Marlins Ace Sandy Alcantara Shows Starters Going Deep Isn’t A Thing Of The Past
When Marlins manager Don Mattingly walked to the mound in the ninth inning of a June 29 game against the Cardinals, he had every intention of removing starter Sandy Alcantara.
Alcantara had already completed 8.1 innings and thrown 115 pitches. The Marlins held a 4-3 lead and had a reliever ready to go. Most pitchers would have considered it a job well done, handed the ball to their manager and walked off the mound happy to be in line for the win.
Alcantara, the Marlins’ ascendant 26-year-old righthander, isn’t most pitchers. Two outs away from a complete game, he told Mattingly in no uncertain terms that the game was his finish. After a brisk conversation, Mattingly walked back to the dugout with Alcantara still on the mound.
Two pitches later, Alcantara induced a game-ending double play, sealing the win and his second complete game of the year.
“I was so mad, man,” Alcantara recalled during all-star weekend in Los Angeles. “I was so mad when I saw him come to take me out of the game and I said, ‘No. I got this guy. I got it. I got it.’ And I got the double play. I told him, ‘You gotta believe me. You gotta believe in all my pitches.’ ”
In the age of starters throwing fewer innings than ever before, Alcantara is a throwback to an earlier era. Entering the all-star break, he had nine starts of at least eight innings during the 2022 season. No other pitcher had more than four.
Those nine starts of at least eight innings were also more than anyone had the entire 2021 season.
Alcantara stands in direct contrast to the MLB-wide trend of teams deciding whether to allow their starters to pitch more than two times through an order. With Alcantara, there is little hesitation sending him out to see hitters a fourth or fifth time, let alone a third.
“He’s like a 1960s pitcher in 2022,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It’s absurd. I’m glad I don’t have to face him all that much anymore. What he’s doing is special. The Marlins got a good one.”
Across baseball, the number of innings thrown by starting pitchers has been on a steady decline. In 2010, starters accounted for 67.1% of innings. By 2017, that number had dropped to 61.9%. Through the all-star break this year, they accounted for just 58.3% of all innings.
That steady decline has led to declarations that the workhorse starter is a dying breed headed for extinction. Teams’ embrace of macro-level data that shows pitchers are generally less effective after two times through the order has accelerated that decline. It has also led to much hand-wringing in front offices about the value of efficiency versus entertainment.
In that context, Alcantara has been more than just an outlier. Especially as a young starter still in his mid 20s, he’s been a symbol of hope that predictions about the demise of the workhorse starter are premature.
“When you have a great routine, you don’t have to worry about it,” Alcantara said. “You know you’re going to be able to compete. A guy like me who likes to compete, who likes to take care of myself, I don’t like to get tired.
“I don’t like to get tired. That’s why I spend so much time working in the gym, in the weight room. I think I just gotta keep doing what I’m doing.”
Routine and conditioning, of course, are big parts of the equation.
Two others are elite stuff and control.
Alcantara’s four-seam fastball and sinker both sit 97-98 mph and touch 101, and his changeup is a devastating, low-90s swing-and-miss offering with late movement he actually throws more often than either fastball. His fourth pitch, an 89-90 mph slider, has held opponents to a .198 average. He ties it all together with plus control.
Alcantara doesn’t strike out an overwhelming number of batters despite his high-octane stuff. What he does do is fill up the strike zone and draw weak contact, allowing him to record quick outs and keep his pitch count low enough to last deep into games.
“It’s like Clayton (Kershaw). It’s like Jacob deGrom. Every pitch has intent. Every pitch is around the zone,” Freeman said. “And guys pitch to contact, but his contact, he’s throwing 99 (miles per hour). It’s easier to pitch to contact when you do that.”
Many pitchers have stuff. Fewer and fewer have durability. Alcantara has the rare blend of both. With it, he is establishing himself as not only one of the best pitchers in baseball and a frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award, but as living proof that it is still possible for pitchers to pitch effectively deep into games.
“Just his stamina, it’s out of this world how he can still throw that hard that late in the game,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He’s at 120 pitches and he’s still throwing 100 (miles per hour) in the ninth inning . . . It’s very special and rare.”
“It blows my mind. And it seems like he’s not slowing down at all either.”
THE STARTERS’ SHARE
The percentage of total innings thrown by starting pitchers has declined steadily throughout baseball history.
The workload share for major league starters approached 100% of all innings in the first decade of the 20th century, slipped below 90% in the 1920s, below 80% in the 1950s and below 70% in the 1980s.
Starters accounted for approximately two-thirds of all MLB innings in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s before falling off sharply this decade—57% of all innings—as starters have been subject to quicker hooks to avoid facing lineups for a third time.
However, baseball may have reached an inflection point for starters’ endurance. The rate of starts lasting at least seven innings had increased from 12.7% in 2021 to 13.9% this season, despite a shorter ramp-up period because of a condensed spring training. Likewise, the total number of starts of seven innings or more increased from 615 last season to a prorated total of 678 in 2022 through the all-star break.
Have reports of the workhorse starting pitcher’s demise been exaggerated? Stay tuned.
Share of IP by starters