In the eighth inning of a game in Atlanta on May 28, Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara toyed with his prey. Braves batter Adam Duvall had been separated from the herd, and Alcantara had cornered him. On the Braves broadcast, Chip Caray, Jeff Francoeur, and Paul Byrd discussed the forthcoming two-out, 1-2 pitch like narrators on a nature documentary chronicling a kill.
“Just think about this right now,” said Francoeur, a former free swinger now retired to the safety of the broadcast booth. “Duvall’s seen three pitches this [at-bat]. He saw a sinker at 99 to start off, saw the changeup at 93, and now you got a slider at 90 that you got out in front of.”
Byrd, once a soft-tossing nibbler, admired the majesty of pitching’s apex predator. “And this is after 107 pitches,” he said.
“Exactly,” Francoeur continued. “And so as a hitter you’re sitting right there and, Chip, you have no idea what’s coming. He could throw any one of three pitches right now in this count, so you really go into protect mode. And that’s what he wants. He wants you on protect mode.”
Francoeur underestimated Duvall’s dilemma: Alcantara could have thrown any one of four pitches in that count. He opted for the one Duvall hadn’t yet seen in that inning, a four-seam fastball that Alcantara dialed up to 100 mph and blew by the batter below him on the baseball food chain. Duvall’s protect mode was no match for Alcantara’s attack mode: Four pitches, four pitch types, and four offerings upwards of 90 miles per hour, culminating in Alcantara’s 14th K of the day—and his third of Duvall.
Alcantara doesn’t just impress opposing clubs’ broadcasters. He also, understandably, impresses himself. “I watch my video, and I see everything I do,” he says. “I see how they hit it, I see my breaking ball, my two-seamer. And I say to myself, just keep doing it, because you so nasty.”
Hitters have been saying as much all season—if not with words, then with whiffs and weak grounders. Alcantara, who turned 27 last month, pitches for a low-profile team, receives scant run support, and won’t appear in the playoffs, but he has a strong case as MLB’s most valuable pitcher and is deservedly the clear favorite for the National League Cy Young Award. Even though the Marlins shut him down rather than have him make a scheduled 33rd start on the last day of the regular season, he’ll lead the next-hardest-working pitcher by more than 20 innings pitched. He’s the first pitcher to amass so many frames (228 2/3) and complete games (six) since 2016—another era, from a pitcher-usage perspective. And he’s hardly an innings eater who’s all about bulk; his 2.28 ERA is sixth-lowest among moundsmen with at least 100 innings pitched, and lowest among NL pitchers who don’t have help from the Dodgers’ league–leading defense. That combination of quantity and quality propelled him to the top of the Baseball-Reference pitcher WAR leaderboard: His 8.1 makes him the first pitcher to top 8 WAR since 2018.
Two of the attributes that make Alcantara “so nasty” were on display against Duvall. Most obviously, he throws hard: No starting pitcher who’s hurled at least 1,000 pitches this season has a higher average velocity than Alcantara’s 94.4 mph across all pitch types. More subtle, but similarly crucial, is how he deploys those pitch types. “I’ve got four pitches that I can use anytime,” Alcantara says, adding, “When you are the kind of pitcher that has four pitches … it’s hard for the hitter to guess, because they don’t even know what pitch you want to throw.”
In baseball and beyond, adding more variables to an equation makes it more difficult to solve. From the three-body problem to the Monty Hall problem, from Three-card Monte to the hat shuffle game on the ballpark big board, and from “these questions three” to “three strikes and you’re out,” a trio of obstacles or unknowns tends to two—hence the frequent observation that a pitcher on the bubble between the bullpen and rotation needs to “work on a third pitch.” Alcantara has four regular offerings, which in and of itself isn’t unusual. What’s notable is how he uses them: almost evenly. He’s thrown his most-used pitch less than 28 percent of the time, and his least-used pitch more than 22 percent of the time. In more than 1,800 starting pitcher seasons of at least 100 innings dating back to the beginning of the pitch-tracking era in 2008, only Edinson Volquez in 2012 has had a more egalitarian—or as Crash Davis might say, democratic—distribution. (Excluding any offerings thrown less than 1 percent of the time.)
