One of the big stories from the early parts of the shortened 2020 season was how many teams were calling up prospects to have them debut. With a compressed 60-game schedule, it took even less time than usual to bypass service time thresholds that keep players in the minors. The Orioles were one of the last teams to get on board this train, but when they finally did, it was Keegan Akin who got to make his MLB debut.
Akin has been a name of interest to Orioles fans almost since the day he was drafted in the second round in 2016. The team had a trash-level rotation that year and in 2017 as well, so anyone looking remotely competent and staying remotely healthy in the minors could be a part of some imagined better future. More-hyped, higher-drafted prospects like DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez have come along behind Akin. Still, he kept grinding his way up towards MLB and since he’d pitched in Triple-A in 2019, his debut was one thing a fan could look forward to heading into 2020.
Although Akin made his debut on August 14, he didn’t get a spot in the starting rotation until the end of August, after Wade LeBlanc got hurt and Tommy Milone got traded. The result is that Akin pitched in eight games, six of which were starts, over an already-shortened season. A pitcher tossing 25.2 innings is squarely in “small sample size” territory. Making sweeping conclusions, either good or bad, over so few innings in such a strange baseball season, would be folly.
With that fact understood, let’s look at his performance anyway, because Opening Day is still nearly two months away - if it doesn’t get pushed farther back - and there’s snow on the ground in Maryland and thinking about baseball makes everything seem a little warmer.
Akin managed to fit a real feast-or-famine kind of pattern when he did pitch, with some really bad outings and a few OK ones that all averaged out to a 4.56 ERA. It’s not an ERA that will inspire a lot of jersey sales or walkup ticket purchases whenever it’s safe to go to games again, but this performance rated an ERA+ of 100 - that is, when adjusted for park and league factors, a completely average performance.
This level of perfectly cromulent pitching is not something that all of the big baseball player projection systems see Akin duplicating in 2021. Here’s what three systems see for Akin:
- ZiPS: 5.00 ERA, 5.26 FIP across 99 IP
- Steamer: 5.15 ERA, 5.52 FIP across 127 IP (both on Fangraphs)
- Marcel: 4.40 ERA across 86 IP (from Baseball Reference)
When we looked at what the projections had to say about John Means last week, I guessed that a high-seeming ERA projection for Means was because his ERA had out-performed his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Akin’s 25.2 IP in 2020 saw the reverse. With 35 strikeouts to 10 walks and some bad batted ball luck, Akin ended up with a 3.27 FIP for the season, suggesting he could do better with better luck.
His 2021 projections don’t reflect this, though. That’s because Akin’s performance in the minors still happened, and a guy who walked 61 batters in 112.1 IP in Triple-A in 2019 is going to have to do more to prove he has sufficient command to succeed or even be mediocre in MLB.
A fan can rationalize those walks, as it was reported that Akin was charged with working on his offspeed pitches in 2019. That’s a narrative with potential improvement that makes sense, but the projection systems aren’t going to believe in that stuff until they see it in action. Except Marcel, which thinks he’ll be about what he was.
The case for the over
One thing working against the idea that Akin merely had bad luck in his 2020 outings is that his average exit velocity allowed, per Fangraphs, was 91.4 miles per hour. There were 323 MLB pitchers last season who threw at least 20 innings. Only 17 of these pitchers had a higher EV allowed than Akin. A handful of them had better ERAs, but most were bad. Akin was in the fifth percentile for exit velocity and second percentile for hard hit percentage.
Those are tough numbers. If you’re an optimist you can shrug them off as the noise of a small sample size. If you’re enough of a pessimist to vote over on 5.00 ERA, well, there’s your reason.
The case for the under
The simplest case for the under is this: There’s a lot of room for Keegan Akin to underachieve what you might hope for him right now and still stay under a 5.00 ERA. He had what could have been some bad luck in 2020 and still ended up with an acceptable 4.56 ERA. That’s not great if that’s your #1 starter pitching like that, but if it’s your #4 or #5 starter - which is what most scouting reports on Akin have suggested as his ceiling - then it is fine.
Make your pick
If you want to know “Why ZiPS?” take a look at my first post in this series last week. Our readers are optimistic so far, with 63% voting over on Trey Mancini’s projected OPS, 67% going over for Austin Hays, and 95% going under on John Means’s projected ERA.
The only polls I’ll revisit at season’s end are the ones where a hitter takes at least 200 plate appearances, a reliever throws at least 25 innings, or a starter throws at least 60 innings as Orioles. That’s about a third of a season. If someone gets hurt or gets traded before they can play that much, it won’t be very interesting to see if they beat their projected performance or not.
In the event of a push, where Akin has exactly a 5.00 ERA, the tie goes to the over.
What do you think we will see from Akin in the coming season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Will Keegan Akin go over or under his ZiPS projected 5.00 ERA in the 2021 season?
This poll is closed