Can Orion Kerkering solidify his job in the Phillies bullpen?
Orion Kerkering was some kind of cool story for the Phillies this season. The 22-year-old shot through the farm system at blazing speed, passing through four levels from Low-A to Triple-A before getting the call to the bigs in late September.
The question for Kerkering is, can he solidify a major league role in 2024? There have been plenty of rookies who burst on the scene with early success but struggle to readjust after the league adapts.
In his brief regular season action, the right-hander looked utterly unfazed by the best league in the world, at least in his first two outings. He pitched a clean inning in his debut against the Mets, striking out two and earning his first hold.
After another two-strikeout performance against the Pirates, he hit a speed bump in his final game of the season, giving up a run on two hits with a pair of punchouts against the Mets.
Despite only three innings of major league experience, Kerkering was included on all three of the Phillies' postseason rosters and pitched in every series. He again started off strong, pitching three clean innings across the Wild Card Series and the NLDS before stumbling in the NLCS.
While his inclusion in the playoffs shows how much the organization believes in the youngster, it also illustrates the precarious state of the bullpen at year's end.
Kerkering's devastating two-pitch mix of a 97.8 mph sinker and an 86 mph sweeper overpowered major league hitters when he was locked in, albeit in a very small sample size. What might raise doubts about his major league job security in 2024 is how consistent he can be in finding the strike zone against major league hitters.
He posted a 12.5 percent walk rate across his 8 1/3 regular and postseason innings (again, it's a small sample size). If that seems high, it's because it is. It's not impossible to survive at that rate, but he'll have to bump up his 27.5 percent strikeout rate to be successful.
Some of the most accomplished relievers have high walk rates. Aroldis Chapman had a 14.5 percent walk rate this year, Josh Hader had a 13 percent walk rate, and Alexis Díaz sat at 12.6 percent. The difference is that they had strikeout rates of 41.4 percent, 36.8 percent, and 30.1 percent, respectively.
The good news is that a high walk rate wasn't an issue for Kerkering in the minors, at 5.8 percent.
Growth isn't always linear, and the Phillies are a team with high hopes of another deep postseason run and a return to the World Series. As a rookie with three options, Kerkering could find himself getting more "seasoning" in Triple-A if he doesn't impress early on in 2024.
NEXT: Can Cristopher Sánchez take the next step?