When you think of Orion Kerkering one word comes to mind: stuff. In a world of exceptional relievers, the 22-year-old righthander is a unicorn. With a sinker that averaged 97.8 mph and a knee-buckling sweeper that averaged 86 mph, his stuff–and pitching style–are truly unique. 

There are aspects of Kerkering’s makeup that are undeniable: no one in Major League Baseball throws a slider or sweeper at his velocity that generates as much horizontal break as Kerkering’s sweeper. In fact, amongst the hardest sweepers/sliders with 10+ inches of break, no one comes within 3 inches of Kerkering’s 16.5 inches of horizontal break. His style is also decidedly non-traditional. Despite having a sinker that can reach triple digits, he leads with a sweeper that is capable of breaking across the length of home plate: 51 of his 60 pitches in the regular season were sweepers. He has big stuff and big strikeout potential, in two seasons across the minors, Kerkering put up 86 strikeouts in 60.2 innings with just a 1.78 ERA. In 8.1 cumulative innings across the regular season and postseason with the Phillies, he struck out 11. 

However, there are other components of Kerkering’s game that are less flattering and equally undeniable. His youth, he’ll turn 23 in April, is a product of his excellence but also raises concerns about his future. He’s only thrown 8.1 cumulative Major League innings. He’s green as anything and in the postseason, it showed. When Kerkering struggled to command his sweeper, he began to flounder. His pitch count would soar into the teens and twenties for only an inning of work. The lights, especially in the NLCS, began to look a little too bright for the young phenom. 

These uncertainties surrounding Kerkering would be less glaring if the Phillies had signed a high-profile reliever to fill the void left by Craig Kimbrel. But they haven’t. The top relievers in the team’s bullpen in 2024 figure to be Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez, Jeff Hoffman and Kerkering. The opportunity–and perhaps responsibility–for Kerkering to take a high-leverage role is there. The question is can he do it?

The first box that Kerkering will have to check, if he is to become a high-leverage staple in the Phillies’ ‘pen, is health. Now, there’s nothing to say that Kerkering isn’t capable of carrying a high workload: he threw 53.2 innings in 2023 and 67.2 at the University of South Florida in 2022. For context in 2023, Hoffman threw 52.1 innings, Alvarado 41.1 and Dominguez an even 50. There is an expectation amongst even the highest of leverage relievers to be able to bring it night in and night out. Will Kerkering stay healthy for the entirety of the year? Will his pitches maintain their velocity and break over the course of a Major League season? There’s enough background data to assume that they will, but without having done it, one can never be sure. 

The second and most important aspect of Kerkering’s game will be his command. It’s the natural question mark for nearly all young pitchers–especially those with as good of stuff as Kerkering. Historically, command hasn’t been an issue for the 22-year-old. Across his entire career in the minors, Kerkering has posted a meager 1.9 walks per 9 innings. However, because his pitches are thrown so hard with so much break, the ability to locate them consistently for strikes will be the defining factor in how big of a role he plays on this team. As someone who pitches in a “backwards” fashion–leading with his sweeper as opposed to sinking fastball–the ability to command that breaking ball is tantamount to his success. If he can’t, then he’s left with just a sinker. An elite sinker, sure, but a one-pitch pitcher will always get exposed at the Major League level. Being able to consistently locate within the zone, will allow Kerkering’s natural ability to generate swings and misses on pitches out of the zone to flourish. It’s perhaps his best skill: making opposing batters look stupid.

Kerkering’s talent has never been in question. His ability to harness it for a full season at the Major League level is.

On February 14th, pitchers and catchers reported to Clearwater, Florida for the start of Spring Training. Some 55 miles south, in Sarasota, Kerkering’s father, Richard, worked in his office in City Hall. He is the Emergency Manager for the city of Sarasota. This spring, all eyes will be on his son, Orion, to see if he can follow in his footsteps and become the emergency manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. 

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