When he was asked in an interview late last week what kinds of things he likes to do when he’s away from the ballpark, Canterino, who is currently tentatively slated to start game 2 of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ first-round playoff series against Quad Cities this week, at first gave a pretty standard response.
“I like hanging out with friends. I’ll do pretty much whatever anyone wants to. Play cards, go fishing. I’m a big Marvel fan,” he said.
But then he added, “I had a lot of people back at Rice that I loved doing those problem sets with. It was a pretty cool experience.”
If, like Canterino, you were a Mechanical Engineering Major in school, maybe you’d have given the same sort of response. The rest of us, though, maybe not so much.
In any event, if working through the engineering problem sets is what Canterino has enjoyed doing with his down time, we can probably safely assume he’s capable of analyzing and working through any challenges that arise while he’s on the mound.
Using analysis to improve himself is a constant theme that runs through many threads of an interview with the 21-year-old right-hander.
For example, Canterino spent the summer following his sophomore year of college playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League. What did he take away from that experience?
“For me, it was mostly about picking a lot of different peoples’ brains,” he said, immediately. “Not even just coaches, but it’s a very good concentration of college talent. To be able to see what makes these college pitchers good, pick up on some of their habits. Not necessarily use all their habits, but ‘OK this works,’ trying something out, then trying to improve upon that. For me, that was like, ‘what makes a pitcher good?’
“One thing I picked up was, I wanted to make my slider a little bit harder. My sophomore year, I was throwing my slider more like 79 to 81 (miles per hour), touching 82. I wanted to make it a little bit harder, a little bit tighter. I changed my grip a little bit and I was able to get it more into the mid-eighties instead. And it became a better pitch for me.”
And how is he adjusting to the professional game since completing his junior season at Rice earlier this year?
“I feel like I’m incorporating new things and (trying) to improve upon them has been the focus since I’ve gotten here,” he said. “I like the analytic side of the game. Analyzing how our pitches move, what makes good pitch combinations, stuff like that is definitely something that we’ve started exploring more.
“Rice did not have much of that whatsoever. I always had some thoughts about what makes some of my stuff play pretty good against hitters, but to see it in numbers form and be able to get concrete results and say, ‘this is what happens when I do this and this is what happens when I do that.’ And if I put them together to become even better, then that was something that we really wanted to address. I just feel like I’ve gotten to know myself even better. So, the organization has really helped already.”
Sounds kind of like a mechanical engineer talking about pitching, doesn’t it?
As a starting pitcher, scouting reports give Canterino high grades for his command, his breaking balls (the slider in particular) and his low-to-mid nineties fastball, while generally opining that his change-up is a work in progress.
The concern, if there is one, may be with what is occasionally referred to as a high-effort delivery. It’s the delivery that has some in the industry wondering if he’ll eventually become most effective out of the bullpen.
If that conversion is going to happen, it won’t be right now, however.
There’s no doubt, though, that Canterino is active on (and around) the pitcher’s mound.
“He brings energy,” Kernels manager Brian Dinkelman said. “When he’s out on the mound, he competes really well. His pitches are good. Good fastball. Changeup and breaking ball are both very good. I think sometimes he gets a little amped up early in the game. He’s excited to be out there. His last start was really good. He calmed himself down and pounded the strike zone and threw five really good innings for us.”
It’s impossible not to notice that energy his manager speaks of when Canterino is on the bump.
He will sometimes circle the mound. He’ll walk more than halfway toward third base to get the ball from his third baseman after the infield throws it around the horn, smiling and having a quick exchange with his teammate there. He’ll walk a step or three off the front of the mound to get the ball from his catcher after a pitch, then practically stalk his way back to the rubber.
“Yeah, I like being out there!” he explained. “I just feel like, if you bring some energy and you stay involved with the game, it helps your teammates stay involved in it, as well. It just provides a little bit different aura in the game. It makes everybody a little bit more happy to be there because it makes the game feel a little bit different than the other hundred and odd some games you play in the season.”
When an inning is complete, you won’t see him walking to the dugout the way most pitchers do. You won’t even see him jog in like the other eight guys he’s sharing a defensive alignment with. Canterino virtually sprints to the dugout when his work on the mound is finished for the inning.
“For sure! Get back in the dugout and let’s go hit,” he said.
As scouts have reported, the delivery is, indeed, unique. With hands together, they come up sharply at the same time his left knee comes up, followed by a high-energy delivery that doesn’t appear to give batters much time to pick up the ball in his right hand.
“It (the delivery) was something I actually picked up in high school,” Canterino explained. “I went to a day camp for pitching and we were doing a drill where we moved our hands and our leg up and down in unison to try to keep our top half and our lower half in sync. Then when I was throwing a bullpen later, they said, ‘your bottom half gets out in front of your top half a little bit, so maybe work on that drill where you try to keep your top half and lower half in sync.’
“For some reason, it just stuck with me. I kept on trying to repeat it and it just stuck with me, bringing my hands up high. It’s a little bit more exaggerated than everybody else, but it’s helped me to this point and if it’s added a little bit of deception, that’s alright, too.”
As the Kernels prepare for what they hope to be a deep playoff run, Canterino could play a critical role. Many starting pitchers at the lower levels are near to reaching organization-established innings limits, but Canterino is hoping he’s good for at least a couple more games, despite throwing a season’s worth of innings at Rice this spring. His workload this year hasn’t been much different than in previous seasons.
“I threw 96 (innings) my freshman year. 94 my sophomore year, but another 25 to 30 during the summer. And then 99 1/3 this year, but I have 25 more (in professional ball). I’m about the same inning total that I had last year.”
Unlike his peers that have been making starts roughly once a week since the season began, Canterino had several weeks of rest between the end of his college season and his first professional work. In addition to giving some extended mid-season rest, he also believes the break has helped his velocity.
“I feel like maybe I’ve gotten stronger, a little bit, so I think (the fastball velocity has) ticked up a little bit towards the start of when I came (to Cedar Rapids),” he said. “The arm feels good and the velo is definitely where I want it to be.”
“He does have a limit on how many innings and pitches he can throw a night,” Dinkelman confirmed. “That’s been set in stone ever since he’s been with us. So, we’ll get him out there, let him pitch and hopefully give us five good innings every time.”
As for that mechanical engineering degree, Canterino said he’s 21 credit hours short of graduating from Rice and he definitely plans to compete that degree. “I know that, with where I stand right now, regardless of what happens with baseball, I still want to be an engineer after I’m done playing,” he said.
But as much as he might enjoy those problem sets, he’s not planning on heading back to school anytime soon.
“After baseball. Not until after baseball,” he said, with conviction. “I feel comfortable with where I’m at right now.”
Follow Matt Canterino on Twitter at @Cotton_Cante.