What does Sandy Alcantara eat? | FanGraphs Baseball

Sam Navarro, USA Today Sports

Want a good example of how hard it can be to pitch? Look at Sandy Alcantara. He was a consensus NL Cy Young last year, with a 2.28 ERA accumulated across 228.2 innings pitched. Stamina, drive, ground forces, and strikes: what more could you ask for? I got him 10th in the commercial value chain last season, and if anything, the unanimous feedback I received rated him even higher.

Of course the good times didn’t last, which is why I’m writing this article. Alcantara has been a complete regular this year – he came into last night’s game with a 5.08 ERA. He walks more batters, hits less, and gets fewer groundouts. It is the average number of runs per start. Every bright light in the 2022 Alcantara Performance has been dimmed this year.

The reason why it’s not particularly hidden: As Robert Orr documented in May, the Alcantara change is the culprit. It was his best stadium last year. In terms of pitch values, this was his worst showing of the year. At the time, he was throwing it into the strike zone frequently, and hitters weren’t chasing the pitch when he left the zone. He wasn’t having the same underbite as last year, which helped explain the other problems.

Weirdly, none of this is true anymore. It will set a career low rate in the strike zone by a wide margin if it maintains its current pace — 45.4% of them were in the strike zone last year, and only 37.2% this year. Opposing hitters frequently chase when he leaves the area and post lower contact rates. That downward movement is back.

I came up with an idea for an article. I was watching the start of Alcantara last night, documenting some of the reasons why his change is still hurting him, and using that as a starting point to examine what’s going on. Good news: He threw in a lot of changes, 35 in all. The bad news: I can’t tell what’s wrong with that, because he’s chipped the Red Sox over the course of seven single innings. Good luck finding the bad parts of this:

Pitcher analysis is tricky business. It’s not like they’re either excellent or terrible; Pitchers who are having bad seasons still throw a lot of excellent pitches and even put together excellent games. Alcantara didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin overnight; Whatever he suffers from is definitely on the sidelines.

Looking back at the previous matches, I still think the biggest problem with Alcantara’s arsenal this year is his change-up. It’s not immediately apparent from the raw motion data; According to Baseball Savant, the ballpark basically looks the same as it did a year ago:

No change in change

year hmov fimov Philo Shade% SwStr%
2022 16.8 3.8 91.8 47.2% 19.6%
2023 16.1 4 91.1 46.4% 19.8%

On the sidelines, though, it gets worse. Although opponents swing and miss as frequently as they did last season, they do so less frequently with two-strokes. When opponents make contact, they hit it hard and lift repeatedly. He may be hitting strike zone shades as frequently as he did last year, but opponents swing those pitches less often. This is partly a clever move by opponents, but also partly a slight loss of control. It just locates its own change the outside From the strike zone 30% of the time with just two strikes inside Strike zone only 13% of the time. Last year, those rates were 21% and 23%, respectively.

This may seem like a small difference, but it is important. Hitting the outer edge of the strike zone with a hard-hitting pitch is the best thing you can do as a pitcher; Hitters rarely hit it, but they have to swing it. Hair loss is still good – but it’s a lot less good. As you might expect, pitchers do much better when they’re spread out in the corners of the area. It’s a marginal change really – an inch here or there – but it weighs down the blows Alcantara used to get, turning them into in-play balls or extended racquets.

That’s the real lesson I learned reflecting on Alcantara’s performance this year: For a Ramy on his game, margins really do matter. There is no shortage of heavy starters with low batting averages in baseball; It’s profile number three for beginners. Alcantara is clearly not a third-place player, mainly because he brings a lot of extra skill to the table.

What are the skills? Well, all of them. In 2022, it achieved 103k%+; In other words, he struck out more than his fair share of batters. He paired that with 68 BB%+ – less is better on this one. In 2023, those marks are 87 and 82, respectively. His K-BB% is still better than the league average, but he’s gone from being elite to just being a regular.

This seems like a small thing. Strikes aren’t his superpowers, after all. We’re talking about a guy whose basic gaming skills are going deep and getting key players. But it’s a lot easier to get into games if you get free-striking spells. It’s a lot easier to turn a steady stream off the ground into a vigorous stroll if there aren’t key players arriving via walking trails. Grounders result in more strikes than fly balls, but fewer extra base hits. This is great when there aren’t a lot of contestants, but the deal quickly gets sour as the bases fill up.

