The knock came at 5 a.m. on the door of their rural home, a sharp noise that broke the stillness that is life in the province of Ciego de Ávila. The central region of Cuba, known mostly for agriculture, would soon lay claim to a rising star in baseball.
But at that point the 15-year-old rising star didn’t realize how brightly he could shine, or how far the sport would take him.
So Yudel Garcia rapped on the door of Yennier Cano’s house, urging all inside awake in one last attempt to convince Cano — and especially Amelia, his mother — that baseball wasn’t worth quitting. Cano had considered putting aside his mitt because, quite frankly, the game wasn’t challenging enough in the countryside leagues he played growing up. Garcia, his trainer from an early age, took notice of him immediately, molding a player who threw seven strong innings each time out and hit nearly .500 each season.
But Cano had been continually passed over for teams in larger cities, overlooked because he wasn’t playing against the best already.
Garcia, however, had made some calls.
And so he stood in the early-morning light outside Cano’s home, imploring Amelia to let him take her son on a two-hour trip — via bus and train — to the capital city of the province, to let him try, one more time, to set Cano on his way in a sport in which he showed such promise.
“You’re not quitting baseball on my watch,” Garcia told Cano. “We’re going to get you playing, we’re going to get you on the right path, and you’re going to play baseball.”
Amelia relented — but with an ultimatum. If Cano didn’t make the team in Ciego de Ávila, the capital city of the province that still paled in size compared to Cuba’s more-populated hubs, that would be the end. There would be no more baseball for Cano.
He made the youth team.
Cano proved himself over time as the best pitcher in the province, traveling back home on the weekends before returning to his sporting school during the week. Eventually, Cano rose along with the fortunes of Ciego de Ávila, leading Los Tigres to consecutive titles in 2015 and 2016 — just the second and third Cuban National Series championships for the city.
But Cano’s path wouldn’t end there, not in that central Cuban city known more for its railroad link than the accolades of its baseball team at the José Ramón Cepero Stadium. Not even after military service took him away from the game, or a government-imposed exile from baseball after he asked for permission to leave the country.
On a recent afternoon, Cano looked out from the dugout at Camden Yards in Baltimore, recalling those early days playing for his province’s club. So much has changed. He matched an Orioles club record by retiring 24 consecutive batters to begin the season and hasn’t allowed a run despite his heavy usage.
From the outside, it’s a marvel, a sudden rise to success as a relief pitcher at the highest level of a sport he almost quit — if not for Garcia’s incessant knocking.
To Cano, however, it’s been a tumultuous path to get to where he is now, standing confidently on the mound, glaring after an unhittable pitch.
“Him and his wife have been on quite the journey to get to where he’s at today,” said Justin Willard, the pitching coordinator for the Minnesota Twins.
Banned from the field
It was 2017, his mother had just died and, for the first time, Cano and his wife considered leaving their home nation in a bid to reach a higher level of baseball. Cano applied to the Cuban government for permission to go and hoped to be cleared.
Instead, he was sanctioned.
For one full year, Cano said, he wasn’t allowed to step onto a baseball field in Cuba. If he was going to leave the country, he’d have to do it after a full year of being away from the sport he loved.
Cano needed to train to keep his body in shape and his fastball as sharp as it ever was in the Cuban National Series. But each time he stepped onto a baseball field in Ciego de Ávila or the surrounding area, Cuban officials found him.
Get off the field, they’d say.
The first time it happened, Cano figured he’d try again. The third time, he finally admitted defeat.
“Since I couldn’t throw in games, I just grabbed my glove and threw wherever I could,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “On the streets, the patio, wherever.”
In a way, Cano had been in a similar position before, working around a government-mandated excommunication from professional baseball. When he turned 18, Cano began his two years of mandatory military service in Cuba. He tried to look on the bright side: The early wake-up calls and all the running and working out ensured he stayed in top physical shape for his true profession.
And then came the weekend, his two days of relative freedom during which he could pick up a baseball. Once he could, he didn’t let up on the overmatched soldiers he was stationed with.
To make a baseball field out of nothing, Cano and his fellow soldiers walked onto the grass pasture with four empty cartons. They eyeballed the distances, placing each carton about 90 feet apart in a diamond. He stood roughly 60 feet from home plate, on flat ground rather than a mound, but it didn’t matter.
