Photo credit: David Monseur/Accent Images/Courtesy Akron RubberDucks
Joey Cantillo has been leading the charge for the 2022 Akron RubberDucks starting rotation, which just might be the most stacked in the minor leagues. After missing most of the 2021 season, not many people could have expected the lefty to lead Akron’s starters with a 2.04 ERA and .169 opponent average.
For Cantillo, the success he has found this year is expected. It all starts with a choice he made to aim for the Major Leagues as a high schooler in Hawaii.
As a young kid, Cantillo played more soccer than baseball as his dad had a big soccer background. However, as he got older, he was able to see his future in baseball was a lot bigger.
“I wasn’t bad at soccer in high school but it came to a point where I’m like, ‘Hey, I need to focus on baseball. This is what I’m going to do and I’m not trying to play soccer in college.’ I think that was the biggest thing to be like, ‘I’m going to let go of soccer and I’m going to focus on baseball.’”
The decision to put his all into America’s pastime paid off for Cantillo as he became a Hawaii high school baseball star at Kailua High School and began to draw interest from Division I colleges and MLB draft scouts.
Cantillo, who grew up avidly watching Clayton Kershaw, bet on himself and signed with the San Diego Padres after being taken in the 16th round. The University of Kentucky commit forgoed the chance to play in college but it was not an easy decision for him.
“I definitely wanted to go to school. I wanted to go to Kentucky. I thought it would’ve been fun. I really didn’t know if I was going to sign or not. Just thinking over everything that went down on draft day is such a crazy experience. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and what you think is going to happen doesn’t happen.”
After being selected by San Diego, Cantillo knew he had to take the chance to make his dream happen as fast as possible.
“I understood that I was 17 at the time and I believed in myself [to be able to say,] ‘Hey, my dream is to be a Major League Baseball player, not to go to Omaha or to be a college superstar. My goal is to be a big league superstar.’”
Early in his pro career, Cantillo put up good numbers pitching for Single-A Fort Wayne in the Padres system. However, 2020 would bring a lot of chaos into his young career. With no minor league competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cantillo was unable to showcase his stuff, like many other minor leaguers. His year got even more chaotic when he was sent to Cleveland with Josh Naylor, Cal Quantrill, Austin Hedges, Owen Miller and Gabriel Arias in the blockbuster Mike Clevinger trade. Cantillo didn’t know what to expect when he first heard the news.
“It was crazy. There was a whirlwind of emotions just because San Diego was the team that drafted me and I feel like I made a name for myself a little bit with them and the relationships you make are obviously important. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never really watched Cleveland that much.”
Soon, he would experience firsthand why Cleveland has made a name for itself as a starting pitching factory.
“From a baseball standpoint, it’s the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Cantillo gave credit to Guardians pitching coordinators Ben Johnson and Joel Mangrum as well as Akron pitching coach Owen Dew in helping him develop his game.
“Cleveland’s pitching development is the best for a reason. They got really good guys on the inside of it.”
Despite the positive change for Cantillo that his arrival to Cleveland brought, he faced major adversity in 2021, missing most of the year with a core injury.
“The injury happened right before the 2021 season here in Double-A and it was very tough being hurt. At the same time, it was a blessing in disguise for me to slow down and think about what I was doing and give me time to be like ‘I’m on my butt. I can’t do anything. I can’t do baseball.’ I basically wasn’t a baseball player for a few months last summer. I just focused on getting healthy.”
Cantillo has certainly bounced back in 2022 using a combination of his fastball, changeup, curveball and a new pitch he started using just this year to fool Eastern League hitters.
“First and foremost, my fastball has always been the lead pitch, whether it was 88 or 95 just because of the kind of extension I get, the spin and the efficiency of it.”
Anyone following the RubberDucks this year would have noticed how effective his offspeed stuff has been. His changeup has been a big pitch for him since he mastered it early on his time with the Padres and his curveball also seems to be picking more rotations with each start this season. Another big change in Cantillo’s game this year is the use of that new pitch.
“I’ve also thrown this cutter, which is new this year — like a cutter slider. It’s basically a slider, but I’m calling it a cutter because I’m trying to throw it as hard as I can. I think that’s been really big against lefties as just something different and gets them off the change up a little bit.”
All of Cantillo’s adjustments have certainly worked for him through more than two months of the season. In addition to his team leading ERA and opponent average, he carries a nice 12.5 K/9 and works out of trouble well leaving 78% of baserunners stranded. He doesn’t get hurt by the long ball much either, allowing just two homers in 53 innings.
Despite spending plenty of time in the Midwest in the last few years, dating back to his time in Fort Wayne, Cantillo holds his home state closely. He feels there is a small but tight knit baseball culture in Hawaii.
“There’s always two or three players every year that are going D1 or playing professionally. There’s a good group of us that are in the minor leagues that live on Oahu and we all train together at Tactical Strength in Hawaii. It’s a good system where the guys that are playing professionally all know each other and we all keep in touch and support each other.”
Joey Cantillo Profile
Hometown: Kailua, HI
High School: Kailua High School
Favorite music artists: Lil Baby, Lil Wayne, Future
Favorite food: Spicy ahi poke
Favorite baseball movie: Rookie of the Year
Favorite player growing up: Clayton Kershaw
Sport/position he would play if not baseball: Football/tight end
Favorite uniform in sports: Miami Heat Vice jerseys
Favorite part about Akron: Diamond Deli
Diamond Deli order: “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Our Brother Marc”
I’m interested in his parents’ roots. His name looks like Italy.