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Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano are redefining what a dominant bullpen duo looks like

Bautista was the known quantity coming into this season, Cano the unknown. Together they are combining to form the most intimidating one-two punch of relievers in MLB.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Baltimore Orioles Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

I was in attendance during last week’s 2-1 win over the Rays that saw the O’s win their first series against baseball’s best team. When the bottom of the 8th inning ended, I expected to see the familiar theatrics that signal that start of Mountain Time at Camden Yards. Instead, Yennier Cano strolled out of the Baltimore bullpen to close out Tampa Bay.

For most teams, pitching anyone other than your All-Star caliber closer in the ninth inning of one-run game against baseball’s best team would be a nerve-wracking proposition. Instead, when Cano entered the game against the Rays, I remained perfectly calm and assured that the O’s would finish off the win. Such is the luxury the Orioles possess with both Cano and Félix Bautista lurking at the back end of their bullpen. When the later innings come around and the Orioles have a lead, it gets real scary—but not for us.

In the Camden Yards era, the Orioles have had plenty of dominant closers. From Gregg Olson to Jim Johnson to Zack Britton, a competitive Orioles team is almost always accompanied by a ninth-inning reliever that strikes fear in opposing hitters. Between 1989 and 1993, while Olson was collecting 160 saves with a 179 ERA+, the O’s had three winning seasons and averaged 81 wins. When Johnson posted back-to-back 50-save seasons in 2012 and 2013, the Orioles averaged 89 wins and broke a 15-year postseason drought. Britton’s dominant run between 2014 and 2016 that saw him rack up 120 saves with a 299 ERA+ also coincided with the O’s first division championship and first ALCS appearance since 1997.

However, none of those imposing closers had the type of running mate that Cano is for Bautista this season. For Olson, his long-time setup man was Mark Williamson, who posted his best season in 1990 with a 2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 6.3 K/9 rate. In Johnson’s two-year stretch, his primary set-up men were Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day. The submarining O’Day was perhaps the best of the bunch, posting a 2.23 ERA over those two seasons along with a 0.97 ERA and 8.9 K/9.

Perhaps the closest we’ve ever seen to the dominance currently displayed by Bautista and Cano is the performance of Britton and O’Day in the 2015 season. The Orioles closer had a 1.92 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while O’Day had the best season of his Orioles career, posting a 1.52 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and a career best 11.3 K/9. However, in Britton’s legendary 2016 season, Brad Brach assumed the role as primary set-up man—and delivered a 2.05 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.5 K/9 season that was All-Star worthy but not exactly dominant.

Those numbers put into perspective just how incredibly special the combination of Bautista and Cano have been this season. The Mountain has continued to grow more intimidating in his sophomore campaign after a dominant rookie season. Bautista made a name for himself in 2022 with a blazing fastball that consistently reached triple digits and a splitter that was nigh unhittable. While the O’s closer has been slightly more wild in 2023, he’s also continued to improve on what makes him so incredibly effective. In his rookie season, Bautista ranked in the 97th percentile in K% and the 92nd percentile in Whiff rate. This year, he’s risen to the 99th percentile in K% and is in the 100th percentile for Whiff rate, per Baseball Savant.

What makes Cano such an impressive complement to Bautista’s presence is how he dominates hitters in a distinctly different manner to Bautista. Whereas the Orioles closer has been effectively wild this year, Cano has shown incredible precision and control. Cano has succeeded with a sinker/change up combo that only averages a 5-mph difference between the two pitches. However, both of these pitches have well above-average vertical movement—constantly diving away from hitters—and Cano uses them to constantly pound the strike zone. Of the 25 pitchers with a xwOBA in the 94th percentile or above, only Cano and Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado have a walk rate in the 100th percentile.

Should the Orioles continue to win at their current clip, having two shutdown options at the back end of the bullpen could be a major factor in their postseason success. Bautista is currently on pace to throw around 77 innings this regular season. After throwing 67 innings as a rookie ball starter in 2017, Bautista never topped more than 46.2 innings in the minors. He threw 65.2 innings last year as a rookie, and some signs of fatigue definitely popped up late in the 2022 season. This year, the Orioles know they can use Cano as an alternative to Bautista if they need to keep both fresh heading into a potential postseason run.

With a starting rotation that is still improving and evolving, having a back end of the bullpen this dominant can shorten games in a truly meaningful way. Brandon Hyde knows that he can go into any game knowing he only needs five solid innings out of his starter for the O’s to be in a position to win the game. That’s the confidence you can have when you know the 8th and 9th innings are taken care of, meaning you can use your six other relievers to take care of the 6th and 7th innings.

Heading into this season, we all expected to need Dillon Tate, Mychal Givens, and Cionel Pérez to pitch meaningful innings in the 8th innings of games for this bullpen to be successful. Instead, with Tate and Givens yet to pitch a major league inning this year, and Pérez struggling, the O’s bullpen is even better than it was last year. Should Bautista and Cano continue to light up radar guns and lock down opponents with such ease, this bullpen should be one of the reasons the Orioles are team no one wants to face come September and October.


Will Félix Bautista and Yennier Cano both be All-Stars this season?

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    Yes, both will be representing the O’s in Seattle.
    (312 votes)
  • 13%
    Bautista will, Cano will not
    (69 votes)
  • 20%
    Cano will, Bautista will not
    (109 votes)
  • 5%
    Neither will be an All-Star this year
    (30 votes)
520 votes total Vote Now