Yennier Cano’s Orioles debut last season could not have gone worse.
Pitching in a blowout loss to the Red Sox in September, Cano couldn’t locate his pitches. He walked three batters in the ninth inning, including one with the bases loaded, and was replaced by outfielder Ryan McKenna.
The command issues were nothing new for Cano. The right-hander has always had the stuff — the heavy sinker, whiffling changeup and sharp slider — to get hitters out, but whether he could find the plate enough to have a big league career was in question.
That question, it appears, has been answered.
Since he was called up April 14, Cano hasn’t just vaulted himself into a setup role as one of Baltimore’s best bullpen arms; he’s been one of the most dominant relievers in the major leagues, retiring all 17 batters he’s faced across six innings, striking out seven and, miraculously, walking none entering Monday’s game against the Boston Red Sox.
“The main thing is just trusting that my stuff is good enough,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones.
Cano’s transformation from a wild, inconsistent reliever into a pitcher with the moxie to strike a pose after punchouts might be surprising, but it isn’t random.
His sudden command is the result of an offseason’s worth of work to fix a flaw in his mechanics. Cano, who throws with a three-quarters release, was flying open with his front shoulder, making it harder for him to locate his pitches, a mix that is already difficult to control because of the movement he generates. All three of his pitches — his 95 mph sinker, 90 mph changeup and 87 mph slider — move more than the MLB averages for those offerings. His sinker, which he throws more than half the time, has an eye-popping 32.9 inches of drop and 18.2 inches of arm-side run.
But keeping his front shoulder closed, Cano said, allows him to use his sinker “through the zone” and make his pitches to “do all the work for me.”
“In the past, a big reason why I had command issues is because my front arm would open up a lot,” Cano said. “Over the offseason, I really focused on that. Now I’m able to stay much more closed, and that’s been the main reason why I’ve had a lot more success with command.”
Shortly after the Orioles acquired Cano last summer as part of the Jorge López trade with the Minnesota Twins, Triple-A Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey said they started working on fixing his front shoulder. To keep it closed, Cano said he used resistance bands during his bullpens to serve as a reminder if he started pulling off.
“When you’re flying open, you can generate some really good pitches, but you don’t necessarily know where they’re going,” Ramsey said. “You’re gonna get guys that just don’t swing at it, which leads to the walks and the hitter’s counts that lead to some of the not-so-pretty innings.”
In the minors, Cano had a high, but manageable, 11.4% walk rate alongside a 27.2% strikeout rate. But in his brief time in the majors last year, his control worsened. In 13 2/3 innings with the Twins, the 6-foot-4 Cuban walked 11 batters and posted a 9.22 ERA. In his 4 1/3 innings with Baltimore in the final month, he walked five with an 18.69 ERA.
But throughout the struggles, Cano always had the stuff to get big league hitters out.
“Honestly, throwing strikes,” manager Brandon Hyde said when asked how Cano had changed. “The stuff was great last year, too, but not the ability to start the ball in the strike zone and get swings and misses.”
“You could just see how talented he was,” Ramsey said. “Even when he wasn’t hitting the zone and getting the results that you’re seeing right now, you knew the talent was there. The stuff is gross.”
Cano isn’t the only Orioles reliever who once struggled with command before finding a groove. Left-hander Cionel Pérez, also from Cuba, walked 15.4% of batters in the majors before 2022 but nearly cut that in half as one of the sport’s best relievers last season.
“It was something we talked about last year and this year in spring. The main thing for us is having control and commanding our pitches,” Pérez said through Quinones. “We know we have the stuff, so as long as we can command our pitches, we know everything’s gonna work out.”
Cano entered spring training on the outside looking in for a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen. He ultimately was sent to Triple-A to begin the season, but Pérez knew it wouldn’t be long before the sinkerballer was back in the show.
“I knew he’d be back up here pretty quick,” Pérez said. “He’s just special, he has a lot of talent.”
Cano’s success, however, hasn’t come in easy situations. He joined the team at a time when the bullpen was taxed, and Hyde thrust him into a high-leverage spot in his first appearance. Cano handled that first outing — 1 2/3 superb innings against the Chicago White Sox — with aplomb, and he’s produced similar results since.
To record his 18 outs, Cano has used just 69 pitches, including 67% for strikes. He got five outs Saturday on just 19 pitches to become the first Orioles reliever to retire his first 17 batters of a season since Fred Holdsworth retired 24 in a row in 1976.
Of those 17 batters, seven were strikeouts as Cano has posted a 35.5% whiff rate — well above the MLB average of 24.7%. Eight of the 10 batted balls against him were on the ground, as Cano’s heavy sinker has helped produce an average opponent launch angle of negative-16.3 degrees — an astoundingly low figure that is almost 30 degrees better than league average.
His electric stuff and dominant results have earned the 29-year-old high praise from his manager and teammates. Hyde called it the “Cano show” after his impressive first outing. Four days later, the Orioles skipper referred to Cano’s sinker as a “bowling ball” and said the way he was throwing made it easy to trust him in high-leverage spots.
After he made multiple Tigers hitters look lost Saturday, catcher James McCann, a 10-year veteran who has caught some of the best pitchers this century, said Cano’s success isn’t a mystery.
“It’s pretty simple,” McCann said. “He’s nasty.”
What’s to come?
The Orioles were 4-5 after their most recent series against an American League East club. In 12 games since, most of which came against clubs expected to finish well below .500 this season, the Orioles went 10-2 and have the second-best record in the AL.
Now, Baltimore (14-7) has a three-game series at home against the Red Sox. The Orioles lost two of three against Boston to open the season and then did the same against the New York Yankees. The Orioles went 34-42 against the AL East in 2022.
After the three-game tilt versus the Red Sox, the Orioles complete their season series against the Detroit Tigers with a four-game set over the weekend.
What was good?
The starting pitching.
In fact, it can’t get much better. In five games last week, the Orioles’ rotation allowed just one run in 31 innings, striking out 34 and allowing just 19 hits and eight walks.
Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish combined for 12 2/3 shutout innings against the Washington Nationals. Against the Tigers, Tyler Wells pitched a career-high seven scoreless innings, Kyle Gibson tied his career-high with 11 strikeouts and Grayson Rodriguez posted his first scoreless start with five clean innings.
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The bullpen wasn’t too shabby, either, allowing just two runs in its work as the Orioles surrendered only three runs in the five contests.
It’s hard to pick a negative from a 5-0 week, but the offense had a steep drop.
After carrying the struggling rotation for the first two weeks of the season, the bats went cold at the right time considering the pitching staff’s recent dominance.
The Orioles entered the week ranked in the top six in runs scored, on-base percentage, OPS, stolen bases and home runs. But Baltimore scored just 14 runs (2.8 per game) last week and hit .166.
On the farm
One of the only teams in professional baseball to have a week as good as the Orioles was the Norfolk Tides.
Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate went 5-1 last week and outscored its opponents, 43-20. The Tides have been one of the best teams in minor league baseball so far this season with a 15-5 record and a plus-64 run differential. No team in Triple-A has a better winning percentage than Norfolk’s .750.
Norfolk was powered by Orioles No. 4 prospect Colton Cowser, who hit three home runs last week, including two on Saturday. Starting pitchers Bruce Zimmermann, Drew Rom, DL Hall and Cole Irvin all pitched at least five innings and allowed two or fewer runs in their starts.