The Los Angeles Angels came into the 2021 season looking to take advantage of a division that looked to be a little thinner than it had in the past few years. The Houston Astros are no longer the deep super team they were two years ago. The Athletics made more notable subtractions than additions over the offseason. The Mariners are still at least a year or two away, and the Rangers are in full rebuild mode.
The Angels didn’t go out and make a marquee addition either — unless you think that highly of José Quintana, Alex Cobb, or José Iglesias — but they do have arguably the two most talented players in the sport in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, as well as another top 10 player in Anthony Rendon. Even with a healthy Ohtani doing his two-way thing, this is a team that is going to need its pitching to step up if it is going to compete, weak division or otherwise.
One of the pitchers the Angels are relying on the take a step forward is Griffin Canning. A second round pick in the 2017 draft out of UCLA, Canning broke into the majors in 2019, posting a respectable 4.58 ERA/4.37 FIP/4.75 xFIP in 90.1 innings, accumulating 1.3 fWAR. Ahead of the 2020 season, he was a popular choice to be a breakout candidate, and in some respects he was, posting a 3.99 ERA/4.33 FIP/4.81 xFIP in 56.1. innings.
The ‘21 season has not been a great start for Canning, however. The sample is only 15.0 innings, but the Angels young starter has posted an ERA over eight and a FIP over seven. Fortunately for him, both of these numbers have been buoyed by an unconscionable 35.3% rate of home runs to fly balls, so better days are ahead, as evidenced by his 3.78 xFIP. Besides his bad luck on fly balls, Canning is also missing bats at at a much higher clip. Again, a good sign for a turnaround.
Currently, Canning ranks in the 86th percentile in Whiff% and in the 71st percentile in Chase Rate per Baseball Savant. Both of those are big steps up from last year, when he ranked in the 53rd and 40th percentiles. Coinciding with these improvements are some intentional changes in his pitch arsenal, both in usage and in shapes.
Notice that Canning is relying on the slider over 40% of the time, and this year he is throwing it more than his fastball. It makes sense, because the pitch is really good, and in this day and age of baseball we know that pitchers should throw their best pitches more often. It’s ben hit harder, but its also getting whiffed at on just shy of 44% of swings. Canning has added a tick to his fastball as well, averaging a healthy 94 miler per hour.
In addition to the difference in usage and the added velocity, Canning has brought some different pitch shapes into ‘21 as well. Consider this pitch type movement summary in ‘20 via FanGraphs:
And compare that to the same chart for ‘21:
As you can see, Canning has created quite a bit more movement separation from his fastball to his slider, adding a little more rise to the former and a lot more drop to the latter. The ‘21 version of the slider has a similar shape to the ‘20 version of the curveball with a lot more velocity. Canning has not thrown a ton of curveballs so far this year, but the seem to have a different shape as well.
So far, the results haven’t worked in Canning’s favor from a run prevention standpoint. But this good news for Angels fans — and for the Angels (and I suppose for Canning. too) — is that this will likely not continue. As of now, Canning ranks eighth in baseball in wOBA (.410) - xwOBA (.344). That combined with the inflated HR/FB% I mentioned before, and all of this hopefully means that a positive regression is coming. And the Angels will need it if they hope to remain in the thick of the AL West race as the summer wears on.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.