He’s Thrown One Major League Inning. Is Orion Kerkering Already One of the Phillies’ Best Relievers?

Orion Kerkering
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

You can understand the excitement around the Phillies at the moment; this is the defending National League champion, on the verge of clinching a home playoff series, with tons of nationally recognizable players.

But no amount of juice can replace the excitement of the new, because the most interesting player on this team is a relief pitcher who made his MLB debut on Sunday. In case you weren’t aware of him already, here’s Orion Kerkering.

If you follow either the Phillies or the minor leagues in the northeastern U.S., you’ve been waiting for this moment for months. If not, you’re probably wondering why anyone should care about a pitcher who’s clearly named after a spacefaring outlaw whose rakish charm and rough exterior belie the fact that deep down he has a heart of gold.

The Phillies are still paying a reputational penalty for running out some of the worst bullpens in MLB history in the late 2010s, but this current crop of relievers is perfectly serviceable — perhaps even more than that once Rob Thomson figures out how he wants to use his various swingmen in the playoffs. Kerkering has the potential to be the best of the bunch. After 12 pitches at the major league level, he might be that now.

Kerkering was a fifth-round pick out of the University of South Florida last season. You’ll see a lot of college pitchers with big stuff but rough edges get drafted after Day 1. Put the guy with velo or a big curveball into a professional training program, shift a grip or move him to the other side of the rubber, and you’ve got a high-leverage reliever in short order. Surely you remember Matt Brash, Craig Kimbrel, and Cody Allen. If it doesn’t work, well, surely you don’t remember Brandon Koch, Alex Robinson, or Dakota Mekkes.

Heading into the season, Kerkering was a decent prospect: good fastball velo, plus breaking ball, likely to become a valuable bullpen arm someday. Then, all of a sudden, he was throwing 100 mph instead of 95, his slider jumped from plus to an 80, and his command of everything clicked. All of a sudden, almost before the Phillies themselves knew what to do with him, Kerkering was destroying low-minors competition and practically begging to be promoted. That the Phillies did, and so far they haven’t found a level of competition suitable for the young righty.

Orion Kerkering’s Strikeout Rampage
Level IP BF H BB SO ERA
MLB 1 3 0 0 2 0.00
AAA 1 5 2 0 1 0.00
AA 22 88 19 5 33 2.05
A+ 20 1/3 80 13 6 27 1.77
A 10 1/3 18 2 1 18 0.00

For most of last year, the heart of the Phillies’ farm system was Andrew Painter, Mick Abel, and Griff McGarry, and at least Painter and McGarry were seen as potential 2023 debutants. But Painter got hurt and McGarry went backwards, so when Kerkering broke out earlier this summer, the hype train added a new station to its route.

Kerkering’s potential is so obvious I almost don’t want to insult you, the readers, by throwing a bunch of fancy stats at him.

Like, I’m about to tell you this is one of the fastest-spinning sliders in all of baseball, but that’s obvious just looking at how it breaks. I don’t know what hitters are supposed to do with it, or what adjectives I’m supposed to use to describe it, other than grunting my lustful approval in the style of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor. (Here’s hoping that reference still lands in an article about a pitcher who was born two years after Home Improvement went off the air.) But I’m going to risk insulting you by talking about spin anyway. In his debut against the Mets, Kerkering threw 12 pitches, 10 of them sliders. Every one of those sliders came in at an rpm of 2,950 or higher.

Kerkering is not the only pitcher whose slider needs to shift up a gear to avoid putting unnecessary wear on its transmission. I took the liberty of compiling a list of pitchers whose slider and/or sweeper gets over the 2,900 rpm mark most frequently. Only nine pitchers throw even half of their slider/sweepers past that spin rate threshold:

The Spinniest Sliders in Baseball
Player SW/SL > 2900 rpm Total SW/SL % SL/SW Velo FB Velo
Orion Kerkering 10 10 100.0 87.4 99.5
Sam Moll 336 376 89.4 81.9 94.2
Lucas Sims 436 521 83.7 83.8 94.2
Brooks Raley 레일리 265 339 78.2 81.6 89.9
Reese Olson 388 512 75.8 84.9 94.8
Clarke Schmidt 503 699 72.0 86.1 93.5
Justin Lawrence 380 537 70.8 83.8 95.3
Griffin Jax 371 542 68.5 86.7 96.5
Austin Adams 191 325 58.8 88.1 94.0
Bryan Abreu 301 594 50.7 87.8 97.6
Corbin Burnes 110 247 44.5 86.1 95.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The only pitcher who gets closer to operating in Kerkering’s velocity band is Bryan Abreu, who’s been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons. Othwerise it’s… Justin Lawrence, plus better control and five miles per hour of velo?

You see why people were so eager to see what Kerkering could do against major league competition. But the Phillies are marching inexorably toward crunch time. Are you really supposed to believe that this kid, who was pitching in Low-A in April, should be getting high-leverage opportunities alongside José Alvarado, or setting up for Kimbrel?

It’s been done before, kind of.

