The Mike Elias regime sometimes gets flak for not drafting pitchers in the early rounds. Then again, consider, back in 2018, the starting pitching prospects on the Orioles’ Top 30 list: Yefry Ramírez, Brenan Hanifee, Alex Wells, Cody Sedlock, Chris Lee, Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther and Keegan Akin. Brr, freezing. Baseball is a tough sport sometimes.
Before we tear into the subject of the headline above, let’s concede an important point: just like revenge, baseball performance analysis is a dish best served cold—as in, not a few short hours after a four-run tenth-inning implosion by Keegan Akin single-handedly crushed a potential comeback win against the Reds and cost the Orioles the series. Not like that.
But even so, we might ask: with a 6.85 ERA and 1.77 WHIP in 23 innings out of the bullpen, is Akin long for this team?
Akin’s struggles are a shame, because last year was a good one for him. In 2022, the former starter found a role as a “safety blanket” out of the bullpen, valued by Brandon Hyde for his ability to enter the game in any inning and provide length when the starters fumbled.
Well, at least parts of 2022 were good for Akin. Pre-All-Star break, the 27-year-old had a 2.36 ERA, an 0.88 WHIP and an OPS against of .580. But his numbers fell off the table in the second half: he put up just a 4.76 ERA, 1.482 WHIP and .768 OPS against. Asked about the difference this year, Akin answered, “The velo held well … Just was more so (poor) locations and getting hit more and that led to more being behind in the count.”
Is this what’s happening to Akin now, an inability to throw strikes?
Akin was correct in his diagnosis of last season: his velo actually increased as the year went on, while his command did tank. Akin went from throwing 67% strikes in July to just 47% by September. You know the drill (and so do MLB hitters): if a pitcher is behind in the count, hitters will take the walks, or feast on the pitches in the zone when they do arrive.
But this year seems different. Unlike in 2022, control doesn’t seem to be Akin’s problem. His strike percentage lies in between his ‘22 highs and lows, at 56%, and his walk rate (3.8%) is somewhere around average.
Is the problem stuff-related? Yes, despite Akin commanding his fastball and hitting career-bests in velocity, we do have a culprit: his secondary pitches, the slider and the changeup, are proving highly ineffective this season.
Consider that in Thursday night’s meltdown, he got zero whiffs on either pitch, instead allowing a triple, a double, a run-scoring wild pitch and a walk between the two. Even on Wednesday, an outing described by one highly perceptive baseball fan as “brilliant,” Akin still had trouble landing the slider/changeup combo: he threw six, three for balls, and got just one out on the two, a rocket off the bat at 107.7 mph luckily in the vicinity of Jordan Westburg.
Akin’s changeup has been atrocious, with a 50% hard hit rate that would certainly make me not want to throw the pitch. But the Akin slider, because it’s more common (24% of his pitches) is the greater problem here. Last year, it was a quality pitch; this year it’s a liability. Batters are averaging .323 against it. Last year, that average was .196.
It’s possible to guess what’s going on. Because Akin’s In Zone % on the slider has actually increased (he’s throwing more sliders for strikes), and because the pitch’s average break in inches (both horizontal and vertical) is down, what seems to be happening is that Akin is hanging sliders in the zone and batters are creaming them.
For whatever reason, Akin seems to have lost the feel for his changeup and his slider, which may go some way to explaining his struggles this season.
It’s easy to see why Akin will keep getting chances from this team. When you examine the Statcast data on him (velocity, spin, walk rates, &c.) everything looks like his pitches should be of high quality, and he himself should be effective.
But thus far, they haven’t, and he hasn’t, either. He’s lost his feel for both secondary pitches—which, for a former starter is kind of a serious problem—and they are getting hammered.
Will Akin figure things out before it’s too late? The bullpen’s lack of lefties will give him some room for error, but as Brandon Hyde said last night, speaking on Westburg’s recent call-up, “It’s not a development situation. We’re trying to win games.” The same applies to the veterans, after all. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Akin is riding the Norfolk shuttle in the next few days/weeks in order to refine his stuff.