As the baseball season draws to a close today, one of the rites of this time is to look at numbers that pop off the screen. For most of the last month, that’s been Aaron Judge. Whether it’s the number of homers he hits — or more often, it’s simply the gap from him to the second-place homer total, which is Kyle Schwarber some 20 homers in arrears. That’s how much more powerful Judge has been. But there might be another number out there that is more impressive.
That’s six, and that’s the number of complete games that Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins has twirled this season. You probably haven’t heard much about it, because it took place in Miami, where baseball happens in a sensory deprivation tank (the stadium even kind of looks like one). The Marlins (68-93 as of Tuesday night) are still irrelevant, but that doesn’t shrink the accomplishment of Alcantara.
Six complete games in a season don’t sound like much, but much like Judge’s totals, it’s important to see the atmosphere it takes place in. Pitchers aren’t usually allowed to get through the sixth inning, much less go the route. Hell, even pitchers have been pulled during no-hit bids. Alcantara’s six complete games are the most in eight years, since Clayton Kershaw also threw six complete games in 2014. Even in those eight years, the aversion to letting any pitcher see a lineup for a third time has grown exponentially. Judge’s home runs are stunning because of the way the game is played today, with the baseball having dampeners on it to the devil magic most pitchers can offer. Even relievers you’re sure come out of the create-a-player folder have sliders that make left or right turns, or fastballs that hiss so loud you need ear plugs. Alcantara being able to get all 27 outs so often when managers have the itchiest trigger fingers, antsy to get to those relievers, is no less of a zig when baseball has zagged.
As long as Babe Ruth’s name keeps coming up in one discussion, a hallmark of his was hitting more homers than any team in some years. Alcantara has done that this season, tossing two more complete games than any other team has managed as a whole this season. When Kershaw did it in 2014, six teams matched his total or exceeded it. This is still really impressive from Kershaw, but obviously, Alcantara’s total topping 29 other teams stands alone. When Kershaw threw six complete games, there were five other pitchers within one or two of him. Alcantara doubled the next pitcher on the list — Houston’s Framber Valdez — but even with one hurler, not five, in his vicinity gives you some idea of just how rarely pitchers even get to attempt this.
In addition, Alcantara will lead the league in innings thrown, and he’ll do so by 23 innings over Aaron Nola. No one has topped the innings chart by that much since Roy Halladay in 2003, when he topped the list by 25 innings and threw 268. Alcantara will only throw 228.2, but that’s the game today. Within much more tightly closed walls for pitchers, that’s how much Alcantara got ahead of the field.
Alcantara also doesn’t generate a lot of buzz because he doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters. His K-rate was 23 percent, which is more than decent, but only ranks 20th among qualified starters. Alcantara has great walk numbers, only allowing free passes to 5.6 percent of the hitters he sees. But again, that only ranks 14th.
Alcantara’s success is based on getting a ton of grounders (53.4 percent, good for fourth) and hardly ever giving up hard contact. Alcantara ranks fifth among starters in barrels per plate appearance, and fourth in launch-angle against.
Alcantara gets these numbers with a sinker that somehow turns into a bowling ball somewhere on its journey to the plate. His sinker averages a launch angle of -5 degrees, which pretty much puts it getting pounded into the dirt right in front of the plate pretty much every time. It’s the same for his change-up, which he actually throws more than his sinker. Making it more unfair is that Alcantara’s sinker averages 97.1 MPH while dive-bombing to the bottom of the kneecaps. You have to catch up to it first before you can even worry about lifting it, which you can’t. If you need a visual aid:
If you do time the sinker, and catch on to its movement, the change comes out of the exact same tunnel, and has just about the same horizontal break too — it’s just six to seven MPH slower, which is why hitters are whiffing on it 34 percent of the time. According to BaseballSavant, there has been no more valuable change-up in the game, some 10 runs of value better than the next one on the list!
Alcantara is going to run away with the NL Cy Young, as he should, as he’s second in ERA in the NL to Julio Urias, but has thrown nearly 60 more innings, and his bWAR is miles ahead of anyone else.
What will be interesting is how the ban on shifts affects Alcantara next season. The Marlins shift on the fourth-highest percentage of at bats against them, and Alcantara is obviously dependent on those grounders he gives up getting vacuumed up. Perhaps the grounders he sees now dribble through the hole between first and second will be canceled out by there being someone on the left side of the infield against lefties, but we don’t know. Alcantara has always run a lower BABIP than the average, and aggressively so (.262 this season). Maybe Alcantara will bump up his Ks to counter, but in some ways Alcantara is the pitcher MLB is indirectly targeting with their shift alterations.