The Midsummer Classic is a little less than 24 hours away. In the American League bullpen will be a pair of Orioles teammates to potentially make their respective first All-Star appearances. While neither player entered the Baltimore organization with much fanfare, their emergence as an elite late-game duo has helped the O’s to a 54-35 record that has them just two games behind the AL-leading Rays.
Félix Bautista first entered the professional ranks as an international signee of the Marlins. He spent two and a half years in the Miami system, didn’t advance past rookie ball, and was released. The Orioles signed him midway through the 2016 campaign. Bautista remained in the low minors for a while, not even reaching Low-A until his age-24 season in 2019.
Given that background, it’s not surprising he never appeared on an organizational top 30 prospects list at Baseball America. He’d go unselected in the Rule 5 draft on a couple occasions before securing a spot on the O’s 40-man roster over the 2021-22 offseason.
As a 27-year-old rookie, he somewhat surprisingly broke camp last year despite walking over 15% of minor league opponents the preceding season. Bautista rewarded the organization’s faith by immediately dominating MLB hitters. He worked to a 2.19 ERA across 65 2/3 innings, striking out a little under 35% of opponents. By year’s end, he’d ascended to a ninth-inning role vacated by a midseason trade we’ll revisit later.
Bautista entered 2023 assured of a high-leverage spot in Brandon Hyde’s bullpen if healthy. The latter caveat was no sure thing in exhibition play. Bautista was hampered early in camp by knee and shoulder issues. Fortunately for the Orioles, he was not only ready to go by Opening Day, he’d taken his game to another level.
The towering 6’8″ hurler was MLB’s best reliever in the first half. He’s thrown 42 innings with a 1.07 ERA, locking down 23 of 28 save opportunities. Bautista has incredibly punched out 84 of the 165 hitters who’ve stepped in against him. His 50.9% strikeout rate leads the majors by a wide margin. The 7.7 point gap between Bautista’s figure and Aroldis Chapman’s 43.2% second-place mark exceeds the difference between Chapman and Trevor Richards in 11th place (minimum 20 relief innings).
Among that same group, only Robert Stephenson is getting swinging strikes more frequently than Bautista, who has gotten whiffs on 20.9% of his offerings. Jhoan Durán, Chapman and Jordan Hicks are the three pitchers averaging better than the even 100 MPH on Bautista’s four-seam. There’s an argument Bautista is the best reliever in the game and he’s on his way to getting some down-ballot Cy Young support this fall.
Yennier Cano isn’t likely to appear on any Cy Young ballots, but he could find some Rookie of the Year support. His emergence might be even more unexpected than Bautista’s. Cano didn’t get to the big leagues until after his 28th birthday. The Twins signed the right-hander out of Cuba a few seasons back and selected him onto the MLB roster last May. He made 10 appearances in a depth role for Minnesota, allowing more than an earned run per inning.
At last summer’s deadline, the O’s and Twins lined up on an aforementioned trade. Baltimore dealt then-closer Jorge López to Minnesota for a four-player package. Cano was the only one of the group with any big league experience but arguably perceived as the fourth player in the return. He spent most of the late-summer at Triple-A Norfolk, only pitching three times for Baltimore at the MLB level.
Cano opened this season back in Norfolk. The O’s recalled him in the middle of April. The 6’4″ righty never gave Baltimore an opportunity to send him back down. Cano has posted a 1.48 ERA over 42 2/3 innings. He quickly jumped up the depth chart and has already picked up four saves and 19 holds.
Unlike Bautista, Cano isn’t racking up whiffs. His 23.9% strikeout rate and 10.5% swinging strike percentage are around average for a reliever. He has excelled by limiting contact quality, keeping the ball on the ground at a huge 64.3% clip. He owns the fifth-highest grounder rate among relievers with 20+ frames.
Cano had always shown a knack for keeping on the ball on the ground throughout his minor league tenure. He’d been prone to bouts of wildness throughout that time, though, routinely walking opponents at a double-digit percent clip. His strike-throwing has been exceptional this season, as he’s handed out free passes to less than 4% of batters faced. Whether he can keep pounding the zone at this rate remains to be seen, but the grounders should make him a quality high-leverage arm even if his walks were to move closer to league average.
The Bautista-Cano pairing has become one of the game’s most effective relief duos. The Orioles probably didn’t anticipate this kind of dominance from either pitcher, but their respective acquisitions — Bautista as a minor league signee, Cano as a small part of a bigger trade — are strong credits to their scouting staffs. They’ll be in the national spotlight tomorrow in Seattle, and they’re doing their part to get Baltimore back to the postseason after a long rebuild.
Images courtesy of USA Today Sports.