Hard-Throwing, Fast-Working Sandy Alcántara Is MLB's Perfect Pitcher

Zachary D. RymerSeptember 2, 2022

Sandy Alcántara has become the best pitcher in baseball, and the most exciting to boot. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

There's a compelling Cy Young Award race going on in the American League, where Dylan Cease suddenly has a chance to gain an advantage over Justin Verlander and Shane McClanahan while they're dealing with injuries.

The National League Cy Young Award race, on the other hand, has for a while been firmly in the grasp of the best pitcher Major League Baseball has to offer this season: Sandy Alcántara.

One might look at that paragraph and see not one, but two hot takes. But at best, these are lukewarm takes. Alcántara got every first-place vote for the NL Cy Young Award David Adler's latest poll on MLB.com, and Baseball Reference's wins above replacement doesn't leave any doubt about the Miami Marlins ace's present superiority over his peers:

Graph via Google Sheets.

The basic breakdown of rWAR is that it quantifies pitchers' value according to their innings pitched and runs allowed. Hence why it so dramatically favors Miami's 26-year-old right-hander, as his 185.2 innings lead MLB and his 2.13 ERA is second to Verlander's 1.84 mark.

Even the one moment this season that Alcántara looked mortal proved to be fleeting. After getting touched up for a season-high six runs by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 21, he turned right around and pitched a 10-strikeout complete game against them six days later.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, your thoughts:

Fabian Ardaya @FabianArdaya

Dave Roberts on Sandy Alcantara: “We ran into a buzz saw.”

A buzz saw Alcántara is indeed. And far from any regular ol' buzz saw, he's one that MLB probably wishes it could mass-produce.

A Pitcher with the Stuff of an Ace

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

You'll get a different picture of Alcántara's value if you consult FanGraphs WAR. Though it puts him near the top of the heap for qualified starting pitchers with a value of 4.9 WAR, it's Toronto Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman on top at 5.1.

This version of WAR runs on Fielding Independent Pitching, which generally rewards high-strikeout pitchers. Not guys like Alcántara, in other words. Setting aside his rookie cameo with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017, he's yet to log more strikeouts than innings in a season.

But of all the explanations for why this is, "Alcántara doesn't have the stuff" is not one of them.

His average fastball is 97.8 mph, tying him with New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole for tops among qualified starters. And he can and will go higher, with a top speed of nearly 101 mph.

Alcántara's heat isn't always simply fast moving. He throws the four-seamer when he wants something relatively straight, but his better fastball is a sinker that's been known to have physics-bending movement to his arm side:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Sandy Alcántara, 100.4 MPH Sinker with 18 inches of run. 🥴<br><br>100 mph ✔️<br>Insane Run ✔️<br>Enlarged Strike Zone ✔️ <a href="https://t.co/W99fjO1YMq">pic.twitter.com/W99fjO1YMq</a>

The four-seamer and sinker are but two of four pitches that Alcántara is throwing more than 20 percent of the time in 2022. This alone makes him something of a unicorn among modern starters, most of whom are three- or even two-pitch guys.

Against right-handed batters, Alcántara's primary out pitch is a slider that's holding them to a .190 average. He can push its velocity into the mid-90s, though arguably its best quality is how well its movement blends with that of his fastball:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Sandy Alcántara, 101mph Fastball and 93mph Slider, Individual Pitches + Overlay <a href="https://t.co/mmiMFcJSBq">pic.twitter.com/mmiMFcJSBq</a>

Left-handed batters, meanwhile, mainly get the changeup when Alcántara sniffs an out. It's unhittable in the same ways his slider is, in that it moves very fast yet also tends to wear a fastball-like disguise:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Sandy Alcántara, 98mph Fastball and 91mph Changeup, Overlay.<br><br>7Ks thru 4 <a href="https://t.co/qsURgTsguZ">pic.twitter.com/qsURgTsguZ</a>

Though Alcántara has primarily used his changeup to hold left-handed batters to a .144 average, righty batters haven't done much better to the tune of a .158 average.

It's not just that Alcántara's change gets whiffs on 34.9 percent of the swings against it. Even when batters put it in play, 70.2 percent of their results are ground balls. Kudos to Brandon Nimmo for coming close, but nobody has actually hit Alcántara's change over the fence yet.

