Is Yennier Cano the best reliever in baseball right now?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles / Patrick Smith/GettyImages

Let's be honest. When the Baltimore Orioles recalled unheralded right-hander Yennier Cano from Triple-A Norfolk on Friday, April 14, no one could have predicted the utter dominance that Cano has shown.

It started that night; Manager Brandon Hyde summoned Cano for his season debut with two on and one out and the Orioles nursing a 4-3 lead. And Cano got White Sox star centerfielder Luis Robert Jr. to bounce into a double play. Crisis averted. Hyde stuck with Cano for the bottom of the eighth, where he proceeded to induce two ground outs and one strike out for a perfect 1.2 innings.

This began an incredible streak for the young right-hander, who went on to retire 24 straight batters, tying Fred Holdsworth's Orioles record for most consecutive batters retired. In other words, Cano began the 2023 season throwing 8 perfect innings. And while the streak ended when Cano plunked Red Sox infielder Justin Turner with a pitch, he did now allow his first base hit until three appearances later( on an infield single to Kansas City's Maikel Garcia) and still has not walked a batter or allowed a run.

All told, Cano has allowed no runs, no walks, and a mere three hits in an incredible 18.2 innings this year. And there's no sign of Cano slowing down, as Cano just secured a huge save and series win on Wednesday night against the league-leading Rays. He has already been worth 1.2 WAR this season, second on the entire team to Jorge Mateo's 1.3. His WHIP stands at an absurd 0.16.

Pitching in the Major Leagues was not always this successful for Cano. The 29 year-old Havana, Cuba native struggled mightily in his first taste of big league baseball in 2022, pitching in ten games for the Minnesota Twins and posting a heinous 9.22 ERA over 13.2 innings. Cano was part of the trade that sent Cade Povich and two others to the Orioles in exchange for close Jorge Lopez. And if you can believe it, Cano pitched even worse in Baltimore, pitching to a whopping 18.69 ERA, 3.23 WHIP, and "earning" -0.4 WAR in only three outings.

Heading into the offseason, several baseball writers, myself included, did not expect much from Cano this year. Yes, he had good stuff, but he would be entering the season at age 29. I am not ashamed to say how wrong I was about Cano, stating in an article in November that "Cano pitched poorly in his three games with the Orioles and is unlikely to play a major role in the 2023 bullpen." Mea Culpa.

Cano's 2023 Spring Training provided more of the same struggles but some signs of positivity: a 5.14 ERA, but a WHIP of 0.86 and ten strikeouts over seven innings. Still the Orioles sent Cano to Triple-A Norfolk to start the year, where he pitched well and eventually earned the call-up on April 21 in Chicago. And as they say, the rest is history.

So what is it about Cano that makes him so untouchable? For one thing, he has not walked a batter in 18.2 innings after walking 16 batters in 18 innings in 2022. He also allowed 26 hits in 18 innings in 2022, compared to just 3 this year. Taking a deeper look, Cano's changeup has been a huge driver of his success, producing an amazing 44.2% whiff rate and 15 strike outs. In other words, players swing and miss at Cano's changeup nearly half the time he throws it.

For context, an average whiff rate is 23.28 percent. Not only has Cano not allowed a single hit off the changeup this year, but he also has an expected batting average of .075 and expected slugging percentage of .084 off it. It is, quite literally, unhittable. Cano's main pitch, his sinker, has been nearly as good, as he has allowed a microscopic .071 batting average and .155 expected batting average off of it.

Let's look at how he stacks up against other Major League relievers to see if Cano really is the best reliever in baseball so far. First, he is number one in WHIP among pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings with his 0.16 number. The next best WHIP comes from Houston reliever Phillip Maton, who has pitched to a stellar, but not as good, 0.39 WHIP. Second, Cano's 18.2 scoreless innings are by far the most of any pitcher with a 0.00 ERA, topping the next closest pitcher, the Reds' Lucas Sims, by 8.2 innings. Cano's 18.2 innings without issuing a walk also lead Major League Baseball, with Philadelphia's Jose Alvarado checking in at second with 14.1 walk-less innings.

There are other relief pitchers who are having tremendous seasons thus far. Boston's Kenley Jansen has earned 9 saves while pitching to a 0.77 ERA over 11.2 innings. Good, but not as good as Cano. San Diego's Josh Hader has saved 11 games while pitching to a 1.06 ERA in 17.2 innings. Good, but not "Cano" good. The Mets' David Robertson has pitched to a 0.59 ERA over 15.1 innings. As good as that is, Cano has been better, not allowing a single run while pitching more innings than all of Jansen, Hader and Robertson (despite not joining the Orioles until April 21).

No one could have predicted it, but Yennier Cano has been the best relief pitcher in baseball in 2023. The statistics and the eye test back it up. He is almost literally unhittable and has come out of nowhere to arguably be the most trusted arm in the Orioles' bullpen.

And while Cano is unlikely to pitch to a 0.00 ERA and not walk anyone all season, he appears to be well on his way to an All-Star appearance at this rate. The Cano Show has not only arrived in Baltimore: It has taken Major League Baseball by storm, and does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.