Alcantara's durability unlike much in recent history

July 8th, 2022

When you can throw 100 mph with absolutely filthy movement, as  can, you’d think the story would be about dominance. Sometimes, as the 10 Angels who went down swinging in Tuesday’s 2-1 Miami victory would tell you, it is.

But, thrilling Pitching Ninja GIFs aside, that’s not what’s making Alcantara stand out right now. He’s actually only really missing bats at a league-average rate; his strikeout rate is similar to Arizona's Zac Gallen, who is certainly a quality pitcher in his own right, but hardly a flamethrower. What’s making Alcantara enter the conversation as one of the top aces in baseball is that he’s doing what so many starting pitchers don’t seem to do anymore: He’s throwing innings. Lots of them.

For 11 consecutive starts, Alcantara has thrown at least seven innings. It’s the longest streak in eight years, since Clayton Kershaw (17), Félix Hernández (16) and David Price (14) did better back in 2014. His 123 1/3 innings lead second-place Aaron Nola by a dozen frames; his 469 batters faced lead Nola by 28. He’s thrown the most pitches, too, and faced the most hitters the third time through the order or beyond, and he's on pace for 249 innings, and … you get the idea.

In part because Alcantara not only maintains but increases his velocity (his fastballs are 97.6 mph the first time through, 97.7 mph the second and 97.9 mph the third and beyond), and in part because he has four pitches he throws in near-equal 25% quantities, and in part because he gets quick outs (no one has more outs on 0-0, 1-0, or 0-1 counts), Marlins manager Don Mattingly has been perfectly happy to let Alcantara work deep into games -- deeper than anyone.

But even with that freedom, 2022 is not 1972. Alcantara, assuming health, seems a good bet to top 200 innings, a notable milestone in today’s game. It’s not going to come close to the 376 2/3 Wilbur Wood threw 50 years ago, or the 346 1/3 frames that Steve Carlton fired. It’s simply a different sport; how, then, do we put in context what Alcantara is doing?

We have a way.

The only fair way is to compare him to his peers. No, Alcantara isn’t going to match Carlton or Nolan Ryan or Walter Johnson, because he’s simply not given the chance to. But he does get to compare himself Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, Kevin Gausman and all the other great pitchers of today’s game, the ones operating under the same restrictions he is.

To that end, let's compare some innings totals. If Alcantara is really pitching like he’s from two generations ago in a world where no one else is, we ought to be able to see some sizable gaps.

It turns out, we can -- or at least, we might. We can look at the innings leader for each year going back to 1947, then can compare them to the second place finisher that year. Some years the gap is invisible; in 1997, for example, Toronto teammates Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen each threw 264 innings, tying one another for the Major League lead. Some years, they’re massive; in 1953, Philadelphia's Robin Roberts threw 346 2/3 innings -- that's what happens when you make 41 starts and complete 33 of them -- which put him massively ahead of Bob Lemon's relatively paltry 286 2/3.

Right now, Alcantara leads Aaron Nola by 12 innings. Historically, at least in integrated-era baseball, that's not by itself notable, but that's also not surprising, because we're not even to the All-Star break yet. More interesting, then is to take the second place finisher's total as a percentage of the first. Nola has thrown more innings than every pitcher in baseball save Alcantara, but he's also thrown only 90% of the innings Miami's ace has. Where does that stand out?

Really, really well, as it turns out.

But we can do better. The season doesn't end today. If we take Alcantara and Nola’s seasons to date and continue them forward on their current paces -- which is unlikely, but possible -- or if we take their seasons to date and fill in the rest with ZiPS rest-of-season projections, well, now we’re talking. Now we're talking all-timers.

If Alcantara keeps this up ... well, he's not going to get to the gap that Roberts did, or touch what the knuckleballer Phil Niekro did. The sport just isn't played that way; even if Nola falls off, then Max Fried or Miles Mikolas or someone else would step up.

But what the takeaway here should be is that it doesn't necessarily require Alcantara to pitch to his pace of 249 innings. Even the projected numbers, which are by their nature more conservative, and here show him finishing 22 innings short of his on-pace figure, would represent a historically notable figure.

Now: Will he be allowed to keep going?

"It's a hard one," Mattingly told's Christina De Nicola. "Sandy's always hard because he's always kind of your best guy no matter where you're at. But we have internal discussions about Sandy, and [general manager Kim Ng] and I've talked about this guy's at that number almost every time now. You've got to think about winning in the long haul for not only his career, but really this year. You're going to need Sandy all year long, and if we go break him here, just pushing him every time he goes out there -- it's not pushing because he wants to be there -- I think that's where I have to make decisions that are based on keeping this guy healthy, what's best for him in the long run for his career, and then for the organization as well."

There might not be a right answer. There might also not be a pitcher like him in the Majors right now.