Ultimately, it's not luck that's kept Alcántara's ERA down even as he's struck out only 167 batters across 185.2 innings. Take it from his .282 expected batting average on balls in play, which is currently the second-lowest mark ever recorded for a pitcher with at least 500 balls in play.

A Pitcher with the Durability of an Ace

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Succeeding primarily with a pitch-to-contact approach isn't the only way that Alcántara is defying the usual conventions of modern aces.

He's also not quick to burn out when he takes the ball. His 185.2 innings perhaps make this clear enough on their own, but let's not gloss over the fact that he has more complete games on his own than every other team:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Sandy Alcantara has 4 complete games this season.<br><br>That's more than any other TEAM in the league. <a href="https://t.co/xraI2MyckY">pic.twitter.com/xraI2MyckY</a>

All told, Alcántara's workload is out of a bygone era. His averages of 7.1 innings and 102 pitches per start blow away the league-wide averages of 5.2 innings and 86, and he's indeed only the third pitcher to hit those marks over at least a 20-start sample in the last six seasons. Before him, the most recent hurler to do so was Corey Kluber in 2017.

At 6'5", 200 pounds, it helps that Alcántara is built to work hard. But he also works smart, especially in the sense that he trusts his stuff. As the man himself said in July, according to Robert O'Connell of FiveThirtyEight: “When you believe in your stuff, you don’t have to worry.”

Alcántara believes in his stuff so much that he's essentially eschewing waste pitches, instead throwing a career-high 73.7 percent of his pitches in the "heart" and "shadow" of the zone. Among the results of that aggressiveness is a dearth of free passes. He's walking only 2.2 batters per nine innings, and he hasn't walked more than three batters in a start since May 1.

Alcántara also saves his best bullets for when he needs them. The deeper into a game he goes, the more he cranks up the velocity on his fastball:

Alcántara's insistence on efficiency and knack for load management could explain that rather than tiring as the season nears its conclusion, he's only getting stronger.

That's another picture provided by his fastball velocity, anyway, which began at an average of 97.5 mph in April and May and subsequently rose to 97.8, 98.0 and 98.1 mph across the next three months.

A Pitcher with the Tempo of an Ace

Bryan Cereijo/Getty Images

In addition to pitches, Alcántara apparently isn't a big fan of wasting time.

He may not be baseball's fastest-working starter—shout out to Oakland Athletics left-hander Cole Irvin—but Alcántara does like to keep a quick tempo when he pitches. He takes 15.5 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 223 seconds with runners on, both of which put him safely ahead of the league averages of 18.1 and 23.4 seconds.

Can any of this be tied directly to performance-related benefits? Frankly, it's hard to say.

There's a line of thinking that says pitchers who work quickly keep their fielders on their toes and thus cultivate better defense. But the data there is flimsy, and that's not the lone reason not to read too much into Alcántara's below-average .257 batting average on balls in play.

Another is that he's actually slowed down this year, at least with men on base. As there's known to be a correlation between pitchers working slower and throwing harder, this could be another reason why his velocity has held up within games and throughout the season.

Yet if there's at least one obvious benefit to Alcántara's relatively brisk tempo, it's the pace of the action. Consider these splits:

  • Marlins Games when Alcántara Starts: 2 hours, 59 minutes
  • Marlins Games when Others Start: 3 hours, 10 minutes

There are surely other factors for why the Marlins tend to conclude business in less time when Alcántara pitches. His pace is surely a factor, however, and an admirable one amid MLB's 11th straight year of averaging north of three hours per game. After all, too much baseball is no different from too much of any other good thing.

If the league had more pitchers like him, Commissioner Rob Manfred probably wouldn't be so gung-ho about bringing a pitch clock to the major leagues. When it nonetheless inevitably does come, the Marlins will be able to rest easy knowing that it shouldn't bring the ruination of the best pitcher on theirs or anyone else's staff.

Bully for them, MLB and really anyone who gets something out of Alcántara's holistic approach to pitching, and bummer for hitters who'll have to keep trying to solve him the hard way.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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