SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—Shortly after drafting Griffin Canning last year, the Angels told their second-round pick they weren’t going to have him pitch the rest of the season.
Canning pitched 119 innings his junior year at UCLA, including starts of 120-plus pitches, and the Angels saw no reason to push it. Instead they sent Canning to their training complex in Arizona and put him on a total body workout plan, with an emphasis on core strength.
Ten months later, the new and enhanced Canning emerged to make his first professional start at high Class A Inland Empire. What the 21-year-old righthander showed was worth waiting for.
Canning reached 97 mph and pitched four scoreless innings with one hit allowed and six strikeouts in his professional debut, setting the pace for Inland Empire’s 3-2 victory over San Jose (Giants) in Thursday’s season opener.
“I was pretty nervous, but it was just general nerves that I would have before any game,” Canning said. “It was definitely a lot of fun. It was fun to pitch in a stadium, in this environment. I mean it’s still just baseball, but it was definitely a lot of fun.”
Canning sat 94-96 mph, touched 97, and maintained his velocity and location through his outing. He backed his fastball up with a knee-buckling 80-82 mph curveball that left hitters frozen in the box and an 86-87 mph slider that ran away from righthanded batters and had them futilely reaching for it.
Canning used all his pitches in any count, against any hitter, and won every battle he got into. After surrendering a single to Bryce Johnson to lead off the game, he didn’t allow a hit the rest of the night.
“I expect to go out there every time and compete and do well,” Canning said. “I didn’t treat it any differently than I treat any other game.”
Canning fell into one jam in the fourth inning when he briefly lost the zone and walked a pair of hitters. He quickly self-corrected, induced a groundout, and finished both the inning and his night with a flourish, elevating a 95-mph fastball that No. 7 Giants prospect Sandro Fabian waved through for strike three.
“It was an intense moment and that’s what we love about him,” Inland Empire manager Ryan Barba said. “He competes. He gets in that situation right there and finds a way to get out of it.”
Canning’s velocity was particularly notable because he sat 90-94 at UCLA. He didn’t throw a single fastball slower than 93 mph on Thursday and reached his peak of 97 multiple times, a three mph increase achieved after spending most of the past 10 months off the mound and in the weight room.
“It was total body, just getting stronger,” Canning said. “I could (attribute) it to a bunch of things. Just generally getting stronger, maturing physically a little more, just getting older. I think any one of those, really.”
Canning’s bigger fastball was just part of his success. He excelled at landing his curveball in the zone while using his slider as a chase pitch, and both were out pitches throughout the night. He got strike three using his slider three times, his curveball twice and his fastball once. He barely had to use his mid-80s changeup, and drew swings and misses over the top of it when he did.
“He was outstanding,” Barba said. “Good mound presence, (and) I wasn’t expecting anything less. Commanded the zone, mixed his pitches. I thought he looked good especially for that first professional outing.”
What made it even better was Canning did it in front of a large assortment of friends and family. He grew up in Coto De Caza, about 60 miles from San Manuel Stadium, and those closest to him were among the 4,709 fans that turned out for minor league Opening Day.
“It was awesome,” Canning said. “That’s kind of the biggest thing, it’s been a pretty cool transition for me coming here. I’m only an hour and a half from home, so having my parents and friends and family come out and watch me pitch, it was pretty cool.”