Sandy Alcantara Is the Game’s Hardest-Working Starter — and One of Its Best by Jay Jaffe July 11, 2022 © Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports On the day he was officially named to the National League All-Star team for the second time, Sandy Alcantara continued to roll, underscoring his case to start the All-Star Game for the NL. The 26-year-old righty’s seven shutout innings against the Mets extended his scoreless streak to 19 innings and his run of starts lasting at least seven innings to 12 in a row, the longest in the majors in seven years. Matching zeroes with Taijuan Walker at Citi Field, Alcantara held the Mets to six hits and one walk while striking out four; the Marlins won 2-0 in 10 innings. The surprise wasn’t that he stifled the Mets so much as it was that he made a comparatively early exit by his high standards. Alcantara’s pitch count of 93 was 10 short of his major league-leading average through his first 17 turns, and was his shortest outing since his 83-pitch start against the Giants on Opening Day. In his last two starts, he’d thrown a career-high 117 pitches in a June 29 complete game against the Cardinals, then 107 in his July 5 follow-up, eight innings of two-hit shutout work against the Angels. After Sunday’s game, manager Don Mattingly praised Alcantara’s labor-intensive effort, suggesting that he didn’t have his best stuff, particularly when it came to throwing his slider for strikes: “It was probably one of his best performances from the standpoint where he wasn’t clicking with all his stuff… Today, he had to fight. He didn’t have all his stuff today. Him and [catcher Jacob Stallings] did a nice job of using his stuff and getting through it.” In pitching deep into games at a time when starting pitcher usage is in decline, Alcantara has become something of a throwback. Beginning with his May 11 start against the Diamondbacks, he’s lasted at least seven innings in 12 straight starts, a run that has included two complete games, the aforementioned June 29 tilt plus one on May 22 against the Braves; he also threw nine shutout innings in a game that went into extras against the Nationals on June 8. He’s averaged 7.89 innings per start while pitching to a 1.24 ERA and 2.40 FIP in the majors’ longest streak of seven-inning starts since the beginning of 2015: Consecutive Starts with 7+ Innings Since 2015 Pitcher Tm Strk Start End GS CG IP ERA FIP Sandy Alcantara MIA 5/11/22 7/12/22 12 2 94.2 1.24 2.30 Clayton Kershaw LAD 4/4/16 5/29/16 11 3 86.2 1.56 1.49 Rick Porcello BOS 7/29/16 9/19/16 11 3 84.2 2.34 2.99 Jeff Samardzija CHW 6/7/15 7/28/15 10 1 75.1 3.23 3.28 Dallas Keuchel HOU 8/21/16 5/5/17 9 1 67.2 2.00 3.82 Max Scherzer WSN 4/17/15 5/27/15 8 0 58.0 1.71 1.74 Clayton Kershaw LAD 8/12/15 9/19/15 8 1 61.0 1.33 1.59 Chris Sale CHW 9/18/15 4/26/16 8 1 59.0 1.83 3.29 Jacob deGrom NYM 8/17/19 9/25/19 8 0 56.0 1.77 2.21 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference If you dial back to the 2014 season — the majors’ lowest-scoring full season since 1976 at 4.07 runs per game — three pitchers had streaks longer than Alcantara’s, namely a 17-gamer by Kershaw, a 16-gamer by Félix Hernández, and a 14-gamer by David Price. With scoring, home runs, and strikeouts generally trending upwards since 2015, starting pitchers have thrown fewer innings per turn on a league-wide basis, and even now, they’re slightly below pre-pandemic levels: One has to go back to Kershaw and Price in 2014 to find a pitcher with a higher average of innings per start than Alcantara. In fact, just one other pitcher in the past six seasons has maintained an average of 7.0 innings per turn: Averaging 7.0 Innings Per Start Since 2014 Pitcher Team Season GS IP ERA FIP K% K%+ IP/GS Clayton Kershaw LAD 2014 27 198.1 1.77 1.81 31.9% 155 7.34 David Price TBR/DET 2014 34 248.1 3.26 2.78 26.9% 133 7.30 Sandy Alcantara MIA 2022 18 130.1 1.80 2.82 22.9% 102 7.23 Johnny Cueto CIN 2014 34 243.2 2.25 3.30 25.2% 123 7.15 Clayton Kershaw LAD 2016 21 149.0 1.69 1.80 31.6% 148 7.10 Adam Wainwright STL 2014 32 227.0 2.38 2.88 19.9% 97 7.09 Chris Sale CHW 2016 32 226.2 3.34 3.46 25.7% 123 7.07 Clayton Kershaw LAD 2015 33 232.2 2.13 1.99 33.8% 163 7.04 Dallas Keuchel HOU 2015 33 232.0 2.48 2.91 23.7% 118 7.03 Corey Kluber CLE 2017 29 203.2 2.25 2.50 34.1% 158 7.01 As you can see, among the recent pitchers to average seven innings per start, only Wainwright has done so while striking out fewer batters relative to his league’s average rate than Alcantara, and not by much. Though the wiry Marlin has struck out as many as 14 in a game (twice, including May 28 against the Braves), and though his 11.9% swinging strike rate is about 12% above the average for starters, he’s oriented more towards efficiency. His 