Baseball player throws the ball during a game

Sandy Alcantara Works His Way Into Cy Young Contention

One of the safer assumptions of baseball writing is that the best time to snag an interview with a starting pitcher is the day after he starts, because that’s typically his lightest workday.

But on Monday morning, the hour-long availability in the Miami Marlins’ locker room at Citi Field came and went without a single glimpse of Sandy Alcantara.

“He goes into the gym and like two hours later, he emerges,” one Marlins front office person said when asked about Alcantara’s whereabouts.

And that’s how a 20-something pitcher becomes the game’s most unique unicorn this side of Shohei Ohtani.

Alcantara heads into tonight’s scheduled start against the New York Mets as not only the leader in the National League Cy Young race (his odds are +225 at BetMGM and +250 at DraftKings, well ahead of the San Diego Padres’ Joe Musgrove, who is +450 at both books) and the major league leader in ERA at 1.72, but as a pitcher building a reputation as the type of old-school workhorse thought to be extinct.

“A lot of guys say, hey, I want to be great and I want to be a great pitcher — I want to be this or that,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Monday morning. “And then they don’t quite back that up with the work that they do and the focus that they put in. Sandy has backed up everything he said he wanted to be and just continues to go on that path.”

Alcantara, who leads the majors with 99 1/3 innings pitched this season after ranking fourth with 205 1/3 innings last season, was one of seven pitchers to throw at least 180 innings in both 2019 and 2021. His 544 1/3 innings since 2019 rank third behind only the Philadelphia Phillies’ Zack Wheeler and the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (Alcantara is one-third of an inning ahead of the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, who is also scheduled to start tonight). 

Among pitchers with at least 500 innings since 2019, only Cole (2.88 ERA) has a lower ERA than Alcantara’s 3.16 ERA.

Alcantara’s repertoire is noteworthy even in a game filled with power pitchers displaying exquisite command. Both his sinker and fastball are clocked in the high-90s, while his change-up is measured at 90 mph-plus and his slider registers in the high-80s. 

“He’s special — had really four pitches today, we saw a fourth one we hadn’t seen much,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said Sunday. “He’s got a lot of attributes that just figure into winning baseball. It’s the reason why he’s carrying an ERA with ‘1’ next to it. Shouldn’t feel like he’s picking on us.”

Yet it’s not simply the sheer numbers and stuff elevating Alcantara amongst his peers. At 26, Alcantara is by far the youngest and least experienced of the pitchers who bookended the pandemic-shortened campaign with 180-inning seasons. With two outs recorded tonight, he’ll be halfway to becoming just the fourth pitcher since 2017 to produce at least two 200-inning seasons at age 27 or younger.

And in an era in which pitchers are encouraged to throw as hard as possible for as long as possible, Alcantara has managed to pair dominance and durability with efficiency — as evidenced yet again Sunday, when he threw 106 pitches while giving up two runs over eight innings and earning the win in the Marlins’ 5-1 victory over the Mets.

It was the eighth straight start in which Alcantara threw at least seven innings, a streak that includes a complete game win over the Atlanta Braves on May 22 as well as the rarest of modern day pitching feats, a nine-inning no-decision in the Marlins’ 2-1, 10-inning victory over the Washington Nationals on June 8.

Alcantara’s streak is the longest since Jacob deGrom lasted at least seven innings in eight straight starts on his way to winning a second straight NL Cy Young Award in 2019. Alcantara’s ERA over his current stretch is 0.99 — almost twice as low as deGrom’s ERA (1.77) during his run. DeGrom had 66 strikeouts over 56 innings in his streak. Alcantara enters tonight with 59 strikeouts in his last 63 2/3 innings. 

“He’s got a great arm, he’s got a delivery that he continues to work on to smooth out, he throws like he does without a lot of — it doesn’t look like max effort, you feel like he could throw harder if he really wanted to,” Mattingly said. 

The presence of a manager who remembers when such lengthy streaks were commonplace — when Mattingly won the American League Most Valuable Player award with the New York Yankees in 1985, teammate Ron Guidry had 10- and eight-start stretches in which he threw seven innings every time out — has aided Alcantara’s throwback development.

“His thought process is different than today’s game,” Mattingly said. “I remember when he first started, our analytics guys were like, oh, they don’t want him to throw his changeup. They want him to strike out more people and all this stuff, And Sandy was like ‘I don’t care about strikeouts. I want to pitch deep into games.’ There’s days when he needs a strikeout, he can.

“But in general, I think he’s just as happy to put the ball on the ground, get an out quick, move on and be able to stay out there. And that’s a different mentality than we kind of teach in the game today.”

And it begins with the day after the start, where Alcantara might spend even more time in the gym than his teammates and executives realize. A feature in The Miami Herald on Sunday detailed a workout regimen that includes 2 1/2 hours in the gym, where he’ll squat 400 pounds and run 60 minutes on the treadmill.

The ever-evolving result of that work will take the mound again tonight, when Alcantara will look to continue building his case as the first Cy Young winner in Marlins history while further developing into the game’s most unique workhorse.

“It’s like anything else, right?” Mattingly said. “You watch your kids grow, you don’t realize how much taller they are until you put them on that measuring stick two years later and it’s like ‘wow.’ And I think that’s Sandy. You see small increments continue to go and then all of a sudden it’s like ‘Whoa, he’s a lot better than when he started.’”

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