Sandy Alcantara needed just one word to describe his 2022 season.
“Amazing,” the Miami Marlins’ ace said.
His only qualm, outside of maybe wanting to do over a small number of his starts, is that it ended a few days earlier than he had hoped.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly announced Saturday that Alcantara will not make his final start of the season, which was scheduled for the team’s regular-season finale against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday at loanDepot park.
The logic was simple.
“Sandy, he’s one of those guys that is going to keep going,” Mattingly said, “but organizationally, we felt like there was no reason to have him continue with the innings that he’s thrown this year.”
And so ends one of the best individual seasons by a pitcher in Marlins franchise history, one that has him as the clear front-runner to win the National League Cy Young Award.
“If he hasn’t,” Mattingly said, “something’s wrong.”
Alcantara remains adamant that the Cy Young Award was never a focal point this season, even as he racked up big outing after big outing and understood where his season compares with the rest of the league.
Rather, the 27-year-old Alcantara, who has wrapped up the first year of his five-year, $56 million contract he signed this offseason, viewed his season as one that showed just what he offers to the franchise — while also knowing there’s still a lot more to prove.
“Everything that I’ve been doing, they know,” Alcantara said. “I’ve been on the frontline every time, every fifth day when I got the opportunity to go outside and I gave my 100 percent all the time. They know I’m here to compete.”
‘I’m just going to start calling him Cy’
Let’s get all of the numbers out of the way now.
Alcantara finished the season with a 2.28 ERA over an MLB-leading 228 2/3 innings — the fifth-most in a season in Marlins history and 8 2/3 innings shy of Kevin Brown’s franchise record of 237 1/3 set in 1997 — and 207 strikeouts.
His ERA is the fifth-best in baseball and second in the National League only to Julio Urias’ 2.12 (who has thrown just 170 innings over 30 starts). He has thrown 29 1/3 more innings than the next closest pitcher (the St. Louis Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas).
He has thrown six of MLB’s 35 complete games this season — 17.1 percent — with four of them coming against teams in the playoff hunt (Atlanta Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers). Only two other pitchers have thrown multiple complete games this season.
He has pitched at least eight innings in 14 of his 32 starts and allowed no more than two earned runs in all 14 of those outings.
Shall we keep going?
Alcantara is the first pitcher in Marlins franchise history to have multiple seasons with 200 innings pitched and 200 strikeouts and the first in MLB to do so in consecutive seasons since Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom in 2018 and 2019.
He also ranks among the top 10 among National League pitchers in WHIP (0.98, fourth), batting average against (.212, sixth), home runs allowed per nine innings (0.63, fifth) and strikeouts per walk (4.14, eighth).
“He’s become a guy who has been so reliable,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “He’s the perfect guy to be at the top of your rotation.”
He is the first pitcher in MLB to throw at least six complete games in a season since Chris Sale in 2016. He is also the first pitcher to throw at least 228 2/3 innings in a season since David Price threw 230 innings in that 2016 season. Only three pitchers in Marlins franchise history have more than six complete games in a season: Livan Hernandez (franchise-record nine in 1998), A.J. Burnett (seven in 2002) and Dontrelle Willis (seven in 2005).
“I’m just going to start calling him Cy,” Marlins general manager Kim Ng said. “I will tell you he’s been an absolute pleasure and joy to watch all season long. Take out a couple starts and this guy has been absolutely nails. Every fifth or sixth day you think you could be watching history tonight.”
Mattingly referred to Alcantara’s 2022 season as “one of those magical years.” He has seen a few of those over the course of his dozen years as a manager.
He had Clayton Kershaw in his rotation all five seasons he managed the Los Angeles Dodgers and Zack Greinke for the final three. Kershaw won the NL Cy Young in 2011, 2013 and 2014 in addition to a runner-up finish in 2012. Greinke finished as runner-up in 2015 (with Kershaw coming in third that year).
He had one season working with Jose Fernandez with the Marlins in 2016 and has now watched Alcantara blossom from a pitcher who had the potential to be something special when the Marlins acquired him as part of the Marcell Ozuna trade in December 2017 into a household name in Major League Baseball.
“Pretty incredible, really,” Mattingly said. “What Sandy has been able to do — and I always see it from my lens which has been like four years and watching Sandy grow — I’ve just seen such a change over time. Just his work and how he’s grown like that. This year has been one of those. It’s been a special year. It’s going to be hard to come back and you’re going to kind of judge his other years and go ‘He’s not as good as he was last year’ or ‘He wasn’t as good as he was two years ago,’ which is probably not going to be fair. This is one of those years where it’s been pretty dominant.”
Finding ‘another gear’
From pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.’s perspective, Alcantara’s breakout season becoming reality in simplest terms stems from getting in the zone and attacking early in counts, which result in recording outs and pitching deep into a game.
“We’ve spent so much time talking about count management,” Stottlemyre said. “He’s always had the weapons to get through the lineup three times. It’s just being able to get there.”