That wear on strikeouts and walks might not be a big deal if Alcantara is still running a .262 BABIP, but he’s allowed a .294 mark so far this year, well in line with the league average. This is a change that Statcast’s expected metrics also show. He caught fewer no-chance grounders, the kind that hit directly on the ground in front of home plate. Last year, 38% of the batted balls he allowed were hit at angles of -5 degrees or less. This year, that number has dropped to 28%. These are the almost certain rejectionists. Losing these, again, hurts his effectiveness on the sidelines.

Which is closer to his true skill level? Really, I’m not sure. 70% of the floor space he got last year was of that contrast type. Only Framper Valdez got more, and Valdez is a freak right. The more grounders you get, the higher that ratio is likely to be – the reason Valdez has such a high groundball rate is because the more frequent opposite hitters launch angles are so negative. But Alcantara was the unicorn. He ran GB%+ between Kyle Wright and Martín Pérez, but he got more from these guys with a higher net worth than either of them.

I’m willing to believe that in 2022 something that Alcantara did leads to those interesting elements. I’m willing to believe that whatever he did isn’t portable, and doing it in one year doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it again. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to about a lot of the things Alcantara does. His ability to locate his change only at the border of the region without leaking out? He clearly showed he can do it last year, and he’s clearly gone this year. His ability to limit walking by never missing it when he’s late for a count? Once again, he showed a unique talent last year, and this year he seems even less defined.

The dip in those marginal edges pretty much explains all the decadence of Alcantara. The essence of what he does is the same. But the wear around the edges matters a lot more to someone with the Alcantara skill set. It gains a lot of value through sheer volume, and it offers a good mod not through one powerful skill but through the accumulation of small advantages. When one of these skills goes down a notch, it affects his total output more than you might expect.

This is not to say that Alcantara has suddenly become bad. It’s still cool. But I think he’s an ERA guy in the mid 3.00s, a real talent level, which his 2.99 FIP would indicate in 2022. And a half inning of the 220-plus innings pitched is very significant. More than that, he can’t go deep into games when he allows more runs, so the innings advantage he has over the rest of the league is also declining. This kind of skill — size first, without a choppy strike rate and reliance on balls to play — just feels weak as a consistent value driver.

I’ve been thinking about this more than usual because I’m putting together this year’s edition of the Business Value Series as I write this. Last year, I put Alcantara and Alek Manoah in the top 20 of the list, and I thought they both deserved a spot because of that very ability; They had a pile of above-average skills that turned out to be a meaningful advantage when taken as a whole. A few extra hits here, a few straight-up home runs there, and soon we’re talking about seven-run starts and a worth of toughness.

Shooters are, at times, at the top of their game. I don’t think anyone would argue with this hypothesis. For men like Alcantara, this model is amazing, as it comes in a massive size. Lower the potency a bit, though, and the volume starts to drop along with it. The combined effect is devastating, because not only do they get worse output, but they get worse output during a less ridiculous workload, and both effects combine to reduce the value they provide. It’s one thing if you’re Spencer Stryder or Shane McClanahan; These guys get more value than the sheer rate of it all from their toughness, so losing a few turns isn’t too devastating. The shooters in particular are very good and durable as well, but they don’t blast opposing hitters on the map even as they overpower.

I don’t think I understood the effect either this time last year. Honestly, it’s hard to explain. Every pitcher has an ebb and flow of shape, and it takes some flexible thinking to wrap your head around the fact that these changes in shape affect different men differently. I’m not even sure I’m properly grasping the ramifications; Is Alcantara the most affected pitcher type? How likely is it that he will return to the excellent level he has shown in the past? I simply do not have answers to these questions.

Right now, I’m making an overall adjustment to my rating for players: people who operate on the margins and provide value through volume will drop somewhat in the rating. I’m not sure this is the correct conclusion; These roles really matter. I think we are prone to overreactions. There is a ripple effect when someone works like Alcantara; He’s been excellent in every sense of the word this past year, and it’s rare to top the kind of volume he’s capable of delivering. The downside, however, is that changing the rate by a small amount hurts the overall package more; Huge size isn’t impressive when the price goes from great to good.

More thinking is required. But I’ll just say this: We all know that sometimes shooters have it. I think this has implications for how we evaluate role-eaters who seem to “have it” at the moment. You have to think about the sum of their careers, starts, months, even years when they wouldn’t be totally locked up. Alcantara is a great example of this effect. That doesn’t mean he’s not great – it just means he won’t campaign in 2022 every year.

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