After an unusual season that resulted in their first playoff berth since 2003, the Miami Marlins‘ expectations for the 2021 season were no different than the year prior. Continue to power through the rebuild and let young guys develop. The Marlins philosophy had been on display for a few years and Sandy Alcantara represented that process. The Marlins acquired the now 25-year-old in the Marcel Ozuna trade after the 2017 season. He was oozing with front-line starter potential with high velocity, quality secondary pitches, and some signs of swing and miss ability. All he needed was time to develop and he was given it in Miami. Allowed to work through his struggles and learn from them to slowly find his form in 2020. Now, in 2021, Alcántara has discovered himself on route to an excellent season. Here’s how Sandy Alcantara became the Marlins ace this season.
The Change in the Mix
The Marlins ace has featured five pitches in his arsenal since the 2018 season. While he’s predominantly been sinker, fastball, slider heavy combination, he’s made some tweaks to his mix this year. He’s lowered the fastball usage by about 5% and the slider usage by about 2% and has nearly tripled his changeup usage this year. He occasionally throws a curveball but it’s rare and when he does throw it, the pitch gets smacked around so he may not throw it much moving forward. Now, Alcantara has developed a more even mix of his main four pitches with his four-seam fastball being used the least amount at a hair under 20% and his sinker the most at 28.3%.
Alcantara’s sinker is one of the best in baseball. Not only can he dial it up to 100 mph, averaging 97.4 mph on the pitch. He also generates a lot of movement on the pitch as well. He throws the pitch at a 1:30 spin direction but it does have some deviation in spin-based spin direction and observed spin direction. The pitch is thrown with 90% spin efficiency, so the force of gyro spin and potential seam shifted wake, appears to be low. Yet, because of the spin direction, he is getting equal parts side spin and backspin which helps him generate his above-average horizontal and vertical break. It’s thrown primarily arm side and used as a setup pitch for his off-speed pitches. Throwing it on the first pitch to 40% of hitters and throws when he’s down in the count 37% of the time. It’s been effective for him as the pitch as an RV of -8. The second highest in his arsenal.
The highest RV in his arsenal is -11 with his changeup. Alcantara dramatically changed the usage of his changeup as it has become his primary secondary pitch with a 26.6% usage rate, just under his sinker. Thrown with a 1:45 spin direction but an hour of deviation with an 87% spin efficiency could point to some potential seam shifted wake effects on the ball. Much like his sinker, the pitch moves in above-average ways both horizontally and vertically. Given its observed spin direction of 2:45, we can assume that the ball is getting relatively similar parts side spin and backspin, much like his sinker. That’s why his changeup has been so good for him this year. They have the same extension point and release point, so they look the same out of the hand. Then they move in similar ways but his changeup is 6 mph slower than his sinker so hitters will just swing right over the top of it. He has a near 19% swinging strike rate on the pitch this year. It is the perfect pairing with his sinker.
Sandy Alcántara, Hellish 98mph Sinker and 93mph Changeup K sequence. ? pic.twitter.com/caknwXAytG
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 20, 2021
Alcantara’s slider has always had excellent peripheral statistics but has never gotten the results he’s wanted. Never posted an xwOBA above .295 in years he threw it at least 100 times but for the last three years, the problem with the pitch has been location. He has a tendency to leave the pitch over the middle of the plate too much and gets burned via the home run or extra-base hit. He started to correct the issue in 2020 and while he has still given up three home runs with the pitch this year, he’s generated a lot less contact against the pitch. His swinging-strike rate on the pitch has gradually increased over the past three seasons and reached a near-elite rate this season at 17.6%. He’s induced weak contact on the pitch for the most part so as long as the location can remain down in the zone or out of it entirely, he could reach even further heights with that pitch.
Realizing the Ground Ball Potential
If you’re a sinker primary pitcher, the ability to generate ground balls is a near must. Looking at guys like Zack Britton, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Logan Webb, they throw primarily sinkers and generate a lot of ground balls when people make contact. It can be dangerous though living as a pitcher that relies on his defense to make plays. An example can be seen on Tuesday night when Loáisiga surrendered four earned runs after some batted ball luck and big defensive mistakes. Or the reverse can be seen as in Alcantara’s start on Tuesday where he went eight innings, faced 31 hitters only struck out three of them, and walked one of them. Yet, he generated 15 groundballs in that start according to Fangraphs. That helped him give up only one run but Miami’s offense was unable to score much while he pitched so he left with a no-decision.
