Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Meet Orion Kerkering, a ‘warrior’ with an elite slider who could help the Phillies’ bullpen soon

He throws “one of the better sliders that you’ll see in all of professional baseball,” and has the mentality the Phillies want in a reliever.

Orion Kerkering has posted a 1.63 ERA in 49⅔ innings at three levels in the minors this season, with 71 strikeouts and only 12 walks.
Orion Kerkering has posted a 1.63 ERA in 49⅔ innings at three levels in the minors this season, with 71 strikeouts and only 12 walks.Read moreMike Janes / AP

Orion Kerkering spent last offseason at the Phillies’ complex in Clearwater, Fla. He wanted to focus on building strength. In January, the right-handed reliever threw a bullpen session in front of a few pitching coordinators and performance staff. Phillies farm director Preston Mattingly was there, and so was Brian Barber, the amateur scouting director.

Last year in rookie ball and low-A after being drafted in the fifth round, Kerkering had been hitting 93-94 mph in most of his outings. But what they saw on that day in January was different.

Kerkering was hitting 94-96 in his bullpen session, which meant he’d be a few ticks above that in a game. The 22-year-old remembers feeling good. But when he checked the numbers, even he was surprised.

» READ MORE: Could Weston Wilson be added to the Phillies’ postseason roster? It’s not a far-fetched idea.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I did a lot better than I thought I did,” he said.

Said Mattingly: “I saw that and I was like, ‘I don’t think we’re going to see 93-94s anymore.”

“It was just — wow,” Barber said. “We liked him to begin with, and this is even better. We knew we had one to watch at that point.”

That January bullpen session was a precursor for what was to come. Kerkering has jumped from low-A Clearwater to high-A Jersey Shore to double-A Reading in the span of a minor league season. He has posted a 1.63 ERA in 49⅔ innings at those three levels, with 71 strikeouts and only 12 walks.

He’s averaging a fastball velocity of 97.6 mph this season. He’s hit 100 mph multiple times. But more impressive to Mattingly is the fact that Kerkering has been able to harness his stuff in the strike zone. That combination of command, and elite stuff, is unique.

“Honestly, watching that bullpen put a big smile on my face,” Mattingly said. “With the slider that he has, and the command he has of the slider and the fastball, I knew he was going to have a chance to move really quickly.”

Phillies fans have started to take note, especially at a time when the big-league bullpen is looking more vulnerable. Despite that, it is more likely that Kerkering is promoted to triple A by the end of the season, rather than the big leagues, so he can get used to the big-league ball — which is used in triple A — and face higher-level hitters.

But no one seems to have any doubt that Kerkering has big-league stuff now. It’s just a matter of getting reps. When Bryce Harman, the Phillies’ area scout in Florida at the time, watched Kerkering pitch at the University of South Florida, he saw a slider that was a “now big-league out pitch,” according to Barber.

» READ MORE: Clearwater is winning like no other team in baseball, and building a culture for the Phillies’ future

“The slider itself has always been a big-league out,” Barber said. “Obviously, it’s gotten even better. Along with the velocity on the fastball, we’ve seen improvement on the velocity of the slider. He was throwing it at 84-85 mph in college, and now he’s throwing it at 87-88 with the same type of movement: 16, 17, 18 inches of sweep.

“It’s just a combination you rarely see in baseball, that type of velocity and movement combined.”

Baseball America recently named the pitch the “best breaking ball” in all three leagues he’s pitched.

“It’s possibly one of the better sliders that you’ll see in all of professional baseball, not just in the minor leagues,” Barber said. “That’s including the big leagues. It’s just a 22-year-old who is settling down into a role and has had a really good year and is set up for future success. You combine the ability to throw strikes with elite stuff, and you have a chance to have an elite pitcher.”

Kerkering hears all of this, but he tries to tune it out. He doesn’t want to overthink anything. That mindset has been a key for him since he’s embarked on his professional career. In his final year at South Florida in 2022, Kerkering struggled. He was pitching out of the bullpen and in the rotation, and sometimes in long relief, with little notice on a given day.

He had a 5.72 ERA that season. It’s possible his draft stock dropped because of it. But amidst the chaos, Kerkering realized where he fits best. Harman did, too. He saw that Kerkering’s stuff would tick up when he pitched out of the bullpen.

“He thought he was a warrior, who was not afraid of anything,” Barber said. “That’s the type of mentality that you want to see in the bullpen. If you brought him in with bases loaded, with one out, he wasn’t going to shrink. He was a type of guy who knew what he had, knew how to execute the pitches that he has, and just was not afraid.”

» READ MORE: Murphy: The Braves are a big problem, and the Phillies don’t have the pitching to deal with it. At least, not right now.

“Warrior” is a good word to describe Kerkering. It’s something he embodies. You can see it on his left arm. He has a tattoo in Japanese that reads “conquer til death” on his forearm. He has a face of a tiger on his inner bicep.

In November, he plans to add two more. One will be his uniform numbers to represent each chapter of his life: No. 14 in youth ball, No. 24 in high school, No. 34 in college, and — he hopes — No. 44 in the big leagues. Another will be the Mandalorian, on his left arm, to represent the fictional bounty hunter who likes to do things his own way.

But he said the most important tattoo is on his outer bicep.

“It’s a samurai,” Kerkering said. “I’m a quarter Japanese, and I try to show that as much as I can. It signifies that I’m a warrior.”

» READ MORE: Phillies facing the question plaguing most contenders: Will they run out of pitching?