How Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara became MLB’s most reliable workhorse

NEW YORK – The door to Sandy Alcantara’s childhood home in the Dominican Republic opened onto a street that doubled as a ball field. As the kids in his Azua neighborhood gathered to play after school, Alcantara ran outside to join them. The kids used crates of oranges, sometimes bought, sometimes stolen, in place of a baseball. The fruit spattered on contact, but Alcantara didn’t care. He ruled over these oranges.

“I didn’t like it when they took me out of the game,” he said. When other kids offered to throw, Alcantara resisted. “I like to pitch innings,” Alcantara said. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve played in the streets. I like pitching.”

More than a decade later, Alcantara (7-2, 1.72 ERA) has evolved into a 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-hander with a modern arsenal and a throwback approach. For the first two months of the season, no pitcher in baseball has gone deeper into games and scored better than Alcantara. At 26, he has become a rising ace for the Miami Marlins while penning a case to start the All-Star game in Los Angeles next month.

After an eight-inning jewel and two runs Sunday at Citi Field, Alcantara finished the seventh inning for the eighth straight season and extended his position atop the MLB leaderboard. He logged 99.1 innings in 2022; No other pitcher had reached 90 heading into Monday’s games. These innings of Alcantara are of high quality. According to the Baseball Reference, he led all pitchers in wins over the reserve. Only Dodgers pitcher Tony Gonsolin (1.42 ERA) and Padres starter Joe Musgrove (1.59) had posted better ERAs. Alcantara had thrown 20.1 more innings than Musgrove and 36 more than Gonsolin.

At a time when starting pitchers often dive after five, at a time when teams try to maximize weapon efficiency by limiting repeated exposure, Alcantara remembers a simpler time. “He’s one of those guys,” said co-starter Pablo López, “who wants to finish what he started.” In all 14 of his starts this season, he’s gone through batting order for the third time. He held hitters to a .567 OPS at first glance. In his third run he only gets better with 0.526 OPS against him. “His ability to just get stronger as the game progresses is quite remarkable,” said catcher Jacob Stallings.

After Sunday’s seventh inning at Citi Field, Marlins manager Don Mattingly faced a choice. Alcantara had thrown 94 pitches. Miami led by three runs. The team had won once in the previous week. The top of the Mets order would come for the eighth. Mattingly thought the decision was academic: He stuck with his starter.

Alcantara made his manager look smart. He buzzed through three batters. His fastball stayed steady at 98mph – among the starters only Reds rookie Hunter Greene throws a harder fastball than Alcantara, who has been sitting at 97.7mph this year. He fanned out fielder Starling Marte with a 93.1 mph switch.

“It could get tough for an inning somewhere,” Mattingly said. “And then he gets into a groove again, and it’s like, ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.’ He just likes to go through guys. It’s strange, isn’t it? You might think he’s getting tired. But then you see him in the eighth, speeding at 100 mph and looking like he’s playing tag. Everything seems easy to him.”

His journey from the street games in Azua to the majors has been far from easy. Alcantara grew up with 10 siblings. When he was 11, his parents sent him to live with one of his sisters in the capital, Santo Domingo, about two hours from home, so he could study and play baseball at the same time. The Cardinals signed him when he was 16. To fill out his 145-pound frame, he pressed the weights while consuming a diet of mangú, plantains and rice.

Alcantara made its debut with the Cardinals in 2017. He was only 21 years old. That winter, St. Louis put him in a package for Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna. The trade became a bounty for Miami. The deal also included Cardinal’s pitching prospect Zac Gallen, who later moved to Arizona for infielder Jazz Chisholm Jr.

Alcantara established himself as an all-star in the Marlins rotation in 2019. As of this season, only Phillies starter Zack Wheeler has pitched more innings than Alcantara’s 544.1. Alcantara was one of only four pitchers to surpass 200 innings last season. Even fewer could reach that mark in 2022 as the off-season lockout disrupts spring training and gives teams more reasons to protect pitchers.

The extinction of the workhorse is an industry-wide trend. A generation of pitchers was raised to pull themselves together with maximum effort to generate hellish speed and movement. To protect their weapons, the teams have shortened their performances. The phrase “go as hard as you can, as long as you can” places more emphasis on the former than the latter.

A decade ago, according to Stathead, the average starting pitcher lasted just under six innings per outing. In 2022, the average starter takes a little over five. Alcantara averages seven innings per start. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he prioritizes preservation early on in games.

“If you start the game with a full bike, you might get tired in the third inning, maybe in the fifth,” Alcantara said. “But I’m not like that. I like to start the game nice and easy, chill a bit. After the fifth inning I have to use all my strength.”

He can take this approach because his arsenal is explosive and expansive. His version of “nice and easy” runs around 96 mph. His slider often registers in the low 90’s. His move is even more solid. The pitch’s average speed was 91.8 mph, but “sometimes when I get angry I can throw 95.94 mph,” Alcantara said.

Despite those gifts, competing reviewers have ranked him a #2 starter rather than a true ace due to his lack of a devastating swing-and-miss offspeed pitch. Alcantara batted 201 batters in 205.1 innings last season. Brewers starter Corbin Burnes, winner of the National League’s Cy Young award, fanned out 234 in 167 frames. Instead of chasing puffs, Alcantara chases gentle contact.

“He has what it takes to beat anyone,” Lopez said.

Alcantara is beating opponents at about the same rate this year. But he’s made subtle changes to disarm goons. Under the guidance of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., he has increased the use of his four-seam fastball and reduced sinkers. Stallings called Alcantara’s willingness to attack left-handers with increased heaters a “game-changer.”

“You throw that fastball up, it just opens up the floor,” Stallings said. “You can’t do 100 mph on the top and 150 mph on the bottom.” He added, “When we see people trying to get under your toggle or slider or two-seam, then we go to our four-seam.”

In the days before the lockout began, Miami awarded Alcantara a $56 million extension that lasts through 2027. The organization has staked their fight attempt on a youthful rotation featuring Alcantara, López, Trevor Rogers and finally the rehabilitating Sixto Sánchez. Sanchez has not played a game since 2020. Rogers resigned in 2022. López has a 2.85 ERA in 13 games – an estimated feat that is only comparable when placed alongside Alcantara’s performance.

The boy from Azua grew into a man capable of dominating big league lineups. Along the way, his refusal to step down didn’t waver.

“I’m blessed,” said Alcantara. “Because I’m here now.”

(Photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)

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