Sandy Alcantara Is the Most Important Man in the NL Pennant Race

© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have any reason to suspect that Sandy Alcantara is a sadist or a misanthrope, but if he is, the next week will be quite entertaining.

Certainly the Marlins right-hander has caused no end of pain or suffering, inflicting failure and frustration upon National League hitters to a level unmatched this season. Alcantara’s strikeout and walk numbers haven’t been exceptional this year. Nevertheless he’s done the most important thing a pitcher can do — prevent runs — at a conspicuously high level; his 2.32 ERA is second among qualified NL starters. Combined with the staggering volume of his work (he leads the league with 220 2/3 innings pitched in a season when no one else has broken 200 yet), Alcantara is among the favorites for NL Cy Young.

That individual hardware would obviously be the biggest prize for a pitcher who’s done great work for a fourth-place club. But with two series left in the regular season, Alcantara could — if he so chooses — have a greater impact on the remaining pennant race than any other player.

Now, if that sounds like a specious, slightly clickbaity premise, that’s because it is. Clearly, the most impactful player for the pennant race will probably end up being someone who’s actually, you know, participating in it. But let’s have some fun here and look at the pennant race from the perspective of what can go wrong.

For starters, let’s define the teams with something to play for. Five of the six division titles are locked up, as are five of the six Wild Card spots. That leaves the Mets and Braves to contest the NL East, and the Phillies and Brewers to fight it out for the no. 6 seed in the NL. The seeding battles in the AL Wild Card race are all well and good, but only the NL East winner will get a first-round bye, and only one of the Phillies and Brewers will make the playoffs at all. And while the Mariners are certainly playing like they’re trying to back out of a playoff berth, the Orioles haven’t shown anything like the spark necessary to actually chase them down.

Every game those four teams play will obviously be of enormous import to the NL playoff race, especially this weekend’s forthcoming Mets-Braves series, weather permitting. Two other teams, the Marlins and the Nationals, also play only those four teams (in some combination) through the end of the season. Miami has a four-game set against the Brewers and three against the Braves, while the Nationals have four against the Phillies and three against the Mets. Let’s set the Nationals aside for the time being, because they are … (consults notes) … ah yes, it’s right here. “Godawful” is the word I was looking for.

Because Alcantara is due to start twice in the Marlins’ final seven games, he’s very likely to take part in more individual plate appearances than any position player on the four teams vying for a playoff spot.

In his 31 starts so far this year, Alcantara has faced an average of 27.6 opponents, which is by far the most in the NL. (More on that later.) A position player might not come up that many times in an entire week. The average batting order position this year comes up about 4.17 times per game. Leadoff hitters obviously get to bat a little more frequently — an extra 0.4 of a plate appearance per game — but Alcantara’s involvement is still going to dwarf that of any hitter:

Projected Plate Appearances, Rest of Season
Player PA/G Games Remaining Projected PA
Alcantara 27.65 2 55.30
Average Batter 4.17 7 29.19
Average Leadoff Hitter 4.59 7 32.13

There are some allowances to be made for a position player’s ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball — it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Francisco Lindor could hit a key home run and then turn a game-saving double play an inning later, for example. Lindor would also take part in high-leverage situations late in the game that Alcantara likely would not. But a pitcher who gets two starts in a week has such a massive advantage in playing time it almost doesn’t matter.

Alcantara, of course, isn’t the only pitcher who’s slated to make two starts in pennant race games in the next week. Some of the others — Max Fried, Corbin Burnes, Ranger Suárez, Jacob deGrom — are quite good themselves.

But it’s hard to overstate the margin by which Alcantara is beating his contemporaries in volume. He’s faced 857 batters so far this season, tops in the NL by 64. The closest pitchers who’ll take part in the remaining playoff race are Burnes and Aaron Nola, both almost 100 batters faced behind Alcantara.

It’s not just that Alcantara has been healthy, he’s also pitching deeper into games than anyone else. He has five complete games this year; Nola is the only other NL starter with more than one.
Other high-volume starters on the teams in question — deGrom, Max Scherzer, Zack Wheeler— have battled injuries and either have been or are being nursemaided back to their full endurance.

