MLB bullpen report: 3 teams that are surprising in 2023

May 8, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Carlos Estevez (53) earns a save in the ninth inning defeating the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
May 8, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Carlos Estevez (53) earns a save in the ninth inning defeating the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s no secret that every MLB team values reliable pitching. While starters often draw the most attention and command the big bucks, the back end of the bullpen is equally as important when it comes to closing out close games.

It’s way too early in the season to pinpoint exactly which teams lead in that department, as most relievers have to yet toss even 20 innings, MLB managers are still really figuring out what they have to work with, and which players fit which roles. It is not too early, however, to point out some interesting trends, and surprising results for players and teams that we maybe weren’t totally expecting.

These 3 MLB bullpens are surprising early in the schedule

At last summer’s trade deadline, in the thick of a playoff race, the overachieving Baltimore Orioles, in a head-scratching move, sent one of their best relief pitchers to Minnesota for a handful of prospects, and a 104-pack of Sam’s Club hot dogs. Among the return was a disappointing, 29-year-old reliever named Yennier Cano. After a solid 40 innings in Triple-A to open 2022, he debuted for the Twins to disastrous results. Throwing 13.2 innings across 10 games, he walked 11 batters while surrendering 14 earned runs on 17 hits.

When Cano got his chance in Baltimore, he appeared in three games, where he walked five and allowed nine earned runs in 4.1 innings. If you’re new to baseball, those numbers are not very good. Those are statistics that get you pitching middle reielf for the Savannah Bananas. However,  something clicked in Cano this offseason and he has come out throwing more sinkers and less sliders, but it’s been his changeup that has made the most difference. Cano’s putaway percentage on his changeup has climbed nearly 20%, while his sinker has gained 11%, so he is really leaning on those two pitches, not only in two-strike scenarios, but throughout entire at-bats while not wholly abandoning his slider.

This is some real nerd stuff here, but what it all boils down to is a 6-foot-4 setup man who throws straight gas and hasn’t allowed a run in 17.2 innings while striking out 21 batters. He has transformed this bullpen. Felix Bautista emerged out of thin air last summer and really became the Orioles’ closer down the stretch and, so far this year, he has saved eight games while striking out 30 of the 74 batters he’s faced. Baltimore has the third-most wins of any team in baseball, and Yennier Cano has a lot to do with that.

In a tightly contested AL West, the Los Angeles Angels are just two games behind the Texas Rangers for the division’s top spot. Los Angeles won just 73 games last year and, yes, a lot of this season’s success can be pinned to the starting nine and one of the best offenses in the league, but let’s take a moment to appreciate a rebuilt bullpen that has led to seventh-best staff ERA, fourth-best WHIP, third in walks per nine, and have given up fewer homers than any other group in MLB.

I don’t don’t think anyone was expecting too much when the Halos poached Carlos Estevez from the Colorado Rockies on a two-year deal, but he has shown up in L.A. throwing more sliders and less fastballs. His strikeouts per 9 are a career high, and he has saved eight games with a 0.906 WHIP. Matt Moore turned a bounce back 2022 into a $7.5 million pact, and has responded by allowing just two earned runs through his first 18 innings. The Angels also added Chris Devenski and he and Ryan Tepera will pitch in high leverage situations, setting up Moore and Estevez, and I’m curious to see how this develops over the next month or so.

The Miami Marlins are 18-19. While that may not sound too impressive, it’s good enough for second place in the NL East and they are 11-0 in one-run games. A lot of that has to do with their bullpen and the offseason strong arm robbery of AJ Puk from the Oakland Athletics. Puk was the sixth pick overall in 2016 draft and, after some injuries and global pandemic delays, finally made a meaningful MLB appearance in 2022 as a relief pitcher and wasn’t bad. I’m actually kind of shocked that Oakland gave up on him as, so far this year, he is posting career-high strikeout rates along with career-low walk rates, and has really settled in to Miami’s closer role. Puk has given up on his slider and sinker, and is throwing a new sweeper pitch 51.3% of the time. It’s only producing a 14.3 putaway%, so he’s still leaning on his fastball and change in strikeout situations, but the sweeper is inducing a .167 batting average against, so it is proving to be a very effective. Puk’s addition has allowed Dylan Floro and Tanner Scott to take over setup roles and Huascar Brazoban is also flourishing right now. Along with Andrew Nardi and Matt Barnes, Miami might have one of the more underrated bullpens in baseball.

There are still a lot of games left to be played, and it’s only May, but these are three interesting situations to keep your eye on as the MLB season develops. Bullpens are dynamic things, and roles change constantly over the course of a year, but these are three teams I will have my eyes on throughout the summer.

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