It was right there in Baseball America’s February scouting report. ”Despite making 10 starts for South Florida in 2022, the Phillies plan to use [Richard Orion Kerkering] as a reliever and believe he can move quickly in that role.”
“Quickly” is right. Today, it was reported by The Athletic’s Matt Gelb that the right-handed pitcher will be the Phillies’ latest prospect promoted to the majors.
The 22-year-old is the 122nd player to go from the Phillies’ High-A affiliate, the Jersey Shore (formerly Lakewood) BlueClaws to the big club — and the only one to have done it in one season.
Kerkering was touching 90 mph in 2018 as a high schooler in Venice, Florida. His team had appeared in a record number of championships in a row, then dropped off. Going into that year, they were playing with their teeth clenched, looking to right a wrong.
But young pitcher was openly confident. Against the rival Charlotte Tarpons, Kerkering pitched a complete game, struck out nine, and allowed only three hits to deliver his team a 1-0 win. It was a tight margin, but it was all he needed.
“Once I got that first run, I knew I felt good and had it working,” Kerkering told reporters. “One run or five runs, I knew I could hit my spots and not give up runs tonight.”
His next start was a mercy rule 11-1 win on Senior Night. Following that was a complete game three-hitter with eight strikeouts. Then a complete game three-hitter with nine strikeouts.
You get the idea.
Kerkering was Venice’s ace and led them into the Final Four state tournament in Fort Myers, where he pitched a complete game in the semifinals. Of course, it was another 10-run mercy rule win, so a “complete game” was only four and a half innings. Nevertheless, Kerkering was deemed ineligible to pitch in the final, which Venice won in extras after the opposing team tried to bring in an ineligible pitcher of their own, which they said they could do because the game had extended past midnight into the following day.
After a thrilling 30-minute discussion of the rules and some even more thrilling hits by Venice’s offense, they finally won, 3-1.
With high school ball now basically easy mode (he finished his career with a 1.05 ERA and opponents hitting .157 against him), it was off the University of Southern Florida for Kerkering, where as a redshirt sophomore he made weekend starts, pitched some long relief, and served as USF’s closer while upping the velocity on his fastball to 93 (though it was said he could hit as high as 97, with a sweeping slider and a change-up in his pocket).
Facing college hitters was more of a challenge, and his stats in the AAC weren’t as pretty.
But the Phillies had seen enough (Kerkering’s spin rates at the Combine had been off the charts) and, as Kyle Schwarber was losing in the Home Run Derby to 40-year-old Albert Pujols, they took Kerkering in the fifth round of the 2022 MLB Amateur Draft. He was deceptive in his delivery, keeping hitters uncomfortable, and his walks and strikeout numbers indicated there was more to develop.
For some players, their journey through the minors is an endless slog; what starts as bus rides with friends and the opportunity of a lifetime becomes a monotonous trudge to the next away game as you constantly wonder if this is the year to hang it up. Maybe, like Drew Maggi of the Pirates this year, they get a fun epilogue to their career in which they come up to the big leagues, log a hit, and everyone claps. It’s an incredible moment, but every minor leaguer wants to reach the majors; to sleep in a nice hotel instead of a car or a stranger’s guest room; to reach the pinnacle of the sport to which they’ve given their lives.
For other players, the minors are just a fun summer.
Kerkering worked through the entire Phillies minor league season over the course of 2023: Nine games in Clearwater (where he allowed no runs), a couple weeks in Jersey (five runs in 21 games), a few in Reading (four runs in 18 games), and a single inning at Lehigh Valley with the IronPigs on Cheesesteaks Night.
And the Phillies, once again, have seen enough.
Part of Kerkering’s promotion is the Phillies’ need for arms. Their pitching staff has shown signs of tiring in the regular season’s final month. There are more and better stats to use, but to keep things simple, they had a 3.81 staff ERA in August that has jumped to 4.60. They have begun losing all the one-run games they used to win. The back of the bullpen has not been nearly as reliable as it was in mid-summer and the rotation has struggled to protect a lead.
To be able to reach into the minors and pull out a fresh arm or two can potentially benefit any contender, and that the Phillies can go for Kerkering at the end of a historic surge through their farm system is at the very least worth a watch.
Kerkering was just named the Paul Owens Award winner for 2023, the award given to the best position player and pitcher in the Phillies minor league system. It’s a good thing they gave it to him yesterday, because Kerkering isn’t a minor leaguer anymore. At least not for a night.