Yennier Cano is (Ca)No Joke

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the great truisms of modern baseball is that good teams can churn out good relievers at will. The Rays, Dodgers, and Astros do it every year. The Yankees develop so many pitching prospects that they’ve created a side hustle trading them for help elsewhere. The Guardians, Brewers, and Mariners are no slouches. The next dominant reliever on those squads might not be in the majors yet or even on people’s prospect radar.

You can add the Orioles to that list. Last year, Jorge López broke out and netted them four players in trade, while Félix Bautista also broke out and is now the closer. It gets better than that, though – one of the players the Orioles got back in the López trade is Yennier Cano, who hardly seemed like a marquee addition. Already 28 and with only 13.2 (bad) major league innings to his name, he looked like an up-and-down reliever if you’re an optimist. He was 38th on our list of the top 38 Orioles prospects before the year started. Hey, at least he was listed!

Yeah, uh, about that. In an admittedly tiny seven innings of major league work this year, Cano has posted otherworldly numbers. He’s struck out nine of the 20 batters he’s faced, hasn’t walked anyone, and hasn’t even allowed a hit. For what it’s worth, he also pitched three scoreless innings in Triple-A before being called up. It looks like the Orioles have done it again.

Given that we’re working with such a small sample, focusing on Cano’s individual pitches is a better way of assessing his talent than just saying “he’s literally unhittable.” We’ll start, as Cano does, with his heavy sinker. And when I say heavy, I mean heavy. Here, take a look:

From that low arm slot, the ball just vanishes. It’s an absolute nightmare for righties; it tails nearly a foot to the arm side and actually drops vertically even before accounting for gravity. There are only five pitchers with more negative vertical movement on their sinker so far this year: Alex Claudio, Ryan Thompson, Tim Hill, Adam Cimber, and Tyler Rogers. All five of those guys have much lower release points than Cano — at least a foot lower in all cases, and usually two or three.

In other words, Cano’s sinker is an outlier even among major league pitchers. The closest comparison I can come up with is Justin Lawrence’s sinker, or maybe Tanner Houck’s if he threw it more often. It’s a tough pitch to evaluate, and also a tough pitch to hit. The shape and velocity lead to a ton of takes; Cano is running a 41.3% called plus swinging strike rate (CSW%) on his sinker so far this year, the seventh-best mark in baseball out of 189 pitchers who have thrown at least 25 sinkers. The guys ahead of him on the list are pretty good, too: José Alvarado is the best in baseball at it, Aaron Nola is second, and pitch twin Tanner Houck is fifth.

That’s not a phenomenal number in the broader context of all the pitches in baseball. Ross Stripling has a 58.1% CSW% on his curveball this year, for example. But for a sinker, it’s outstanding, because batters aren’t exactly doing damage when they make contact anyway. Opponents have put eight Cano sinkers into play this year: six grounders, a fly ball, and a soft liner to third. We’re not talking about scorched grounders, even; here’s the hardest-hit one:

The biggest challenge with a sinker like this is location. It moves so much that Cano hasn’t always had great control of it. He ran a 16.5% walk rate in his short major league experience last year and had plenty of ugly walk numbers during his time in the minors. This year, though, he’s throwing it in the strike zone more than 70% of the time. When you have a pitch that strange and good, you might as well put it in the zone and see what opposing hitters can do with it. The answer, so far, is not much.

Of course, one thing they can do with it is foul it off. Sinkers might get a lot of called strikes, but they’re hard to throw past someone; the movement profile just doesn’t work that way. Cano is running a 45% strikeout rate, and he’s not doing it with his sinker, great as the pitch might be. No, for that he needs a change of pace:

I had to watch that video five times to truly appreciate the depth of this pitch. Look at where the ball crosses the plate, then look at where Adley Rutschman catches it. You think Cano’s sinker is heavy? His changeup is wearing lead boots. Amusingly, the spin on the pitch doesn’t give it any extra downward movement. What happens instead is that he kills so much lift that the slower speed makes it vanish. Per Baseball Savant, his changeup falls 5.3 inches more than the average changeup thrown with similar velocity and also tails 2.5 extra inches.

Hitting a 90 mph pitch that falls off the table like that is easier said than done, and it’s not even easily said. Cano has only thrown 17 changeups this year, so take this with one of those giant salt crystals you drop in pasta water, but opponents have swung at eight changeups and come up empty seven times. You just can’t hit it, particularly because he does a great job of disguising it as a sinker out of his hand.

The bind for a hitter is awful. Take a few sinkers because you can’t do anything with them, and you’ll end up with two strikes. Then you’re forced to swing at a sinker, but surprise! Instead of a sinker, he threw a freaking bowling ball. Thanks for playing, come back tomorrow and try again.

Oh yeah – Cano has a slider too. It’s not the best pitch in his bag, but it serves a definite purpose. It plays off of his sinker by starting on the same plane but breaking the opposite way horizontally. It’s the kind of pitch that plays better than it looks, but still, here’s how it looks:

The joke here is that batters swing at something that they expect to start off the plate and tail back onto the outer half. Instead, the ball never changes direction and continues its normal path out of the zone. Whoopsie! Knowing that Cano has that outrageous sinker, batters think about it, and it makes the slider better. Only righties, though; that kind of no-movement pitch from his arm angle is a no go against lefties, so he abandons it in favor of even more changeups against them.

Can this performance hold up for the entire year? I mean, no. He hasn’t allowed a hit. I’m pretty sure that won’t keep happening, even if he puts up an excellent season overall. But if you’re wondering why hitting is so hard, Cano is a great example. He was unplayably bad last year. He started throwing the ball in the strike zone more often and voila, unhittable shutdown reliever. Good luck out there, hitters. You’ll need it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

The best part is how he looks exactly like Dennis Eckersley after striking dudes out.