Miami Marlins starting pitcher Sandy Alcantara considers his routine of silent preparation, intense workouts and built-up tension vital to his success in starts. File Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, July 15 (UPI) -- Many modern MLB pitchers possess relentless thirst for scouting information, but Miami Marlins coaches and players say ace Sandy Alcantara excels on silence and an intense focus as he advances deep into his starts.
The simple, yet unique approach, has led Alcantara to become a frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award midway through the 2022 season. He also is being considered to start the All-Star Game for the National League on July 19.
Alcantara, 26, joined the Marlins in a 2017 trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was one of four players the franchise sent to the Marlins in exchange for slugger Marcell Ozuna, who at the time was considered the most valuable asset of the swap.
Alcantara's increased command, preparation and intensity over the last five seasons continue to make that trade more more lopsided in the Marlins' favor. He now is the most valuable player in the game, based on baseball's widely recognized wins above replacement statistic.
"We obviously traded for him and got the chance to see him [earlier in his career]," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Wednesday in Miami. "His stuff was always big."
While many pitchers top out at 96 to 97 mph, Alcantara starts his games with those speeds in what he considers a warmup. He often reaches triple digits in the latter innings. He says he uses that strategy to stay in games longer and not be replaced by relief pitchers.
This season, he is 9-3 with a National League-best 1.73 ERA and MLB-high 130.1 innings pitched.
"I think I'm a different guy from the other pitchers," Alcantara said Wednesday, before a Marlins win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. "My mentality the entire time is to go out there and try to compete the most in a game."
Marlins coaches say Alcantara uses that competitive nature to channel arm power when he isn't on top of his game and when he goes through an opposing team's lineup for a second or third time in a game.
That's when hitters start to guess better what pitches are coming, and they can improve the timing of their swings.
"It's something I never talked about with him, but the good ones do it," Marlins pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said of Alcantara's ability to elevate his level of play late in games.
"The guys who [can do that] get in that moment in the heat of battle, while going through lineups for a third time. They go for the jugular and are getting tough internally. He turns that dial up and becomes a little more of a vicious animal."
Stottlemyre said Alcantara "doesn't say a word" in his pregame preparation meetings with coaches and catchers. He just listens.
Added Mattingly: "He stays pretty calm and focused. You don't see a lot of raw emotion. It's always just pretty calm."
Once the games start, it's an unspoken rule not to acknowledge Alcantara's existence in the dugout.
"In between the lines, it burns," Stottlemyre said of Alcantara's intensity. "In between innings. I don't go near him. I stay away. He does not want to get talked to, looked at or anything that is going to distract him from being in that moment."
Alcantara is just as intense in the weight room as he works into a start, his coaches say. Those 2 1/2-hour circuit-style workouts often include 400-pound squats, in addition to upper body exercises. He caps off gym sessions with treadmill runs.
Preparation for his next start begins just hours after his last. He treats a bullpen session, which comes three days after his last appearance and includes 18 throws, like another start and often needs to be reminded that the practice doesn't count toward his statistics.
"I'll focus and give it everything I've got," Alcantara said of the bullpen session, which he did Wednesday at loanDepot park.
When game day finally arrives, Alcantara can't be corralled. He dominates games with a variety of deceptive fastballs, a slider and an improved-turned-devastating changeup.
His competitiveness sometimes leads to disagreements with Mattingly when the Marlins manager wants him to leave a game.
"It's hard to teach that part," Stottlemyre said of Alcantara's intensity. "I would love to pass that on to the others. "He gets that killer instinct when they are in the heat of that battle. That guy on the other side is good, too.
"But when he is in the game, the ultimate animal just comes out. The competitive 'I want to beat you, kill you and win at all costs.' He has always had that in him, but it started to come out now because he is getting [his pitches] in the zone."
Signed at age 17
Alcantara, a native of the Dominican Republic, signed with the Cardinals in 2013. He always received praise for his elite fastball, but scouts noted his inconsistency and lack of command.
The Cardinals had planned to develop Alcantara as a starter, but he likely was headed for a bullpen role if his skills didn't develop.
Alcantara went 1-9 with a 3.97 ERA in his first minor league season. He made his MLB debut in 2017 for the Cardinals. The Cardinals then traded Alcantara, Daniel Castona, Zac Gallen and Magneuris Sierra to the Marlins later that same year in exchange for Ozuna.
Alcantara went 8-17 with a 3.81 ERA in his first two seasons with the Marlins. He improved to 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.
He logged a 3.19 ERA in an MLB-high 33 starts in 2021. Then came his elite 2022 campaign.
Early critics said Alcantara needed to work on his changeup and breaking pitches. He now considers that changeup, with speeds up to 95 mph and is the hardest-thrown in baseball -- one of his "biggest weapons."
He also says he has enough confidence to throw 130 to 150 pitches in a single game, well beyond the threshold with which most managers are comfortable.
He throws changeups 26.4% of the time, according to Statcast. About 25% of his pitches are four-seam fastballs, while 24% are sinkers and 23% are sliders.
The changeup is his best strikeout pitch. MLB hitters have a paltry .147 batting average against that pitch, which surpassed the sinker as his most-issued offering.
He also throws the changeup nearly 15% more often than he did over his first four MLB seasons.
Alcantara's current nonviolent delivery makes triple-digit fastballs appear effortless. A smooth follow through also baffles hitters about which pitch is on its way.
He also doesn't use unnecessary motion with his right-handed throws and keeps a small distance between his hand and body, which allows him to save energy and go deeper into games.
He ability to hit what appear to be microscopic targets, while not tipping off opponents about which pitch is coming, makes it nearly impossible for hitters to wait on a certain type of throw or target just one area of the strike zone.
"His delivery is so easy and he repeats it so well," said Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings, who often is on the other end of Alcantara's fireballs. "You see a lot of pitchers who are max-effort guys who just look like they are throwing as hard as they can every pitch.
"His 100 just looks so easy that it's a gift, but it's also something he works really hard on."
Stallings said he often hears opposing players reference the "nastiness" of Alcantara's offerings after he sends them back to their dugout.
"Sandy is different and that's what makes him good," Stallings said. "Guys marvel at [Angels pitcher-designated hitter] Shohei Ohtani and the unique talents around the league. Sandy is definitely one of those."
Alcantara, who is being approached by the media more than ever thanks to his rising status among the MLB elite, said he plans to stick to his intense routine, a recipe of revved up emotion and fastballs few pitchers can match.
He will make his MLB-high 19th start of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday in Miami. Alcantara said he tried to stay away from conversations with others on Thursday as he nears his next pitching assignment.
"The first three or four innings, I won't use all of my powers because I will need it later in the game maybe in the eighth or ninth," Alcantara said. "I like throwing 97-96, then in the eighth and ninth throwing 100, maybe 101.
"I will just be thinking about what I want to do. That's my routine and I think it's important."