step in as capable, mid-rotation starters while the more high-profile pitching prospects continue working their way up the minor league ladder. Instead, Akin bombed, and so did Kremer. Fifteen different pitchers ended up making a start for the Orioles, with disastrous results.
Akin’s 2021 season ended early with a left adductor strain that required surgery. The Orioles expect him to be full-go at spring training next year, but in what role? Akin’s modest success late in the season, combined with a lack of viable candidates, might give him another chance at earning a rotation spot. But barring significant improvements, the southpaw, who turns 27 on April 1, is likely a better fit for a bullpen role if he’s going to stick around long term.
Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Bruce Zimmermann, Austin Hays, Severino/Wynns, Dillon Tate
Monday: Jorge Lopez