3.69 pitches per plate appearance is about 5% below the average for starters (3.88), and 17th among those with at least 80 innings, well behind the major league-low 3.54 P/PA of the Yankees’ Jordan Montgomery. For Alcantara, pacing, weak contact, and an expansive arsenal are all keys. On the subject of pacing, Alcantara averages 97.9 mph with his fastball in the first inning… and 98.1 in the sixth… and the eighth, when he gets there, which he’s done in nine of his 17 starts. As he recently told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough, “If you start the game using all your velo, maybe you’re going to get tired in the third inning, maybe in the fifth. But I’m not like that. I like to start the game nice and easy, relax a little bit. After the fifth inning, I’ve got to use all my powers.” As for weak contact, Alcantara’s 86.7 mph average exit velocity places him in the 85th percentile, his 4.3% barrel rate and .335 xSLG are both in the 90th, and his .266 xwOBA and 2.54 xERA (both expressions of the same data) in the 93rd. Among qualified starters in either league, only Framber Valdez has a higher groundball rate than his 56.6%, only Justin Verlander has a higher infield fly ball rate than his 17.6%, and only Kevin Gausman and Carlos Rodón have lower home run rates than his 0.41 per nine. Alcantara’s 2.54 xERA, by the way, is the NL’s lowest among qualifiers; meanwhile, his 1.73 ERA is second in the NL behind Tony Gonsolin, and his 2.83 FIP fourth behind Rodón, Zack Wheeler, and Max Fried. Driven by his league-leading innings total (130.1, 19 more than runner-up Aaron Nola), his 3.6 WAR is a whisker behind Rodón for the league lead. As a workhorse, Alcantara is today’s Secretariat, leaving the rest of the field in the dust. Last week, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello provided some historical context for Alcantara’s innings advantage over Nola. As of Friday (a point since which Nola has been idle), Nola’s innings total represented 88% of Alcantara’s — the lowest relative share of innings by a major league runner-up since Dennis Martinez threw 85% of Phil Niekro’s total in 1979. Even using the two pitchers’ rest-of-season ZiPS projections, the chronological distinction would hold up. Alcantara, who was originally signed by the Cardinals out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, then traded to the Marlins in the Marcell Ozuna deal in December ’17, has been a regular member of the Marlins’ rotation since September ’18. He was solid in 2019, and served as the Marlins’ lone All-Star representative despite a 4-8 won-loss record and 3.82 ERA in the first half; he finished 6-14 with a 3.88 ERA, 4.55 FIP, and 2.3 WAR. After being limited to seven starts in the pandemic-shortened ’20 season due to a bout of COVID-19, he broke out last year, pitching to a 3.19 ERA and 3.42 FIP in 205.2 innings en route to 4.2 WAR. He’s taken another step forward this year because his four-seam fastball and changeup have been more effective than last season, while his sinker and slider have remained about as effective, no small accomplishment: Sandy Alcantara Pitch Comparison, 2021 vs. 2022 Pitch Year % Vel AVG SLG wOBA Whiff% 4-Seam 2021 21.6% 98.1 .234 .399 .295 23.3% 4-Seam 2022 25.3% 97.8 .193 .339 .261 22.0% Sinker 2021 28.2% 97.6 .229 .361 .280 18.0% Sinker 2022 24.5% 97.6 .236 .301 .275 12.4% Changeup 2021 23.5% 91.8 .229 .346 .278 30.8% Changeup 2022 26.4% 91.8 .147 .186 .174 36.1% Slider 2021 24.1% 90.4 .189 .335 .252 38.3% Slider 2022 23.3% 89.6 .200 .337 .256 31.6% SOURCE: Baseball Savant Changeups averaging nearly 92 mph, and going as fast as 94-95 mph! Sliders averaging around 90! Velocity isn’t everything, but Alcantara’s is elite. Among pitchers with at least 750 pitches thrown this year, his sinker and changeup both feature the highest average velos in the majors, while those of his slider and four-seamer rank third and fourth, respectively. But more than anything, the pitches are effective. Only four hurlers have four or more offerings with Statcast run values of -3 or lower, namely Alcantara, Fried, Shane McClanahan, and Joe Musgrove; Alcantara is the only one with four offerings worth -4 runs or lower, and three of his offerings are the most valuable among the group: The Best Broad Repertoires Pitcher 4-Seam Sinker Curve Slider Change Cutter Sandy Alcantara -5 -7 -4 -12 Shane McClanahan -3 -9 -3 -9 Max Fried -2 -6 -3 -10 -3 Joe Musgrove -3 -2 -4 -7 0 -5 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Pitchers with four pitches worth -3 runs or lower with at least 25 plate appearances ending in that pitch. That mix is a big part of the reason why Alcantara remains so effective deep into games, as he can give batters different looks. His .240 