PHILADELPHIA — The call came 30 minutes before noon Friday and, six hours later, Orion Kerkering played catch at Citizens Bank Park. It was preposterous. He began this season in the Florida State League and now he shares a clubhouse with big-league stars he played with only in MLB The Show. He planned to get a haircut Friday morning. Instead, once he achieved his goal sooner than anyone expected, he phoned his dad to tell him. They did it.
“Pretty absurd moment,” Kerkering, 22, said.
This was the first test in one of the most unusual 10-day tryouts the Phillies have ever held. Kerkering, a hard-throwing reliever with a slider that generates the highest praise, has a real chance to pitch in the postseason for the Phillies. It was not a consideration until this week when concern about the club’s bullpen depth combined with Kerkering’s one appearance at Triple-A Lehigh Valley made the Phillies take a leap.
“Well,” manager Rob Thomson said, “I hope he’s a high-leverage guy coming out of the bullpen for a right-handed pocket. That’s what I hope.”
The Phillies are going to challenge Kerkering, who pitched at four different levels this season before reaching the majors. It’s an unprecedented path in recent MLB history. Since 1992, according to research by Stats Perform, the only player to pitch in Low A, High A, Double A and Triple A in the same season as pitching in the MLB postseason was the Yankees’ Jose Contreras in 2003. Contreras was 31 that year.
This is different. This is not just a test of Kerkering’s stuff, but also his mind. The Phillies think that is special, too, and it’s obvious when Kerkering speaks. He owns a 1.51 ERA with a 38 percent strikeout rate and a 6 percent walk rate in 53 2/3 minor-league innings. Why does he think he’s had the season he’s had?
“Just not caring at that point,” Kerkering said. “I don’t really care about the stats. Talking with some guys through the year, it’s like, their goals are too specific. So, not caring about what happens. Just caring in the moment. Whatever happens happens.”
This is something Bryce Harman, the Phillies’ area scout who recommended Kerkering, remembers well. Kerkering bounced between roles at the University of South Florida. He was best as a reliever, but many scouts did not get consistent looks at Kerkering. The slider was the first impression.
The rest, you had to see it.
“He’s always on attack mode and doesn’t back down,” Harman said Friday. “Even when he was in college, he wanted to slam the door and close out games. He’s got that type of mentality.”
But even that cannot explain how a fifth-round pick went from Low A to the majors one year after he was drafted. Kerkering caught a wave and he’s ridden it far — further than anyone would have suggested.
“Now I’m here,” Kerkering said, “and there’s a reason why I’m here.”
Until this year, Kerkering had never been a full-time reliever. Brian Kaplan, the club’s director of pitching development, was among those to recommend the Phillies commit to Kerkering in the bullpen from the start of spring training. It’s where he belonged, in Kaplan’s mind.
Kerkering took to the role. “I would say he’s definitely been on the radar since the first bullpen I saw in spring training down at the minor-league complex,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said. Kerkering was in High A by the second week of May. But no one wants to be accused of over-hyping a kid in A-ball. Respected evaluators who went to see Kerkering pitch and reported he had stuff that could get big-league hitters out now were met with raised eyebrows.
Kerkering was in Double A at the beginning of July. That’s when Cotham started to dissect video of every single Kerkering outing.
“Watching him, it looks like a big leaguer,” Cotham said. “I mean, it’s a lot of strikes. The slider is one of the better pitches in baseball.”
“I mean, obviously the movement is incredible,” Cotham said. “It’s hard. It’s got visually the late break that isn’t typical with a lot of sweepers. So it’s a sweeper that’s hard but breaks a little bit later. It’s sharp. But the biggest thing is just the strike-throwing ability. I mean, it’s as good as it gets. Because it’s really tough on those pitches. It’s really tough landing it in the zone. And his skill to land that in the zone is as good as anybody’s. I mean, it’s (Aaron) Nola curveball command with a sweeper as a reliever, which just isn’t that normal.”
Kerkering will be the first Phillies player to make his big-league debut the year after being drafted since Nola in 2015. The last Phillies pitcher to make his MLB debut in September and appear in that year’s postseason was Marty Bystrom in 1980.
Kerkering’s promotion was felt Friday across the entire organization. He has had more teammates this season than anyone employed by the Phillies. He’s worked with every minor-league coach. It was a source of pride for Harman, the area scout who had his first player reach the majors. So many different people had a part — big and small — in helping Kerkering to this remarkable ascent.
He heard from a lot of them.
“It’s weird seeing all the guys congratulating me,” Kerkering said. “It’s like going back and forth packing all my stuff and hearing my phone buzz the whole time. It’s non-stop. I feel bad for not texting back right away.”
Kerkering attended Game 3 of the World Series last year. His uncle said he knew a guy who could score tickets. Kerkering just had to cover the airfare. “That’s easy,” he said. “Done and over with.” He brought his dad and his girlfriend with him. They sat in the upper deck.
He visualized what it might be like to play on that stage.
“Definitely last year, just sitting there, like how cool it would be to play here,” Kerkering said. “Obviously in, like, two or three years. Always the projections were like 2025 or whatever. Now it’s two years before that. You just never know what it’s going to be like in the future. Take every moment as you can.”
The Phillies have a need for another trusted righty in the bullpen outside of Craig Kimbrel. They are unsure about Seranthony Domínguez, who has never resembled the dominant reliever from a season ago. They are confident in Jeff Hoffman, but another option with big-time stuff like Kerkering cannot hurt.
Thomson would like to pitch Kerkering three or four times before the season ends. The Phillies need to know if he can handle this. But they would not have promoted Kerkering if they didn’t think he had a decent chance of succeeding. He might not be at the top of the bullpen depth chart in October, but he could be helpful.
“I know I’m still young and new to everything,” Kerkering said. “I know the possibility (of pitching in the postseason) is maybe not there. But it’s still always there. You never know. You can’t worry about outside stuff. Everything’s going to happen for a reason. If you start thinking about it, you’re going to press too hard. Just keep moving forward.”
That’s all Kerkering has done for six months.
(Top photo of Orion Kerkering throwing before Friday’s Mets-Phillies game: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)