Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer both entered 2021 with high expectations only to disappoint. The pair began this season as borderline afterthoughts stashed in the bullpen, but Akin has emerged as one of the team’s best relievers. Kremer has yet to have that opportunity.
Kremer suffered a strained oblique while warming up prior to making his season debut against the Rays. The 26-year-old has yet to pitch this season but will make his first rehab appearance at Double-A Bowie today.
Kremer received some rotation buzz—albeit by necessity—before sliding into the bullpen for the opening series. Baltimore has yet to announce whether Kremer will attempt to build back his arm to a starter’s level or if he is destined for the bullpen this season.
Akin told Glenn Clark Radio earlier this week that there is no plan for him to return to the rotation right now. Akin holds an impressive 1.46 ERA and 0.770 WHIP in 24.2 innings this season. Akin spoke about the adrenaline generated from hearing his name called in the bullpen and how a lack of a schedule has helped him relax. Akin also mentioned how is mindset changed this season.
“In the bullpen it’s just been attack mode this year,” Akin said. “You’re seeing a lot of guys come out and go right after guys instead of trying to get pretty with it and try to make perfect pitches.”
Akin rarely faced a batter more than once even in his extended relief role this year. He’s not saving anything for the second or third time through the lineup; he’s immediately looking for strike one.
Plenty of pitchers benefit from that mentality. The question is would Kremer?
Kremer posted a whopping 4.2 BB/9 in 53.2 innings at the major league level last season. The rookie received plenty of hype after his four appearances in 2020, but he still walked 12 batters in just 18.2 innings even during his brief run of success. There’s no doubt that an “attack first’ mindset could benefit the former Los Angeles prospect.
Kremer’s struggles mostly boiled down to walks and the long ball last season. He allowed 17 home runs in 13 starts last year and the new left field wall would not have solved the problem. Unfortunately, Kremer’s struggles continued even after his demotion to Triple-A.
Kremer posted a 4.91 ERA and 1.299 WHIP in 62.1 innings with the Tides. However, in his final three outings, Kremer issued only two walks and did not allow a home run. Kremer limited opponents to just two earned runs over the final three games.
Akin has benefited this season from increased velocity on his fastball but also improvements with his changeup and slider. It’s reasonable to think Kremer could add a tick to the heater when working in relief.
Kremer’s 93 MPH fastball rated in the 21st percentile but its spin rate ranked in the 76th. Regardless, players absolutely crushed the ball off him last year. Kremer’s average exit velocity ranked in the lowest percentile among major league pitchers. His walk rate graded in the 24th percentile, but his chase rate matched his exit velocity at the very bottom of the barrel. Batters were able to wait for a pitch in the strike zone and send it to the moon.
It’s difficult to imagine Kremer having any success after reading those numbers but there are clear paths to improvement. Kremer threw a first pitch strike just 55.9% of the time with the Orioles last season. A few ticks on the fastball and an “attack first” mentality could go a long way for him. Kremer would also benefit from that improved changeup after throwing the pitch just 7.5% of the time last year.
There is no way of knowing whether Akin’s hot streak will continue, but the Orioles appear poised to ride it until it stops. Akin is left handed and holds a higher pedigree as a former second-round pick, but it’s fair to wonder what Baltimore’s staff can make of Kremer this year.
The Orioles could be hesitant to stretch out Kremer in the middle of the season after an injury, but he does have an option remaining. The Birds could have Kremer build up innings in Norfolk’s rotation before giving him a shot at the end of the season, but Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall should have plenty of those innings claimed by then.
Kremer’s future will likely be determined by how he fares in his rehab outings and what Baltimore needs at the time. Injuries, doubleheaders and poor performance from a guy like Spenser Watkins could all generate demand for a starter, but there’s a world where Kremer joins Akin as another success story from the bullpen this season.