The rise of the Orioles’ bullpen was a story that dominated Birdland in 2022. After all, how often do we see a team go from the worst pen in baseball to an upper-echelon reliever corps seemingly in the blink of an eye? Yet one name that often gets left out of praise heaped on the O’s pen is that of a certain lefty from Michigan.
Keegan Akin came into the 2022 season as somewhat of a reclamation project. After making his during the abbreviated 2020 season, Akin was expected to make his case as a permanent member of the rotation in 2021. However, that case didn’t turn out as strongly as Akin hoped, as he struggled to a 6.63 ERA over 17 starts.
As part of the plan for remolding the Baltimore bullpen, Akin was thrust into a completely new role in 2022. No longer was he looked at to be a potential starter. Instead, he became the Orioles’ safety blanket out of the pen. Did the starter last an inning or two less than expected? Turn it over to Akin. Are your normal seventh and eighth-inning guys a little fatigued? Akin’s got you covered. It was in this role that Akin truly began to shine for the first time as an Oriole.
In wake of the MLB rule change that eliminated the one-out specialist from the baseball landscape, relievers who could provide teams with effective length became that much more important. Akin did just that throughout the entire 2022 season. Of his 45 appearances, Akin went out for a second inning of work 30 times. This saw him lead all Baltimore relievers with 81.2 innings pitched.
An even more impressive aspect of Akin’s work in 2022 was his flexibility. While many relievers get pegged as “the seventh-inning guy” or “the eighth-inning guy”, Akin’s workload came in just about all situations imaginable. He would routinely enter in the fourth, fifth or sixth innings, but also managed to finish 10 games for the O’s.
This change in role saw Akin transform himself from a floundering big-league starter into a multi-inning relief weapon. In 2021, Akin was routinely rocked by batters from both sides of the plate, with righties posting a .844 OPS of the southpaw, while lefties did even better at .857. Akin completely flipped that script in 2022, becoming a dominant weapon against lefties (holding them to a measly .445 OPS) and significantly improving his numbers against righties (.782 OPS).
Managers and broadcasters alike often focus on what starters are able to do the second or third time through an order. In eliminating Akin’s need to face batters second or even third times, Brandon Hyde and his staff seemed to unlock a completely different pitcher. Akin’s fastball—his most effective pitch during his stint as a starter in ‘21—jumped up two MPH in average velocity with his move to the pen. This new heater was an extremely out pitch for Akin, as his fastball led all Orioles pitchers’ fastballs in K% and Put Away %.
Akin’s move to the pen also allowed him to develop a much more effective slider. In 2021, Akin’s slider was the third-worst slider in all of baseball by Run-Value, as opponents teed off on it to the tune of a .347 average and .611 slugging percentage. Fast forward to 2022 and Akin’s slider has had a higher spin rate and more break as batters only hit .196 off the breaking ball. Of his four pitches, only Akin’s curveball did not become more effective after his move to the pen—and only because he all but removed it from his arsenal in 2022.
For a lot of Orioles that embraced new roles in 2022, there will be questions heading into 2023 about how they can continue to grow and change. After his 2022 season, it feels like those questions need not be applied to Akin. Sure, a 3.20 ERA and 1.09 WHIP are hardly the numbers of an elite reliever. Yes, you would love to see Akin continue to grow this season’s 8.5 K/9 rate to something closer to double digits.
However, we cannot overstate the value of the stability and flexibility Akin provided to the ‘22 O’s. If Akin can go out in 2023 and perfectly replicate this past season, Birdland should be overjoyed. Such an effective inning eater out of the pen is not an easy thing to find—and is especially valuable for a pen that only featured two left-handers for most of the season. Akin’s pitching this season was the solid foundation upon which the breakouts of so many other Orioles relievers were built. With the volatility that is inherent to the art of pitching in relief, Akin providing that solid foundation again in 2023 would be a welcome sight to all of Birdland.
Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays
Tomorrow: Ryan Mountcastle