Here are his four pitches of the apocalypse, as thrown to the doomed Duvall in May and as gripped by Alcantara at The Ringer’s request in the clubhouse at Citi Field last week.
Alcantara is conscious of maintaining this equilibrium. “I try to mix, try to be in the same [range],” he says. “If I throw like 20 percent of my four-seam, I’ve got to throw 20 percent of my two-seam. I think that’s why I’ve been having great success this year.”
The plot and table below show how hard to predict Alcantara’s pitch mix makes him. His overall usage rates are roughly the same in the most common counts, and while the right-hander varies his pitch palette somewhat by batter handedness—throwing pitches with smaller platoon splits (four-seamers and changeups) to lefties and those with larger platoon splits (sinkers and sliders) to righties—he rarely lets the count dictate his approach. Consequently, the hitters who face him can’t let the count dictate their approaches, either; Alcantara makes it almost impossible to sit on a particular pitch, which puts opponents in protect mode and helps him induce ill-advised swings while preventing the most damaging kind of contact. (Per Statcast, Alcantara rates in the 93rd and 81st percentiles in chase rate and Barrel rate, respectively.)
“His ability to throw really any pitch in any count—as a hitter, it would be very difficult to hit off of that,” says Alcantara’s catcher, Jacob Stallings. “I know there’s less hitter-count fastballs now than there ever have been, but a guy like him … just not knowing if you’re going to get a 100 mph sinker or a 92 mph changeup, it’s obviously just a testament to him, all the different things that he can do.”
Granted, Alcantara’s four-on-the-floor rhythm on the mound isn’t an option that’s available to every pitcher. Alcantara can apportion his pitches so symmetrically because he has four above-average offerings in his arsenal—and no single pitch that rates far above the others and thus merits disproportionate usage. According to analyst Cameron Grove’s PitchingBot tool, all four of Alcantara’s pitches feature average or better “stuff” grades and average or better “command grades,” which translates to three overall grades of 60 or 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. (The four-seamer lags slightly behind with a still-above-average 55 grade.)
Alcantara’s sinker, which he calls a two-seamer, comes the closest to an elite “stuff” grade, by virtue of its plus speed and horizontal movement. Each of the other pitches exhibits some component that the model dings: The four-seamer doesn’t get great rise, the slider isn’t sweepy, and the changeup isn’t well separated from his fastball in terms of speed or movement. Although he’s 6-foot-5, his extension is subpar, so his “perceived” velocity is a tick lower than his real release speed, and as a right-hander who has a conventional arm slot, he doesn’t derive any advantage from unfamiliarity, unlike a lefty or someone who throws from an atypical angle.
That’s not to say that the model doesn’t think highly of Alcantara based on pitch specifications alone: Among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 2,000 pitches this season, he’s tied for 16th in stuff-based expected run value per pitch, and he climbs into a tie for 12th once command is factored in. (One of the pitchers whose stuff is tied with his: the Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen, whom the Cardinals traded to Miami along with Alcantara and two other players in December 2017 for Marcell Ozuna. Oops.) In terms of actual results, though, only Shohei Ohtani leads Alcantara in run value per pitch. What could account for Alcantara surpassing his already rosy expected stats?
For one thing, Grove notes that changeups are tough to model, and Stallings says the off-speed pitch’s resemblance to his batterymate’s harder stuff is actually an advantage: “It’s a hard changeup, but it has a ton of depth to it, so it’s really hard to differentiate that from his sinker, which I think makes the changeup so good because the spin coming in is similar. So it’s just a tough pitch for the hitter to recognize.” Hard changeups tend to induce grounders more so than whiffs, and sure enough, Alcantara has one of the highest grounder rates with the pitch, with a so-so whiff rate. He used the change to get a groundout from Joey Gallo in his highest-leverage situation of the season, with a one-run lead, two outs, and the bases loaded in the ninth inning of an August 27 game against the Dodgers.
