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June 20, 2024

Orion Kerkering thriving in first full season with Phillies: 'I just embrace all of these different roles'

Orion Kerkering, 23, has emerged as a dominant relief arm for the Phillies after a tremendous rise through the team's minor-league system.

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Kerkering 6.19.24 Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

After a rapid rise through the Phillies organization in 2023, right-handed relief pitcher Orion Kerkering has settled in as a powerful bullpen weapon this season.

Orion Kerkering stood in foul territory at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday morning and did his best to recall. Where was he a year ago this time?

Jersey Shore, he realized -- mowing down hitters out of the bullpen for the Phillies' High-A team. For a player drafted in the fifth round of the 2022 MLB Draft, it seemed like a natural progression. But as the summer continued, so did Kerkering's dominance, and everybody -- coaches, scouts and fans -- took notice. In just one season, the young right-hander earned a promotion from Single-A to High-A, from High-A to Double-A, from Double-A to Triple-A, and finally, from Triple-A to the major leagues last September -- just in time to make three regular season appearances and be placed on the team's roster for the 2023 MLB Postseason. 

A handful of weeks after being a fast-riser in the minor leagues, Kerkering began taking down important innings in October for a Phillies team that came up one win short of defending its National League crown.

Kerkering discussed his rapid ascension -- and the next steps in his career -- in a conversation with PhillyVoice.

Kerkering's rise is thanks in large part to the combination of a demeanor that is composed beyond his years and a nasty breaking ball (many refer to it as a sweeper, but Kerkering says he thinks of it as a slider). It is an absolute money pitch that he is comfortable throwing to any hitter in any count at any location.

"You just kind of know your pitch," Kerkering said. He did not remember a specific instance in which he realized his slider could become as difficult for opposing hitters to square up as it has become. "It's always been that one pitch."

As good as Kerkering's slider is, no pitcher wants to be entirely reliant on one pitch. Kerkering threw the pitch 85 percent of the time across his three regular season appearances last year, and by the time the NLCS came around, the Arizona Diamondbacks were able to sit on it. Kerkering allowed six hits in four appearances in the series across 2.1 innings pitched.

Heading into 2024, Kerkering was determined to diversify his pitch arsenal in order to become less predictable, and in turn make his slider more effective. To do that, he needed to increase the usage of his fastball -- Kerkering throws two variations of a heater. 

"Last year, it was such a small sample size, with J.T. [Realmuto] getting used to it," Kerkering said. "This year, four-seam, two-seam, play with it a little bit, that way they lay off [the slider]."

Unlike the vast majority of relievers who specialize in throwing a breaking pitch, Kerkering has tremendous velocity when he needs it, touching 100 miles per hour on his fastball on several occasions. 

According to Baseball Savant, Kerkering's average fastball velocity in 2024 -- 97.5 miles per hour -- is in the 95th percentile among all major-league pitchers.

All of this has coalesced into a beautiful thing for Kerkering, who is looking like one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball in 2024. In 24 appearances, he owns a 1.69 ERA and a pristine 0.90 WHIP with a strikeout percentage (29.3) that is in the 89th percentile among all pitchers and a hard-hit percentage (29.5) that is in the 95th percentile.

For most teams, a reliever with that kind of statistical profile -- even ones as inexperienced as Kerkering -- would be quickly moved into a closer role and asked to handle the most important outings on a nightly basis. Kerkering is a critical component of a Phillies bullpen that has perhaps been better than that of any other team in baseball in 2024, but because José Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman and Matt Strahm are already in place as high-leverage out-getters, Kerkering is not being overtasked in his first full major-league season.

Kerkering has been used in a wide variety of situations since his big-league call-up, and he said he has enjoyed the opportunity to "experience everything."

"I just embrace all of these different roles," Kerkering said. "Whether we're up by 10 or we're down by 10, whether it's a one-run ballgame or like [Tuesday] night where we're down by two but you want to keep putting up zeroes, and then we came back and won."

Despite the massive amount of praise being thrown his way as he continues to improve, Kerkering makes a point to acknowledge all of the people involved with the club who he believes enable him to be the best version of himself.

As a young pitcher who was initially going through a whirlwind of sorts, Kerkering expressed gratitude for Realmuto and Garrett Stubbs, who have been behind the plate for nearly all of his major-league appearances. Kerkering called it "super helpful" to be able to have faith in whoever is calling the pitches, allowing him to focus on executing as best he can.

What is just as special as Phillies manager Rob Thomson's bullpen's production on the mound, Kerkering said, is the bond they share. He described an environment in which all of the relievers root for each other's success, regardless of how they are performing individually. Kerkering said that Strahm and Hoffman have been particularly impactful to his growth, taking him under their wing.

 "They all help me out," Kerkering said. "[We] can look in each other's eyes and just know we're gonna pick each other up as best we can."

Now that things have slowed down and Kerkering has settled in as a trusted major-league bullpen weapon, he is focused on absorbing as much as he can from the people around him.

"Career-wise, I'm just trying to learn as much as I can now because we have such a great group of relievers down there," Kerkering said. "Just having so many good guys personally and on the field helps me put [my] head down and do the work the best [I] can.

"Some places, it's not like that."

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