Alcantara’s groundball potential has always been there. Yet, he had never posted a ground ball rate above 50%. Partially aided by the fact that he was not a sinker primary pitcher until recently despite the pitch registering a great movement profile since the beginning. So now that he’s turned into a primary sinkerball pitcher, the ground balls have been coming out in droves. He’s induced 55 ground balls with his sinker so far this year, good for a near 59% ground ball rate. Yet, his changeup has produced 54 ground balls in 12 less batted ball events which lead to a 66% groundball rate. Nearly 2 out of every 3 balls put in play against his changeup are on the ground. It’s going to be damn near impossible to elevate a changeup that moves the way his does and be thrown at 91 mph.
It’s even better to generate soft contact on the ground. Of the 154 ground balls that the Marlins ace has had hit off of him, under a third of them have been hard-hit. On the year, he ranks in the 70th percentile in terms of hard-hit rate. He’s offering a unique pairing of ability to make hitters put the ball on the ground, and not have it be hard-hit. Part of that is because he gets so many hitters to chase out of the strike zone with an above-average O-swing% and an average O-contact%. The other part is that it’s just really hard to hit a ball that moves as much as he does when it’s going 100 mph. Baseball is quite difficult and facing a 100 mph sinker and 91 mph changeup probably doesn’t make it any easier.
A New Work Horse
Given the nature of the 2020 season, there were a lot of questions about the workload that starting pitchers would be allowed to take on during the season. Many theorized that there may be a handful of pitchers who reach the 200-inning threshold. Near the halfway point of the season, there could be anywhere from five pitchers to 20 pitchers who end up reaching the 200-inning threshold. The pitcher in the best spot to reach that mark? Sandy Alcantara. He is currently second in the league in innings pitched by .1 innings. The leader, Trevor Bauer, is a notorious subscriber to the sticky stuff and as the season progresses may not pitch as deep into games. If you’re wondering about Alcantara, his spin rates in his start on Tuesday were down by less than 100 RPM, for the most part, a possibility in a normal season or him pitching without a standard sunscreen/rosin combination. Either way, his stuff won’t suddenly move less or not stay up, so he shouldn’t see a drop off in terms of his stuff.
Some people might see that Alcantar’s FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are all significantly higher than his ERA this year. While that may lead to some possible regression, there is a very simple explanation as to why he will outperform those metrics. Alcantara has cut down on the walks immensely, His 6.4% walk rate is the lowest of his career and good for a 70th percentile ranking. He does have a below-average strikeout rate but given his ability to generate ground balls, Alcantara can continue to keep his ERA well below the other estimators. They aren’t meant to be ignored here, but for heavy ground ball pitchers who lack an above-average strikeout rate, those metrics may underrate them. Even so, he is still sub 4 in all of those metrics so he could still be a 200-inning workhorse with a sub 4 ERA. There isn’t a fantasy manager out there who won’t sign up for that in a heartbeat.
Alcantara’s change from budding prospect to one of the best young pitchers in baseball has been fueled by his ability to work deep into games. A strategy that many teams don’t employ for starting pitchers as they once did. Alcantara has pitched at least 6 innings in every start but two but even has only thrown more than 100 pitches in four starts this year. He went at least seven innings in all four starts including three that he went eight innings. In one of the two starts, he didn’t complete six innings was a blowup start against the Dodgers. Not including that start, Alcantara has averaged 6.2 innings a start this year. He’s worked at least 8 innings in three of his last five starts. He has become Miami’s workhorse and one of the best in baseball.
Fueled by a nasty sinker and a great changeup, Alcantara has had a career year in the young all-star’s bright future. One of the best pitchers in fantasy baseball this year may only be getting started, as the new innings-eater mantra begins to take hold, Sandy Alcantara will look to lead Miami back into playoff contention.
Photos by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire & Clark Van Der Beken/Unsplash | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)