“I was way better than them,” Cano said. “I would even hit, and I would hit bombs and things like that. And I would probably pitch all nine innings and allow only one hit.”
His real competition, once his manager for Ciego de Ávila sprung Cano from his military service after just one year, proved more competent. He became the primary late-inning reliever for Los Tigres, and at 21, in his third professional season, his prowess made him one of the most dominant in the game. He recorded a 0.91 ERA that season with 12 saves.
For years, Garcia and others dreamed of what Cano might achieve. They told him about Major League Baseball, and how Cano could be good enough to play in the best league in the world one day. They spun a dream he didn’t think of much himself, content with his life in Cuba and the ability to stay close to his mother.
So he pitched for Ciego de Ávila through 2017, not looking beyond the shores of Cuba. But when Amelia died that year, his perspective changed. The person who tied him to one of the least populated sections of his home country was gone.
“I did want to stay there for her and be there with her,” Cano said. “After she passed, I was kind of like, ‘You know what? This is a good chance for a new start and to have an opportunity to pursue other opportunities elsewhere and to be able to provide for the other people who are still around me.’”
To get there, though, Cano endured the hardship of a year without any formal baseball. He ran in the streets, lifted weights at his house and threw to his older cousins, who used to play baseball and could handle his high-90s fastball.
As the year wound down, a card arrived in the mail. It was from Amaro Costa, a former Cuban National Series pitcher for Los Metropolitanos de Habana, inviting Cano to join him in Argentina for training.
Cano jumped at the chance. He and his wife boarded a flight as soon as their sanction in Cuba lifted, and the first stop of the rest of their life led them to Buenos Aires.
Cano’s time in Argentina helped bring him to another level. When he arrived to work with Costa in 2018, Cano mainly pounded the zone with a four-seam fastball, slider and sinker. But Costa told Cano he’d need more variety to his velocity if he wanted to make it to the major leagues.
He began to learn a changeup from scratch, and with it Cano learned to change speeds better than ever before. He could still dial up 97-mph fastballs when needed, but his changeup became his preferred secondary pitch. As he continued his growth in the U.S., the nuance to his sinker rendered the four-seam fastball an afterthought in his arsenal.
That was all conjecture when Cano arrived in Miami from Argentina in March 2019, ready for his first showcase.
“It was difficult, because you go so long without pitching and throwing in front of people, and then there are a bunch of scouts there to watch,” Cano said. “It’s all on you to prove a point.”
He did enough in that first showcase to garner attention from around the league. Cano left Miami, traveled to the Dominican Republic and pitched in another showcase. That time, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and newly hired director of international scouting Koby Perez boarded a flight to see the hard-throwing right-hander in person.
“His agent was promoting that he could be a starter,” Perez remembered. “And Elias and I both saw him as a viable bullpen piece, and I think once he transitioned into the bullpen his stuff played up.”
The Orioles missed out on signing Cano, who opted to join the Twins because, in his own words, the $750,000 signing bonus from Minnesota was larger than what Baltimore offered.
By the time Cano reached the mound for his first appearance for the Minnesota Twins’ rookie club in the Gulf Coast League in 2019, the baseball field felt different than ever before. When he pitched in Cuba, and even when he participated in the Argentinian league, expressing your emotions was the norm — even welcomed.
He’d strut around the mound or stare down a hitter with a pose after a strikeout. He’d celebrate his highs and expected his opponents to do the same if they one-upped him.
But in the Gulf Coast League in 2019, pitching as a 25-year-old in a league full of 18-year-olds, he couldn’t gesticulate in the same manner. He felt restricted. He felt so out of sorts that he left the bullpen with a towel in his back pocket. He wound up walking Gunnar Henderson, his future Orioles teammate, before giving up three earned runs on one hit and four walks.
It was an eye-opening experience during his first competitive baseball game in America.
“Thankfully, I think I have a pretty good mindset. I’m not the type to really dwell on it,” Cano recalled. “I thought to myself, the very next day, I was like, ‘I’m going to go out there tomorrow and get four strikeouts.’”
