Learn the name: Yennier Cano.
A month ago, I had admittedly never heard of the 29-year-old rookie, forgetting that he was part of the Jorge Lopez trade last season between the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins. And I definitely did not recall any of the 13 appearances he made between the two clubs, which is understandable given that he allowed 23 runs, 26 hits and 16 walks in 18 innings.
Now, Cano is suddenly — and somewhat miraculously — the best reliever in baseball, at least through the end of May.
In 25 ⅔ innings so far in 2023, he has allowed one run and saved three games, but that barely touches his statistical supremacy. He’s allowed ten hits — with three coming on Tuesday night against the Yankees — for a .120 batting average allowed and has struck out 28 batters and walked nobody. That’s some Mariano Rivera-level of control and dominance.
In fact, Cano began the season with 21 ⅔ scoreless innings. The great Rivera had just two longer scoreless stretches in his career, including a 28-game scoreless streak in 1999 that covered 30 ⅔ innings. During that span, Rivera allowed a .329 OPS. Cano has allowed a .288 OPS through his 20 appearances for an unheard of WHIP: 0.39.
Yes, it’s a sample size of two months, but it’s also coming from a pitcher who was one of the worst in the majors last season. Among those who pitched at least 15 innings, only four allowed a higher WHIP than Cano. The Orioles, however, saw something in him. Despite that performance in 2022, they kept him on the 40-man roster this past offseason.
Cano did begin this season at Triple-A Norfolk, so it’s not like Baltimore left spring training dreaming of Cano teaming up with Felix Bautista, last year’s breakout discovery, for a lethal 1-2 bullpen punch that has helped keep the Orioles breathing down the necks of the Tampa Bay Rays with the two best records in the majors. Cano, listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, came out of Cuba, signing with the Twins in 2019 for $750,000 when he was 25 years old. MLB.com ranked him as the No. 2 international prospect in the 2018 class even though scouts viewed him as a reliever. Control issues in the minors led to the Twins including him in the Lopez trade.
It’s all so unexpected that I had to see what the heck is going on here. I went through and watched video of all 84 batters Cano has faced and each of his 317 pitches. For the record, the pitch count: 170 sinkers that have averaged around 95 mph; 121 changeups that batters have hit 0.83 against; and 26 sliders, all thrown to right-handed batters.
Let’s take a look at game-by-game analysis of what Cano has done to see if we can figure out why players struggle to hit him.
Game 1: April 14 vs. Chicago White Sox
A quick overview: Cano slings the ball from a three-quarters slot, although he gets very little extension in his delivery. He finishes fairly upright with his right leg kicking out at a 90-degree angle during his follow-through. There’s a little front shoulder dip, and if I freeze the frame, you can see he hides the ball pretty well as it comes from right behind his head, so it feels like maybe there’s some deception going on there. One thing I noticed that differs from last season: In 2022, his front left foot was parallel to his right foot as he stood in the stretch position, while now it’s a little offset to his left.
Fast forward to his 2023 debut on April 14. He records five outs, getting Luis Robert Jr. to ground into a double play and then getting Andrew Vaughn out on a bouncer to shortstop (after Vaughn thought he had walked on a 3-1 pitch) the following inning. He catches Eloy Jimenez looking on a 3-2 slider and retires Hanser Alberto on a tapper in front of the mound to finish off his first outing of the season.
Game 2: April 15 vs. Chicago White Sox
Cano enters in a 5-5 game in the ninth against the heart of the Chicago lineup and fans Robert, gets Vaughn to ground to third and strikes out Jimenez, who flails helplessly on a 2-2 changeup that dives out of the strike zone.
Games 3 and 4: April 18/19 vs. Washington Nationals
Cano may have started the season in Triple-A, but Orioles manager Brandon Hyde put him right into pressure-packed moments upon his recall. Cano gets a hold in a 1-0 game on April 18 and then comes on with two on and one out the next night in a 3-0 game and retires both batters.
Game 5: April 22 vs. Detroit Tigers
Five up, five down. Akil Baddoo’s helmet comes off on one swing-and-miss on a changeup. As you might guess, Cano gets great movement on the sinker, often riding it into right-handed batters. The slider is more of a horizontal “sweeper” version that many pitchers are using right now, although Statcast does call it a slider. It rarely ends up in the strike zone — just five of his 21 sliders have been in the zone — but it presents a different look. The changeup has been unhittable so far; think of peak Fernando Rodney, who also relied heavily on a sinker-changeup arsenal (although, he also used a four-seam fastball).
Games 6 and 7: April 24/26 vs. Boston Red Sox
Cano gets his first save on April 24, entering with a 5-4 lead and a runner on second. He strikes out Enrique Hernandez (who doesn’t like the 3-2 call, but the sinker appears to catch the corner) and Triston Casas and gets Jarren Durran to line softly to third base. In his next game two days later, he finally allows his first runner when he plunks Justin Turner on the elbow with a fastball.