Alcantara is facing a full two batters per game more than any other NL starter. Here’s how Alcantara stacks up against his own teammates, as well as the top starters from the four teams with uncertain playoff positions:

Batters Faced Per Game, Key NL Starters
Player Team BF G BF/G
Sandy Alcantara MIA 857 31 27.65
Aaron Nola PHI 760 30 25.33
Chris Bassitt NYM 730 29 25.17
Max Fried ATL 715 29 24.66
Kyle Wright ATL 715 29 24.66
Corbin Burnes MIL 762 31 24.58
Max Scherzer NYM 540 22 24.55
Zack Wheeler PHI 590 25 23.60
Charlie Morton ATL 705 30 23.50
Eric Lauer MIL 622 27 23.04
Kyle Gibson PHI 690 30 23.00
Pablo López MIA 712 31 22.97
Brandon Woodruff MIL 574 25 22.96
Ranger Suárez PHI 618 27 22.89
Taijuan Walker NYM 609 27 22.56
Ian Anderson ATL 493 22 22.41
Carlos Carrasco NYM 627 28 22.39
Braxton Garrett MIA 331 15 22.07
Jacob deGrom NYM 217 10 21.70
Trevor Rogers MIA 477 23 20.74
Pitchers highlighted in red are slated to make two more starts before the end of the regular season.

The only question left is this: Will Alcantara pack it in, or will he and Marlins manager Don Mattingly approach the last week of the season with an outlook of “We’re not happy until you’re not happy,” and try to play spoiler?

Certainly Alcantara has nothing to play for, but that’s been true for months, and he’s still thrown 17 innings in his past two starts, and pitched two complete games in the past five weeks. Mattingly, a lame-duck manager playing out the string, is hardly in a position to bow to extrinsic pressure, and Alcantara is hardly a young prospect to be sheltered: He threw 205 2/3 innings last year, and 197 1/3 innings in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic season.

It matters not at all whether the Marlins end the season with 66 wins or 70; in fact, since the games matter less, Mattingly might be inclined to let things ride with Alcantara in the late innings, while Craig Counsell or Brian Snitker in a similar situation would play it safe and hand the ball to a high-leverage reliever.

With the playoffs, or even a .500 record, no longer a possibility, Alcantara’s Cy Young case is a legitimate primary motivation. And there’s no better exclamation point to put on it than a pair of high-stakes victories against Burnes and Fried, the reigning Cy Young winner and the ace of the defending World Series champion. Failing that, there’s always the traditional rallying cry of the spoiler: spite. Ruining someone else’s season just because you can. Great things have been achieved for pettier reasons.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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mariodegenzgz
4 months ago

My only disagreement with this piece:

“Alcántara is among the favorites for NL Cy Young”

That’s wrong. He’s not “among the favorites”, he’s THE Cy Young Award winner in the NL this season and it’s not even close. Sandy should also get serious MVP consideration, by the way. He’s so impactful for his team, he dominates games he starts the way the aces of the past used to. And the funny thing is the Marlins haven’t even pushed Sandy a ton! He’s averaging 102 pitches per game, which is pretty standard for a modern ace.

stever20member
4 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Agreed. He may be frankly unanimous. Going to wind up with about a 30 inning lead over anyone in the NL and be in the top 2 in ERA? Yeah, that’s a winner almost every single time.

mariodegenzgz
4 months ago
Reply to  stever20

This is probably the most deserving Cy Young season when compared to competition in a while, and it bugs me that he’s only gonna end up with 14-16 wins. He would’ve cruised past 20 wins had the Marlins given him even average run support. The low run support makes his season even more impressive, however.

stever20member
4 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Probably since deGrom in 2018. Another guy who sure hurt for run support.

hughduffy
4 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

#1 starters end up facing other #1 starters. That depresses their runs scored per game start (RS/GS), as well as their runs scored during innings pitched (RS/IP).

For example, Max Fried went from having 5.6 RS/GS and 5.4 RS/IP in 2021 to having 4.2 RS/GS and 3.6 RS/IP in 2022. The Braves scored 4.91 R/G in 2021 and 4.90 R/G in 2022.

Believe it or not, Sandy Alcantara has gotten better run support this year than last. In 2021, he had 3.1 RS/GS and 2.9 RS/IP. In 2022, he had 3.6 RS/GS and 3.2 RS/IP. The Marlins scored 3.85 R/G in 2021, but only 3.59 R/G in 2022.

If the Marlins had given him average run support (3.59 R/G), 3 losses would be wins, and if that run support had been earlier in the game, 4 no decisions might have been wins.

He’s no 2021 Jacob deGrom though. deGrom received only 2.8 RS/IP in 2021.