Following Keegan Akin's trip to the paternity list last weekend, the Orioles made a somewhat surprising move by promoting Yennier Cano to the big club despite his struggles in 2022 and the presence of seemingly more reliable options such as Joey Krehbiel and Nick Vespi. The move has paid off. Cano entered the game Friday night in Chicago with the Orioles holding on to a one-run lead and Cano immediately forced Luis Robert to ground into an inning-ending double play and the O's would go on to win the matchup.
In four appearances over the past week, Cano has not allowed a baserunner in 4.1 innings pitched and has struck out four batters. In the same amount of innings for the Orioles last year, Cano gave up nine earned runs and had a 18.69 ERA. The early success is promising for an Orioles team who needs as much bullpen help as they can get, and Cano and Michael Baumann have pleasantly surprised them with strong performances early in the season to bolster a pen that has dealt with injuries and struggles.
The Orioles acquired Cano at the 2022 trade deadline in a trade that sent former closer Jorge Lopez to the Minnesota Twins. Along with Cano, the O's received three other Minor-League pitchers headlined by left-handed starter Cade Povich and the trade officially established the Orioles as sellers at last year's deadline.
As I mentioned earlier, Cano struggled at the big league level in 2022 with a collective 11.50 ERA and 5.78 FIP between Minnesota and Baltimore. One promising sign was his 3.34 FIP in limited run after the trade, which suggests that he may have had some hard luck which pushed his ERA higher than it should have been.
One promising sign for Cano is the amount of ground balls he has forced throughout his professional career. Thus far in 2023, he has an impressive 75% groundball rate and his MLB career groundball rate is 52.2%. Any pitcher that can keep the ball on the ground at that rate is likely to have success as balls on the ground are more likely to turn into outs and are less likely to become extra base hits if an out is not recorded. After all, you cannot give up a home run on a ground ball.
Just for reference, Zack Britton had an 80% groundball rate in his historic 2016 season where he pitched to a 0.54 ERA with 47 saves. Any groundball rate for a pitcher above 50% is impressive and likely means said pitcher should have success as long as he does not walk a ton of batters. In 2022, Cano also allowed a .411 BABIP which suggests that he was extremely unlucky. BABIP is based mostly on luck and a pitcher who gives up a BABIP higher than .300 was unlucky.
The reason Cano has a high groundball rate is that his most used pitch is a sinker. He relies on a 3-pitch mix with a sinker, slider, and changeup and has relied much more on his sinker this season with a 60% usage compared to 40% last year. In turn, he has relied much less on his changeup as he used it 30% of the time last year compared to only 12% this year. Granted, the sample sizes for both seasons are quite small as he does not have much big league experience but it does seem that these trends are playing into his success as the sinker produces a lot of ground balls for weak contact.
His sinker sits in the mid-90s in terms of velocity which makes it difficult to hit when combined with downward movement. His changeup has not been successful since it sits in the low-90s and does not "change" bat speeds as it is supposed to. Of course, as the season progresses, hitters will adjust and Cano will likely need to develop his changeup or another tertiary pitch to remain successful but pitchers like Britton have proven that a dominant sinker is often enough to overpower opposing hitters.
For Baumann, he had a bit more MLB experience than Cano entering this season and made a few starts last year but has struggled in his limited big league experience. Last season, he pitched in 13 games with 4 starts and earned a 4.72 ERA with a solid 3.87 FIP and 86 ERA+.
This season, however, Baumann has turned a corner as he is used solely in relief and has earned the trust of Brandon Hyde to pitch in high-leverage situations. In 8 games, he has a 0.87 ERA in 10.1 innings pitched and has finished four of the eight games he has appeared in. Early on, his ERA+ is an astronomical 528 which suggests that he is 428% better than the average MLB pitcher. He has essentially struck out a batter an inning with 10 strikeouts but has allowed 5 walks which is a higher number than he would like at this point.
The peripheral stats are relatively unkind to Baumann as he has an expected ERA of 3.78 and expected FIP of 4.36 which is much higher than his actual stats in each category. Walks have been an issue throughout his professional career as his walks per 9 innings has been between 4 and 5 most of his minor league career. This high rate is a concerning trend as walks can derail strong pitching performances and pitchers often need high strikeout numbers to supplement the walks.
Similar to Cano, Baumann relies on a three-pitch mix with a fastball, curveball, slider, and a rare changeup. Baumann also sits mid-90s with his fastball as his average velocity on the pitch is 96 miles per hour. He also struggles to change speeds with his changeup as he sits in the low-90s with the pitch. Between 2022 and 2023, Mike has relied less on his slider and more on his curveball as his slider usage was 28.8% in '22 and 18% so far in '23. Conversely, his curveball usage was 18.6% in '22 and 24% so far in '23.
He has also relied on his fastball for more than 50% of his pitches this season and is able to do that when he pitches in short relief stints. He does not allow hard contact often as he ranks in the 89th percentile for barrel percentage which means he has rarely given up hard contact. His fastball velocity also ranks in the 83rd percentile. As mentioned earlier, he continues to struggle with control as his walk rate ranks him in the 22nd percentile according to Baseball Savant.
Both Cano and Baumann have had surprisingly successful seasons in the bullpen thus far and each pitcher has made improvements and changes to their pitch arsenal which has spurred these changes. Whether or not their success is sustainable will be a question for the Orioles who have relied on a strong bullpen the past few seasons to propel themselves into competitiveness.