wOBA allowed while facing batters the third time through the order is the fifth lowest among pitchers with at least 80 such batters faced: Lowest wOBA, Third Time Through the Order Pitcher Tm TBF AVG OBP SLG wOBA Shane McClanahan TBR 84 .181 .190 .253 .194 Logan Webb SFG 115 .173 .243 .212 .212 Merrill Kelly ARI 93 .202 .226 .315 .235 Madison Bumgarner ARI 90 .181 .244 .277 .235 Sandy Alcantara MIA 139 .214 .252 .298 .240 Frankie Montas OAK 105 .202 .238 .333 .249 Yu Darvish SDP 113 .220 .239 .349 .254 Justin Verlander HOU 106 .200 .236 .370 .263 Carlos Rodón SFG 89 .213 .273 .325 .265 Triston McKenzie CLE 87 .195 .230 .402 .271 Minimum 80 total batters faced for a third time. Alcantara’s 139 batters faced in that context is 19 more than any other pitcher (Valdez is second). What’s more, if we include his fourth time through the order, his 172 is 36 more than any other pitcher, and his .226 wOBA (.193/.238/.273) is second only to McClanahan’s .190 (.176/.186/.247), though the latter’s 86 TBF faced in that context is half Alcantara’s total. Altogether, Alcantara is putting together a most impressive season, and if the All-Star Game were being played anywhere other than Los Angeles, he would be an easy choice to start for the NL. However, the Dodgers have not one but two candidates, complicating NL manager Brian Snitker’s decision. Gonsolin is in the midst of a breakout season of his own, with an 11-0 record to go with that 1.62 ERA, which reads easily as, “How can any idiot pick against that?” The answer is he’s thrown just 88.2 innings, and his 1.7 WAR is tied for 16th in the NL, less than half that of Alcantara; his 3.6 bWAR is third in the league, 1.6 WAR behind Alcantara (Fried is second with 4.4 bWAR). The other option from the Dodgers is Kershaw, who has even fewer innings (63.2) because he missed five weeks due to lower back inflammation. He’s pitched very well when available, with a 2.40 ERA and 2.57 FIP, though his 1.9 WAR is still only 13th in the league. The point is less his 2022 performance than the fact that he’s 34 years old, a three-time Cy Young winner and a sure-fire Hall of Famer who has never started an All-Star Game, while Cooperstown-bound peers Verlander (twice), Max Scherzer (four times), and Zack Greinke (once) have all had their shots. For Kershaw — who lost out on the 2013 start to Matt Harvey for the game played at Citi Field, but won his second Cy Young that year — to finally get that elusive start, in his home ballpark, would be a very nice touch. As I noted on Friday in making the case for Shohei Ohtani to start for the AL, the choice for how to define who’s worthy of an All-Star start (at any position) is a philosophical one for which there’s no clear-cut right answer: Even once you acknowledge that the game is first and foremost an exhibition for the fans, who, after all, are the ones responsible for the vote, you run up against the question of criteria. Are the selections simply supposed to represent the hottest players over the first 80-something games of the season? The most accomplished players from around the league? The biggest stars on the most successful teams? Or the players whose true talent level over a large sample size suggests that they’re actually the best? You could go any one of those ways and get different answers — or find fault with any of them, as well. For my money, a Kershaw-Ohtani pairing would be an ideal marquee matchup, particularly given the locale and the fact that Alcantara and Gonsolin are both in the midst of their first lights-out seasons and hardly household names. If you’re going to argue for Alcantara, you’d also have to concede that his performance and those of Fried (2.52 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 3.2 WAR), Rodón (2.70 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 3.7 WAR), and Wheeler (2.46 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 3.1 WAR) are pretty tough to separate, and all of those pitchers were as good or better than Alcantara last year, too — and we haven’t even talked about reigning NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, (2.20 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 2.6 WAR). Fried has 6.1 WAR for the past calendar year, for example, with Burnes and Wheeler tied for second at 5.8, and Alcantara fourth at 5.5. Choosing Kershaw would be an easy way of avoiding that hair-splitting, though doubtless, such a choice would have its critics. While I don’t envy Snitker’s choice, I’m not about to argue that Alcantara is unworthy. His run prevention has been exceptional, all the more so given his stamina and the way it stands out in the current context. Could he have the staying power to figure in the NL Cy Young race? I hope we get to find out.