Alcantara has four quality pitches — a four-seam fastball and sinker that both hit triple digits as well as a changeup and slider that average in the low 90s (plus a rarely used curveball in his back pocket) — that he can throw in any count. He has induced groundballs at a career-best 54.2-percent rate — well above the MLB average of 44.9 percent — and ranks in the 98th percentile for chase rate.
“He can strike you out or he can get weak, early contact depending on what is on that day and what kind of stuff he has working,” said catcher Jacob Stallings, who was behind home plate for all 32 of Alcantara’s starts this season. “He has a lot of really good options. That’s kind of what separates him.”
But Alcantara’s ability to pace himself . He averages just 14.2 pitches per inning, the lowest mark in baseball among qualified pitchers, and he gets stronger as the game goes on.
Alcantara’s season ERA the first three innings of a game? 1.78 ERA
Innings 4-6? 2.93.
Innings 7-9? 2.06.
And his velocity and command hold — and generally get better — as he works deeper into games. Alcantara is methodical about that, conserving his energy for the bigger moments if he is able to cruise early.
Alcantara has thrown 28 pitches at 100 mph or faster in the seventh inning or later this season. No other starting pitcher has more than three (the Cincinnati Reds’ Hunter Greene) and only three other pitchers total have done so this season (the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and New York Yankee’s Cole each have two).
“I remember my dad telling me a long time ago that if you don’t get guys like Sandy early, you’re not going to get them at all because they settle in and get comfortable,” Stottlemyre said. “And then all of a sudden when they find another gear, it’s too late.”
‘This guy’s a little different than the rest of us’
It’s easy to spot Alcantara in the dugout between innings on the days that he starts. He’s generally on the far end of the dugout, keeping to himself until it’s time to head back to the mound. His focus is unwavering.
Making eye contact, let alone small talk, is not advised unless absolutely necessary.
“I just know not to bother him,” Mattingly said.
“I don’t like looking at him,” Stottlemyre added. “He wants to kill me, too.”
It’s a complete flip from Alcantara’s generally jovial demeanor. Game day is different from his four days between starts. He has a job to do.
“When I cross that line,” Alcantara said earlier this season, “I don’t care about anybody. It’s time to compete.”
Alcantara’s goal is simple: Throw the first pitch ... and then do what it takes to be on the mound for the final pitch.
How he gets there is irrelevant.
Twenty-seven strikeouts? Great. All balls in play? Perfect. Whatever it takes to get him from the first inning to the ninth and have his team in a position to win.
It didn’t take long for his catcher to realize that.
Stallings said catching Alcantara’s complete games against the Cardinals and Dodgers were two of the highlights of his season.
But when trying to encapsulate Alcantara’s season as a whole, Stallings points to a larger section of work.
May 11-July 15. Thirteen consecutive starts in which Alcantara pitched at least seven innings to close out the first half of the season. Alcantara held opponents to two earned runs or fewer in all but one of those games.
“Really nobody else in baseball gets into the seventh inning very often,” Stallings said. “He did it so many times in a row. That stretch was when I was like ‘OK, this guy’s a little different than the rest of us.’”
Passing along his knowledge
Alcantara’s success also has a trickle-down effect.
Watch his bullpen sessions, and you’ll see the rest of the Marlins’ pitchers standing off to the side, soaking in how he approaches his work between starts.
Watch him in the dugout when he’s not starting, having conversations with the rest of his rotation-mates and giving scouting reports on what he sees from his vantage point.
Watch him away from the field, as he takes care of the next wave of pitchers just getting their first tastes of the big leagues.
“We’ve kind of begged for that leadership, for somebody to step up and be that guy,” Stottlemyre said. “From this day moving forward, anybody that comes up, they know and they certainly have watched Sandy. And then if they really take a step back and watch his work and everything that he puts into his trade, they’ll learn something from that.”
Edward Cabrera is the latest example. The 24-year-old has kept close to Alcantara over the past two seasons, similar to how Alcantara followed Jose Urena early on in his Marlins tenure.
“He’s a guy that has amazing discipline and I see him working every day,” Cabrera said. “He’s very strong because of that. I try to mimic and follow those steps.”
And while this role took adjusting early on, Alcantara is now embracing it.
“When you see talent,” Alcantara said in spring training, “you’ve got to take care of it.”
‘Everybody in the game knows who Sandy Alcantara is now’
As Stottlemyre talks about his ace on Saturday, mere hours after telling his ace he wasn’t going to make his final start of the season, he can’t help but smile. He says he’s “proud” of Alcantara, but even that feels like an understatement.
“Everybody in the game knows who Sandy Alcantara is now,” Stottlemyre said. “Hitters know. The fans know. That’s a tribute to him and a nice feather in the cap for the organization, too.”
Stottlemyre on several occasions has mentioned having a “ring-side seat” to Alcantara’s season and the “detailed, relentless work that he’s putting in to be great.”
The work has turned into results.
And the hardware should reflect it as well.
“He’s done everything above and beyond, really, for me,” Stottlemyre said. “He’s definitely turned the corner and put himself out there as one of the more prominent starting pitchers in baseball. ... Personally, he’s done enough to win the Cy Young.”