'This is just me healthy': Canning vying for spot

Righty racks up 3 strikeouts over 3 solid innings vs. White Sox

March 12th, 2023

GLENDALE, Ariz -- What if the we’ve seen so far this spring is the one he could have been all along if not for lingering back issues?

“Honestly, this is just me healthy,” said the 26-year-old right-hander after pitching three solid innings in the Angels’ 1-1 tie against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch on Sunday afternoon. “My back hurt [the last two years]. … I’m just healthy now.”

Canning missed the entire 2022 campaign due to a lower back stress fracture. He posted a 5.60 ERA over 62 2/3 innings in 14 outings (13 starts) in 2021, a season in which he was already dealing with back problems before being shut down in August.

But that’s behind him -- at least for now -- and Canning’s fastball velocity is up from what he’s shown in the past. His fastball averaged 93.5 mph in 2021, and over his first two Cactus League starts this spring (in which he’s given up one run over five innings), it’s been consistently hitting 95 mph.

Canning’s secondary stuff -- a slider, a changeup and a curveball -- has been playing well in his return, too. One of his sliders in the second inning Sunday led to Chicago’s Seby Zavala lunging at the pitch while the bat flew out of his hands toward third base, capping the second of three strikeouts Canning had on the afternoon.

“That kind of gives you some validation that it was a good pitch,” Canning said. “My slider was a lot sharper today [compared to my first spring outing], got some swings and misses on it. Curveball was pretty good. The [Oscar Colas] homer was on a changeup -- I’ve got to watch it again, but it was probably just a little up or something. And the fastball felt good, pretty good command.”

Canning is competing for the role of sixth starter/swingman in the Angels’ rotation heading into this season. Among the many unique facets of having two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani on your club -- in addition to watching him carve up opposing hitters while also smashing mammoth home runs in the World Baseball Classic -- is that it can make for some mildly unorthodox setups for the starting rotation.

In order to keep Ohtani from being overburdened, the Halos want to try to start him on the mound every six days as opposed to every five whenever possible.

While Canning has looked good so far this spring, he does face some headwinds in his quest to fill the role -- he has Minor League options remaining, whereas others in the group competing for the same job are out of them. That group includes left-hander Tucker Davidson and right-hander Chase Silseth.

Of course, Canning can only control what he does. And if what he does continues to look like what he’s done in a small spring sample, it could make for a tough decision as to who will break camp as the sixth starter.

“I think I’m stronger and I’m moving better,” Canning said. “It’s a combination of a lot of things. My body feels good. My timing’s better.”

It remains to be seen how Canning will perform over the final two weeks or so of Spring Training, but the Angels will hope that when it’s all said and done, they can say his timing couldn’t have been better.