The Real Changes Behind Alexander Canario’s Unreal Month at Double-A

The hottest hitter on Earth right now is Tennessee Smokies Double-A outfielder Alexander Canario, capped by a Sunday performance where he reached base in all five plate appearances, connecting on his 24th home run of the season (in 86 games) in the outing.

For the month of July, Canario is hitting an amazing, a ludicrous, a Bonds-ian .371/.513/.839.

But as I pointed out on Sunday, it’s not the raw stat line or the massive showcase of power that has me excited. It’s this: 18 walks versus 12 strikeouts in 80 plate appearances. While Canario’s hitting style has always been defined by hot streaks — remember when he homered four games in a row shortly after joining South Bend last year? — I’m not sure he’s ever shown such a prolonged stretch of plate discipline like this.

It’s one of those stretches that demands we pop the hood and dig a little deeper, because while this line isn’t sustainable, a meaningful change in plate approach would positively alter Canario’s status in the organization. And as a guy in Double-A already on the 40-man roster, major changes in prospect status at this point have Major League implications.

When Canario was acquired one year ago this week in the Kris Bryant trade, I noted that he “simply needs to make contact on in-zone pitches at a higher rate” and that he “has to stay careful with that front hip” from flying open. In analyzing Canario’s recent play, I wanted to see if work was done on that latter point, and compared two home run swings to do so.

What I see from this video (and that post has tons of great comments from others) is definitely work to stay closed for longer, to track the pitch from a better position to adjust mid-flight. It’s not so much the front hip that seems to have been the focus, but the back hip, which I think is providing that boost in power we’re seeing in 2022. Canario’s accessing his core better, allowing him to get into his power even if not perfectly on time.

I also want to point out what Evan Altman at Cubs Insider noticed (also shouts to follower and baseball coach Matthew McCue for seeing the same): less counter-rotation with Canario’s upper body. In 2021, Canario’s load was dependent on that front shoulder going backwards, and while it still happens in 2022, it’s far less. The key, and I’m quoting Evan here, is that the 2021 swing was “almost certainly hampering his view of the pitch.” Given the improvements we’re seeing in plate discipline, this is really noteworthy.

Diving deeper into Canario’s evolving plate approach, I tracked every plate appearance during his last 15 games (where he’s hit .412/.552/.980) and then every plate appearance during his first 15 games at the Double-A level (where he hit just .188/.224/.375). I wanted to compare the hot and cold Canario’s in some of the plate discipline metrics that FanGraphs tracks, as those numbers are known to stabilize much faster than actual offensive results.

Those are, right down the line, pretty striking. Yes there’s some selection bias, but it’s being done deliberately to showcase Canario at his best and worst.

I think what screams out about a plate approach change is Canario’s adoption of the most basic principle: swinging less. Now I didn’t consult video to break down swings on in-zone versus out-of-zone pitches, but I feel confident that, given the simultaneous reduction in CSW%, Canario has shown meaningful gains in that department, too. His CSW% during these last 15 games is equivalent to a top 20 mark in MLB this season, per FanGraphs. At the moment, Canario just isn’t doing much swinging-and-missing, or staring at strikes.

The other massive change during those two 15-game samples is Canario’s two-strike approach. In the ice cold May stretch, Canario was just 2-for-31 in at-bats after the count went to two strikes, striking out 22 times and slugging just .194. While I didn’t have those numbers at the ready then, seeing this anecdotally on video gave me a lot of doubt whether Canario’s hit tool could ever get to Major League caliber.

Canario’s slugging percentage in two-strike counts during the last 15 games? An impossible .792! He’s hit three home runs during that time from the vulnerable two-strike position, and is clearly less susceptible to give himself up:

Canario SwStr% on 2-strike counts during cold stretch: 28.8%

Canario SwStr% on 2-strike counts during hot stretch: 8.8%

Now I don’t know which hitting coach at Double-A has been responsible for two-strike approaches this year, but give that man a raise. Christopher Morel’s adoption of a different two-strike swing has fueled his massive breakout, and now we’re seeing similar improvements from Canario. While Canario doesn’t get as low as Morel does with two strikes, you’ll see in that 2022 swing from the tweet above that he’s also clearly using more knee bend and a later start than he otherwise does. And he’s so strong, that you’re not giving up anything meaningful in the power department.

One thing we know about baseball: many of these gains won’t hold in perpetuity. Canario is certainly seeing a beach ball at the plate right now, and that sometimes means that a slump is just around the corner. Hard and high fastballs and good breaking balls are still going to beat Canario often. But the fact that swing changes and approach changes have been made to combat his prior weaknesses does give me up that Canario’s improved hit tool is a real step forward. We’ve seen progress not just in results, but in process, too.

So I would argue, even if the data is from just one month, this should change the way we think about Canario as a prospect. If it continues into August, it should yield Canario an opportunity to test his approach against big league pitching in September.

written by

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.

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