The Angels optioned Griffin Canning to the minors after his poor performance on July 2 against the measly Orioles. He lasted just 2.2 innings while surrendering six runs, six hits, two walks, and no strikeouts. This was against a team with a .305 wOBA on the season, which isn’t impressing anybody. Back that up with the fact that he lasted just two innings in his first AAA start while giving up six earned runs and five walks, and the concern is rising. For a team that’s dying for anyone to prove themselves as a worthy mid-rotation starter, Canning has not delivered. Canning was an important part of the Angels rotation coming into the season, and that has not worked out so far. Here are his stats on the season:
Yeah, these numbers should scare Angel fans. And if those numbers aren’t concerning enough, the first player that Baseball Savant listed as a similar pitcher based on velocity and movement was 2019 Matt Harvey. The same Harvey that infamously had a 7.09 ERA in Anaheim. Yes, I know that does not mean he’s 2019 Matt Harvey, and they compare his stuff to other good pitchers, such as 2020 Plesac, but any time a pitcher gets compared to 2019 Matt Harvey in any way, it sets off alarm bells.
Joe Maddon mentioned how he wanted Canning to improve his fastball command, and that does seem to be one of Canning’s big problems so far. Locating the fastball better and getting ahead of hitters is so critical for each of his pitches. Canning makes way too many mistakes with his fastballs that result in 95 mph and up off the bat, as shown here:
On top of just the fastball mistakes, only 45% of his pitches have been in the zone this year. League average for pitches in the zone is at 49.9%. This gives hitters the control in the at bat, allowing them to sit for whatever they want, and in Canning’s case it is going to be his fastball he uses almost 41% of the time. While watching Canning, it often feels like he is battling himself and rarely makes it easy on himself, which is because of the lack of control so far this season. Not only does it lead to more mistakes by Canning, but it leads to increased usage of a bad bullpen. The Angels bullpen struggles enough; it definitely does not need starters who struggle to get out of the fifth inning every start.
The biggest negative result from his command issues has been a rise in hard contact against him. Last season, his fastball had a Hard Hit rate of 39.7%. This season, it has ballooned to 52.2%. His changeup is also up about four percentage points, and his slider up about six percentage points. In total, his 2021 Hard Hit rate has jumped 5.3 percentage points from 2020. In my opinion, the jump in hard contact is related heavily to his lack of command this season. His fastball has actually gained velocity and has a good movement profile, which points to command as the issue as well. Just in his last start, he missed his location terribly on Trey Mancini with the fastball in the heart of the plate, and it ended up 451 feet deep after being crushed at 109.5 mph.
Another aspect of Canning’s pitching profile that combines so poorly with the rest of the profile is the fact that he is a fly ball pitcher. Canning lets up a fly ball or line drive on 63.9% of his balls in play. Hard contact in the air has to be just the absolute worst outcome of an at bat for a pitcher, which is what Canning is inducing very often. It has led to 14 home runs, which is just too many for a guy with almost 63 innings pitched. Combine this with the fact that the Angels are playing Regnifo, Ward, and whoever else has two legs in the outfield, and the defense is not going to do any favors for Canning. The contact profile that Canning has had this season does not fit the roster construction at all. Canning needs to be better regardless, but I truly believe the fact he is a fly ball/line drive pitcher with such a putrid outfield defense behind him has had a very bad impact on his stats. His 4.15 expected ERA shows, in part, the lack of help on defense.
When you combine his command issues, vulnerability to hard hit balls, and the fact he is a fly ball pitcher, Canning has a troubling profile that must change. Maybe in Triple AAA there will be a better system to let him develop, given the fact that the Angels currently have an interim pitching coach that they did not come into the season with. Specifically, I think his fastball and changeup have to change in order to not be crushed like they have this season. He did change his pitch usage coming into the season, abandoning the cutter while adding a curveball. Some time to continue developing the pitches in his arsenal and rebuilding his confidence could go a long way.
This start is concerning for any pitcher, but especially a pitcher that plays for a club so focused on inducing soft contact. It has seemed like the Angels front office has put a premium on ground balls and soft contact, and Canning has just been the complete opposite of that. I think it may take a bit longer than most Angel fans would like, but I believe he will be back up this year, and hopefully he can provide some value down the stretch. Also, and potentially even more importantly, if the Angels fall out of the race in the next month or so, the Angels need someone to show some sort of certainty in the rotation for next season. With Heaney, Bundy, Cobb, and Quintana all free agents, the Angels have an extremely wide-open rotation going forward, and Canning has a perfect opportunity to earn innings again soon. Patrick Sandoval is proving he deserves a shot, and it will be time for Griffin Canning to do the same when he comes back up.