Games 10 and 11: May 2/4 vs. Kansas City Royals
Cano allows his first hit: An infield single to Maikel Garcia, who chops the ball high off the plate and over Cano’s head. The second hit he allows goes to Bobby Witt Jr. on a grounder into right field with a robust exit velocity of 69.9 mph.
Game 12: May 7 vs. Atlanta Braves
An impressive two-inning outing: six up, six down. Cano fans Matt Olson, who swings on a 2-2 changeup, to finish the bottom of the eighth and relishes the moment, lingering for an extra second at the end of his delivery as he stares in at home plate — drawing a wry grin from Olson as he walks away.
Games 13 and 14: May 9/10 vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Cano enters with a 4-2 lead and a runner on, and Yandy Diaz hits the hardest ball off him yet at 105.9 mph, but Jorge Mateo makes a nice play to his left and starts a 6-4-3 double play. Luke Raley then tops that with a 107.6-mph ground single to right field off a first-pitch sinker in the middle of the zone that didn’t move much. Cano comes back the next night to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth for his third save, fanning Josh Lowe on a changeup to end it.
Game 15: May 13 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
Games 16 and 17: May 16/17 vs. Los Angeles Angels
Three more scoreless appearances, three more Orioles victories. Gunnar Henderson makes a nice back-handed play at third base while playing in to save one potential hit against the Pirates. Tucupita Marcano follows with a hard-hit one-hop double off the wall on a sinker left up in the zone, so Henderson’s play ends up saving a run. Not surprisingly, Cano has allowed a .146 BABIP, but in going through the play-by-play, I’ve seen he hasn’t needed a lot of spectacular defense behind him. His expected batting average via Statcast is .162.
Game 18: May 19 vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Cano finally allows a run. Kevin Kiermaier leads off with a line single to right field off a pretty good changeup down in the zone. Just a nice piece of hitting. George Springer then inside-outs a first-pitch sinker to right field with the ball landing just inside the foul line for a ground-rule double. The run scores when Bo Bichette grounds out to second base, but Cano escapes further damage by striking out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. swinging on a 3-2 changeup that starts off over the plate and comes back to the outside corner. Good luck trying to hit that pitch.
Game 19: May 20 vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Cano comes out tied 8-8 in the eighth and notches another scoreless outing as the Orioles go on to win in 10 innings. Daulton Varsho battles for eight pitches before grounding out on a 3-2 changeup, as Cano gets Varsho to chase a pitch just off the plate. Cano’s ability to manipulate that changeup has been a huge key — he can get it to run back off the outside corner to right-handed batters while also throwing away to left-handed batters, inducing a lot of weak grounders along the way.
Game 20: May 23 vs. New York Yankees
Well, this was a fun one if you missed it. Cano pitched two scoreless innings to protect a 5-4 lead, although the Yankees threatened when they put runners at first and third with one out. They tried a safety squeeze, but Cano pounced on the bunt and threw out Gleyber Torres at home — and gave his now signature stare in response. When he fanned Anthony Volpe the next inning: another pose. When he fanned Oswaldo Cabrera on a diving, unhittable change, a fist pump into the glove and another pose. (Alas, Bautista blew the save when Aaron Judge homered in the ninth and the Yankees won it in the 10th.)
In two months, we’ve seen a pitcher grow from just trying to prove himself as a major leaguer to staring down one of the best power hitters in the game following a strikeout. Confidence is a wonderful thing.
Can Cano keep it going? As Hyde said earlier this season, “He throws bowling balls up there” — a classic description for a pitcher who throws a low-spin sinker that induces a lot of grounders. Cano’s average launch angle allowed in 19 games this season is minus-8.7 degrees. He’s obviously throwing strikes, which was the area of concern for him a season ago during his short time in the majors. Indeed, watching some video from 2022, he was all over the place with his fastball — high, wide, low, inside. So far in 2023, he has the necessary consistency in his delivery and with that bowling-ball sinker, allowing him to get to the changeup (or slider).
We all know the importance of bullpens when starters rarely go past 100 pitches and the average game in 2023 requires a team to throw 147 pitches. Building a strong bullpen is easily aspired to and not as easily constructed. One of the keys to success in recent seasons has been front offices discovering potential bullpen arms in the form of struggling major leaguers, or minor leaguers who may need a new pitch, and figuring out what can be done to help turn those players into effective relievers.
The Orioles did that last year with Lopez and Bautista. Originally claimed off waivers from the Royals, Lopez had struggled as a starter but became an All-Star closer in 2022 when shifted to relief. When Bautista simultaneously emerged as a 27-year-old rookie, that allowed Baltimore to trade Lopez to Minnesota — getting Cano as one of the players in return.
Behind Cano and Bautista, the Orioles now have the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors — and a chance to battle for a division title. That’s a nice cycle of success.