Alcantara, who was signed by St. Louis out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 and broke into the bigs in the bullpen four years later, has upped his changeup frequency this season to a career-high rate, more than doubling its usage rate in any year prior to 2021. “The changeup is the key this year beside my two-seam,” he says. “I’ve been doing a great job trying to work on it [and] to be consistent throwing it on the plate.” Stallings says the pitch “doesn’t really get a ton of attention. But when his changeup is on, it’s as good of a changeup as I’ve ever seen.”
Alcantara’s overall results with the pitch are plenty impressive: He actually leads all pitchers in total changeup run value (and, on a rate basis, places second among starters to Rays ace Shane McClanahan). That’s quite a come up for a pitch that the Baseball America 2018 Prospect Handbook called “wildly inconsistent and rarely used” and graded as a future 40, though the report did acknowledge that it “flashes above-average potential.” Alcantara’s capacity to harness the pitch’s potential—and refine his formerly spotty command, which both BA and other prospect evaluators cited as another flaw that might limit him to relief long term—speaks to his work ethic and desire to make the most of his considerable physical gifts. Alcantara’s strength is reflected in both his durability and his ability to hold his velocity, which tends to rise the deeper he goes into games.
However, both Alcantara and Stallings acknowledge that the nearly unprecedented distribution of his pitches probably plays a part in his unparalleled knack for his primary goal of going deep into games. “It’s definitely more important to him to get deep into games than to strike out 12 in five or six innings,” Stallings says. “I think his mentality is just to get as deep into the game as possible and get outs however possible without giving any runs up. I don’t think he thinks a ton about strikeouts until he needs to.” Alcantara confirms, “I don’t care about strikeouts. I can throw eight innings with four strikeouts, five strikeouts, [or] I can throw six innings with seven strikeouts. I like getting more soft contact.”
Judged by the standards of his low-workload era, Alcantara is one of the longest-lasting starters ever. The only arms ever to make at least 25 starts in a season and surpass or come close to Alcantara’s ratio of average innings pitched per start relative to the MLB baseline were Rick Langford and Mike Norris of the 1980 A’s, whose hard-driving manager Billy Martin told his pitchers not to even look at the bullpen, because there wouldn’t be anyone there.
Highest Ratio of Pitcher IP/GS to League IP/GS, Min. 25 GS
Alcantara’s innings counts (excluding his scoreless frame in the All-Star Game) aren’t just head and shoulders about the league average; they’re also at least forehead and ears above the closest competitor. No league leader has outpaced the majors’ second-most-prolific pitcher by 20-plus innings since Phil Niekro in 1978 and 1979; no non-knuckleballer has done it since Mickey Lolich in 1971. Alcantara’s complete-game total doubled that of Framber Valdez, his nearest rival (if you can call him that), a first in MLB history. He didn’t do it by racking up many more triple-digit pitch counts than anyone else; in that category, he didn’t even lead the league. He did it by being efficient. And he did that, in part, by deploying his pitches in such a way that he didn’t overplay his hand.
Although most pitchers’ performance degrades as the game goes on, Alcantara allowed the same OPS his third time through the order as he did the second. That could be because he mixed his pitches so adeptly that even the third time through, hitters still hadn’t learned his patterns. Prior research has shown that pitchers who have evenly distributed repertoires suffer smaller times-through-the-order penalties than those with top-heavy repertoires, who have no choice but to give opponents a lot of looks at the same pitches. That finding holds true in 2022. Entering Tuesday’s games, 102 pitchers had thrown at least 2,000 pitches this year. If we rank them by how democratically distributed their pitch types are and then split the sample in two, the 51 with the most evenly parceled out pitches endured a weighted-average decline of 25 points of wOBA from their first time through to their third time through. The 51 with the most lopsided distributions suffered a decline of 42 points.