And when Cano quickly moved to the Twins’ High-A affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracles, after only one more rookie ball appearance, that’s exactly what he did. Cano pitched two scoreless innings, walking a pair of batters while striking out four.
“You see the raw stuff, you see the physicality, you see the stuff you dream about,” said Willard, who at the time served as Minnesota’s Double A pitching coach. “Then you watch him throw, and you’re like, ‘This is it. This is what it’s supposed to look like. This is what big leaguers look like.’”
Elias might’ve missed out on Cano originally. But he wouldn’t miss out twice — especially after Cano took a step that would change his future dramatically.
A lower arm slot, and a ‘turbo sinker’
On a whim, Carlos Hernandez asked Cano to drop his arm slot in his next bullpen session.
The former major league pitcher, then a pitching coach in the Twins’ minor league system, knew many Cuban pitchers threw from different arm slots — sometimes overhead, sometimes three-quarters or even sidearm. Hernandez wondered, as he and other coaches looked at Cano’s movement plots in March 2020, if dropping into more of a three-quarters delivery would unlock further potential.
“All of a sudden,” Willard said, “that changed everything.”
Cano’s four-seam fastball was relatively average. His velocity made it intriguing, but in terms of movement it didn’t stand out. In that next bullpen session — when Cano lived and worked out in Fort Myers, Florida, throughout the coronavirus shutdown — Cano’s sinker showed breathtaking movement from a lower arm slot.
Pitching at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the Twins’ spring training facility, Cano’s lower arm slot left his pitching coaches practically salivating.
“His first bullpen, we were like, ‘Holy crap, that’s special,’” Willard said. “All of a sudden, after COVID, he’s got this turbo sinker.”
YENNIER CANO’S ORIGINAL ARM SLOT
YENNIER CANO’S REVISED ARM SLOT
That’s the pitch that has made Cano such a breakout star in Major League Baseball this season, lifting him to become Baltimore’s preferred setup man in high-leverage situations. It has also vaulted him atop leaderboards and has made him one of the best relievers across baseball in general, with just four hits against him in 20-2/3 innings.
Cano’s sinker ranks as the best in the major leagues, according to Statcast, with a negative-10 run value (the lower, the better). No sinker moves as much as Cano’s does, dropping 9.4 vertical inches above the average major league sinker — or a total of 32.8 inches. And it comes out of his hand around 95 mph.
“It’s like he’s throwing bowling balls up there,” Perez said.
It’s a stark difference from Cano’s first taste of major league pitching with the Twins last year and later with the Orioles, when he arrived in Baltimore as part of the trade that sent closer Jorge López to Minnesota. He pitched 4-1/3 innings for the Orioles last year and gave up nine runs with five walks.
The biggest change, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said, is Cano’s ability to live in the strike zone. He has yet to walk a batter this year, and he has struck out 23 of the 64 he’s faced. As Cano racks up strikeouts, some of the flair he showed in Cuba is making its return.
Cano straddles the mound after strikeouts, his arms dangling by his side, and he stares down the latest hitter unable to touch him.
This is what Willard always thought was possible from Cano. He remembers Cano mowing through the top Twins hitting prospects during a 2020 instructional camp, and he won’t forget the eye-bugging moment when Cano’s sinker first came out of his hand from a lower arm slot.
Cano, however, is doing it for the Orioles instead of the Twins, leaving old coaches only to lament.
“At the end of the day, we’re all dreamers in this game. You see the projectability, you see the physicality, you see the ball coming out of his hand,” Willard said. “You just saw it. You knew he was going to get his chance.”
‘Now I’m here in the big leagues’
Late at night, Cano lies in bed, mind wandering.
He’s a night owl. He enjoys staying up late. As the clock ticks deeper into the night and his wife sleeps soundly, Cano thinks.
He thinks about his home, Ciego de Ávila, and looks forward to when he will return each offseason to visit his family and friends. He thinks about the break he had here with Baltimore, joining midway through last month to support a taxed bullpen and subsequently locking down a pivotal role.
He thinks of that day 15 years ago when Garcia knocked on his door at dawn and his mom relented, letting the trainer take him on the first steps of a journey that would lead to the highest level of the game.
“Damn, dude,” Cano said. “To think I really almost left baseball, and now I’m here in the big leagues.”
“I made it.”