LAKEWOOD, NJ — He was hitless in his first 10 outings while striking out nearly half the batters he faced. He has already got a promotion to a higher level. But Orion Kerkering was invincible. He knows it. Pitching for the second time with High-A Jersey Shore, he threw a fastball Saturday that landed a two-run homer.
“It’s going to happen sooner or later,” Kerkering said. “I was like, ‘Well, at least that’s not like a couple dribblers or a couple bloop hits.’ I’ll take it. I’m fine. He took me.”
What happened to the next batter?
“I hit him with a backdoor slider,” Kerkering said.
“That,” said catcher Caleb Ricketts, “speaks to his mindset.”
Kerkering is 22 years old and was the 152nd pick in last summer’s MLB Draft. He’s been a professional for less than a year and, still, opposing evaluators who have seen Kerkering are baffled as to how he could throw as he did.
He is a legitimate prospect who has a chance to rise quickly.
The righty reliever throws his fastball in the upper 90s. He reached 100 mph several times. He threw a pitch Tuesday night at ShoreTown Ballpark that registered 102 mph in the stadium gun. A separate radar gun behind home plate tracks the pitch at 102 mph. The third gun confirmed 102. It seems unlikely but, for now, add it to the emerging story of Kerkering.
He did it Tuesday night with Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski sitting a few rows behind home plate. Kerkering, at two minor league levels this season, has a 1.35 ERA with 20 strikeouts and two walks in 13 1/3 innings.
“When you watch him throw, everybody’s on the top step of the dugout,” Jersey Shore manager Greg Brodzinski said. “They can’t wait to see it. Then you look at the scoreboard, there are triple digits there.”
But there is more to Kerkering than this. He threw a slider that graded as an extra pitch. Some evaluators are willing to grade it higher than that. It’s a pitch Kerkering learned when he was in high school — a coach named Oscar Espada suggested the grip — and it became his identity.
“I’ve just been throwing that ever since,” Kerkering said. “Everybody was like, ‘Just don’t stop throwing that.’ Keep doing what you do and you’ll get out.”
Just a beautiful back foot slider here from Orion Kerkering to get his only strikeout of the night pic.twitter.com/eilDqTOY3Q
— Mitch Rupert (@Mitch_Rupert) May 17, 2023
He can throw the slider for a strike. He can throw it as a free pitch from the zone. He threw it away on any count. He threw it at 88 to 90 mph. The Phillies have internal grades for pitches based on movement and spin rate and velocity. Kerkering’s slider has the potential to be an elite pitch.
As a kid growing up in Florida, he was fascinated by Sergio Romo. Kerkering is not a Giants fan. But he admired Romo because he liked his slider and wasn’t afraid to throw it. Kerkering wants to emulate that mindset.
“He believed in it enough to take on anybody,” Kerkering said. “I know he doesn’t throw fast. We are not the same way. But relying on the offspeed less than the fastball gives you confidence. “
Kerkering has a slider he can rely on.
“Probably,” Ricketts said, “the best slider I’ve ever seen in my life.”
But Kerkering fell to the fifth round of the draft. As a junior at South Florida, he bounced between the bullpen and rotation. He has a great strikeout rate, but his stuff isn’t good enough to play longer stints. A lot of teams didn’t get a decent look at him. Bryce Harman, an amateur scout for the Phillies, will never forget Kerkering’s slider.
“Guys with breaking balls like that, I’m starting to learn, you can’t avoid that,” Harman said last year. “Even if he doesn’t have a lot of success as a starter, breaking balls like that, they tend to climb the ladder and make it to the big leagues.”
Now, with a defined role as a one-inning reliever, Kerkering is worse than he was in college. The Phillies will push him if he continues to improve.
“The stuff is definitely big-league stuff coming out of his arm,” said Brodzinski, who spent two years in the majors as the coach of the Phillies. “It’s great to have him. That’s why they have the minor leagues — so guys can continue to experience different situations. So, when they get (to the majors), they’re ready to go. And he’s going to be a guy who, when he gets there, is ready to go.
The Phillies promoted Kerkering to High A last week after nine dominant outings in Low-A Clearwater. They discussed jumping him to Double-A Reading, but opted to use High A to put him on a three-times-a-week schedule. He probably won’t be with the BlueClaws for long.
Before the start of the season, Kerkering set a goal for himself. He wants to finish the season in Double A. “Hopefully,” said Kerkering. What if he flies over it?
“That,” he said, “is better.”
Hao-Yu Lee, considered one of the better position-player prospects in the Phillies system, finished April with a .228/.366/.263 slash line. He has walked as many times (12) as he has hit, but he doesn’t hit for power.
He started May with a .400/.511/.600 run in 10 games.
“He was a guy who never really struggled,” Brodzinski said. “He had a little bit of a struggle at the beginning of the season, but there wasn’t any panic. He just kept working and really came out. The guy can really hit. And it’s fun to watch every day.”
Lee, 20, is the youngest player on the BlueClaws and one of the youngest in the South Atlantic League. He is thickly built and there are questions about whether he can stick at second base. The Phillies emphasized the defensive side of the game with Lee.
“The focus he put on the defensive side of the ball really stood out to me,” Brodzinski said. “It shows in the games. The double-play feeds. The consistency of his defense, day in and day out. The ball hits him and it’s an out. It’s great to see a guy like him, especially at such a young age, develop a routine.
Promotion of a catcher
Ricketts joined Kerkering in High A. He hit .379/.402/.552 in 92 plate appearances in Clearwater and turned 23 two days after he was promoted. It’s time for a more age-appropriate challenge.
He was a seventh round pick out of the University of San Diego who had a huge senior season. The Phillies asked Ricketts to add strength in the offseason to prepare for a full pro season as a catcher. He added 15 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame. For now, he is a curiosity as he tries to prove himself at a higher level.
The Phillies were intrigued.
“He was a brain behind the plate, working with the pitching staff,” said Brodzinski, a former catcher. “That’s one thing that I think I noticed from the beginning was how he took care of the pitchers. That’s what you want from a catcher. A person who is a leader.
“Right away, the connections he built and the way he was able to navigate some of these games behind the plate opened my eyes.”
Reversing roles, rising stock
Jordi Martinez, a 22-year-old lefty, moved to a full-time reliever. He saw an improvement in the quality of his stuff, though his fastball sat at 93 mph Tuesday in a rough four-run outing. He has reached 99 mph this season while throwing a lot of strikes with his slider.
Brodzinski wasn’t sure how Martinez would handle the change when the BlueClaws staff presented it to him.
“Some guys aren’t too happy about it,” Brodzinski said. “But right away he was like, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I want to be the best at whatever I do.’ And he bought it.”
Martinez struck out 18 and walked eight with a 4.91 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. He is someone to watch as he adapts to the new role.
“He has a reliever mindset,” Brodzinski said. “When he goes out there, it seems like that’s his game now and he’s going to throw you out. And that’s a lot of fun to watch. Because, off the field, he’s a fun-loving, happy guy. He kept this light. When he’s on the mound, he’s a bulldog. He’s really shown that when big situations come up, he goes above and beyond. He won’t back down. Things can only get better. The hardest he throws is in the biggest situations.
(Top photo of Orion Kerkering with Low-A Clearwater: Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via Associated Press)