Grove has calculated that throwing four or more of the same pitch type to the same hitter in the same game leads to diminished effectiveness, even without diminished stuff:
The effectiveness of a pitch decreases significantly the more that a hitter sees it during a game.
This graph shows how pitchers get worse results (red line) when the batter sees more of the pitch, while pitch quality stays roughly constant.
— Cameron Grove (@Pitching_Bot) November 21, 2021
We can call a pitch of a type that the hitter has already seen at least three times in the game a “danger pitch.” Among four-pitch starters who’ve thrown at least 100 innings this season, the median pitcher throws 38.7 percent danger pitches the second time through the order, and 65.0 percent danger pitches the third time through. Alcantara doesn’t alter his pitch mix each time through more than the whole league does, but because it was scrambled from the start, his danger-pitch percentages the second and third times through were only 24.0 percent and 54.4 percent, respectively—the second-lowest and fifth-lowest rates in the sample. “His stuff is so good, I don’t even know if familiarity matters,” Braves skipper Brian Snitker said after Alcantara’s 14-strikeout gem in May—his second dominant outing against Atlanta in one week. But even for someone with Alcantara’s stuff, the element of surprise can’t hurt. His four-pitch press didn’t do in only the likes of Adam Duvall; Alcantara also struck out NL MVP contender Nolan Arenado three times in one game, getting the third K with the same sampler of every weapon he has.
Well, almost every weapon. Here’s where we acknowledge that Alcantara keeps a fifth pitch in his back pocket: a curveball that he used to throw semi-regularly. “It’s really not a bad pitch,” Stallings says, but it is Alcantara’s worst one. He’s thrown it only 11 times this season—so few that one could count them on Antonio Alfonseca’s fingers. The last one was a hanger that Mike Moustakas almost hit for a homer on August 3. After that, Stallings says, “We were kind of like, ‘Huh, well, maybe we should stick with what we know.’” There’s no room for a fifth face on Mount Rushmore or a fifth pitch in Alcantara’s rotation, though he hasn’t forgotten how to hold it. “And the pitch that I never throw,” he says, mid-modeling session, laughing and flashing the grip.
Displayed on a stats site, Alcantara’s pitch mix looks like it could have been randomized. Maybe that’s why it works so well: You can’t predict random. But every pitch was the product of a considered decision by Alcantara and Stallings, who caught every inning Alcantara threw. “Him and me, we’re always together,” Alcantara says. “We got the same pitch in mind every time. When he puts that finger there, I don’t need to shake, because he knows what pitch I want to throw.” Despite the potential for decision paralysis, Stallings says it’s easier to choose from among a multitude of appealing pitches than to have fewer, inferior options: “You just figure out what’s on. And a lot of times it’s every pitch, so you can just kind of throw whatever you want.”
The 32-year-old Stallings, a Gold Glover last year, hasn’t hit or framed well this year, but he has been the man punching every pitch call into PitchCom for perhaps the majors’ most successful starter. He’d be proud to have caught every pitch of a Cy Young season, an accomplishment only three catchers can claim—Tim McCarver (with Steve Carlton in 1977), Damon Berryhill (with Greg Maddux in 1993), and Robinson Chirinos (with Justin Verlander in 2019). “I’m very thankful to him for just taking me on this ride with him,” Stallings says.
According to Baseball Prospectus, only eight pitchers who’ve faced 500 batters or more have had to deal with a higher-performing group of hitters than Alcantara has in 2022. One wouldn’t know it from how he’s handled them. Alcantara is a power pitcher, but he’s also extraordinarily well-rounded one, balanced both in his easy delivery and in what he delivers: four-seamer, sinker, slider, and changeup, four gifts that no hitter is happy to receive. They’re “all good options,” Stalling says. “So it’s hard for me to mess it up.” When they were working together, neither he nor Alcantara made many missteps this year.