If the Phillies do take Kerkering to the playoffs, they’ll probably give him another outing in the final week of the regular season. That wouldn’t make him literally the least experienced postseason pitcher of all time, but he’d be close. Shane McClanahan and Ryan Weathers both made their MLB debuts in the playoffs in 2020, but the COVID-shortened season, expanded playoffs, and no minor league season made that a bit of an outlier year. Since the start of the Wild Card era, 18 pitchers have appeared in the playoffs in their first major league season with less than nine innings’ worth of regular-season action under their belts:

Unusually Inexperienced Postseason Pitchers
Regular Season Postseason
Player Year Age Team G IP G IP W L ERA H R ER BB SO
Ryan Weathers 2020 21 SDP 0 0 1 1 1/3 0 0 0.00 0 0 0 2 1
Shane McClanahan 2020 23 TBR 0 0 4 4 1/3 0 0 8.31 8 5 4 2 4
Dylan Lee 2021 26 ATL 2 2 3 3 0 0 6.00 4 2 2 2 4
Kodi Whitley 2020 25 STL 4 4 2/3 1 1/3 0 0 27.00 1 1 1 0 1
Joey Devine 2005 21 ATL 5 5 3 1 2/3 0 1 10.80 3 2 2 1 3
Jarrod Parker 2011 22 ARI 1 5 2/3 1 1/3 0 0 27.00 2 1 1 1 0
Glen Perkins 2006 23 MIN 4 5 2/3 1 1/3 0 0 0.00 2 0 0 0 0
Francisco Rodríguez 2002 20 ANA 5 5 2/3 11 18 2/3 5 1 1.93 10 5 4 5 28
James McDonald 2008 23 LAD 4 6 2 5 1/3 0 0 0.00 3 0 0 2 7
Garrett Crochet 2020 21 CHW 5 6 1 2/3 0 0 0.00 0 0 0 0 2
Ross Ohlendorf 2007 24 NYY 6 6 1/3 1 1 0 0 27.00 4 3 3 1 0
DJ Johnson 2018 28 COL 7 6 1/3 1 2/3 0 0 0.00 1 0 0 0 2
Brandon Finnegan 2014 21 KCR 7 7 7 6 1 1 10.50 9 7 7 5 4
Hunter Strickland 2014 25 SFG 9 7 8 8 1/3 1 0 7.56 9 7 7 2 8
Justin Topa 2020 29 MIL 6 7 2/3 1 2 0 0 0.00 1 0 0 1 0
Bryan Abreu 2019 22 HOU 7 8 2/3 1 2/3 0 0 27.00 2 2 2 2 0
Danny Patterson 1996 25 TEX 7 8 2/3 1 1/3 0 0 0.00 1 0 0 0 0
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

The results, well, they’re not awesome.

With two exceptions, these are pitchers who 1) made one emergency appearance 2) got lit up or 3) both. One exception is James McDonald, the rookie who ate a bunch of innings out of the pen for the Dodgers in the 2008 NLCS but didn’t go on to win three Cy Young Awards. The other is K-Rod, who had the most famous postseason by a rookie reliever of all time. Some consideration is also warranted for Hunter Strickland, who certainly had an eventful rookie postseason. But despite his propensity for giving up huge home runs, he was a key cog in the bullpen that helped the Giants win the World Series. And who knows, maybe someone can say Strickland’s name within earshot of Bryce Harper at a key moment and see if Harper responds by hitting another 500-foot home run. It’s worth a shot.

But can Kerkering be more useful than that despite his inexperience? There’s not an exact precedent in the divisional era for a pitcher jumping four steps of the developmental ladder in one season, throwing less than 10 innings in the majors, and jumping into the stiff end of a playoff bullpen. But we can get close.

Abreu started the 2019 season in High-A and moved up the chain gradually. So did Strickland in 2014, but he’d spent significant time at Double-A in the Pirates system two years before, so I’m not sure that counts. John Holdzkom signed with the Pirates out of independent ball in 2014 and got the majors by the time rosters expanded. He pitched nine innings in the regular season, plus one more in the NL Wild Card Game, and never appeared in the majors again.

Joey Devine in 2005 and Brandon Finnegan in 2014 were both first-round draft picks who started in High-A and ended the season by pitching in the playoffs. In so doing, Finnegan earned the distinction of being the first person to play in the World Series and the College World Series in the same season. Is the Big 12 or the ACC a lower level of competition than the South Atlantic League? I’d say no, but you could argue that the transition from college to pro ball in one season is a step change that Kerkering hasn’t had to navigate this year.

For the purposes of judging inexperience, I mostly ignored the class of 2020. Weathers, for instance, pitched in the playoffs despite having no game experience above Low-A, but that’s because there was no minor league season in 2020. Another first-round pick, Garrett Crochet, pitched in the postseason for the White Sox that year after bypassing the minor leagues entirely. Kerkering’s tenure at Double-A probably gives him a leg up on Crochet, who came to the majors straight out of the University of Tennessee, but again, experience is subjective.

All of this is to say that Kerkering represents the intersection of two truths: First, pitchers with this little experience usually get shredded in the playoffs. And second, everything about the eye test and underlying numbers says Kerkering can pitch high-leverage innings for the Phillies — and maybe even close — right now. We’ll find out which factor means more soon enough.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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synco
5 months ago

Joey Devine and Jarrod Parker right next to each other in that list are two of the great “what could have been” stories of the 00s/10s. Alas.