Sunday, July 3, 2022

MLB trends: Sandy Alcantara becomes baseball’s best workhorse; how Yankees made major under-the-radar upgrade

The 2022 MLB regular season is more than two months old and the contenders are now separating themselves from the pretenders. Several teams that started out hot are coming back to Earth (like the Angels) and others that started slowly are climbing up the standings (like the Braves). That said, there’s still a lot — a LOT — of season to be played.  

With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one starter’s dominant run, one hitter’s improved contact ability, and one team’s efforts to limit stolen bases. Last week we broke down Hunter Greene’s fastball usage, Charlie Morton’s curveball problems, and the mid-May home run spike.

Alcantara’s run of dominance

It has been nearly four years since the great Marlins fire sale of the 2018-19 offseason, and the results are a mixed bag. The Giancarlo Stanton trade was a straight salary dump. The Christian Yelich trade was a total disaster that brought back zero value. Sixto Sánchez’s ability to stay healthy will ultimately determine whether the JT Realmuto trade was worthwhile.

The Marcell Ozuna trade has been, by far, the best fire sale trade for Miami. That trade with the Cardinals netted the Marlins four young prospects, including Zac Gallen, who was later flipped for Jazz Chisholm, their best player. That trade brought Sandy Alcantara. Alcantara has since emerged as one of the game’s best pitchers, and he is in the middle of a very dominant stretch.

Monday night Alcantara held the surging Phillies to two runs in 7 2/3 innings and it was the first time in seven starts he allowed more than one earned run. In his previous six starts, he’d allowed three earned runs total while averaging eight — eight! — innings per start. Opponents have hit .156/.214/.208 against Alcantara in his last seven starts and 55 2/3 innings.

“He’s the best in our league, I think. I really do,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez told MLB.com after Alcantara threw a six-hit shutout against an admittedly weak Washington lineup last week. “He’s got good stuff. He was tough all night long. He kept us off balance. You’re not going to see anybody better than that right there. He’s really good.”  

Alcantara is the first pitcher to average eight innings in a six-start stretch since Max Scherzer in May 2017, and the first pitcher to throw at least 55 innings in a seven-start stretch since Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale both did it in 2016. The 26-year-old Alcantara has become one of the game’s preeminent workhorses. He might be the sport’s best innings guy, in fact.

“I got to see (Kershaw’s seven-start stretch), and it was pretty good,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com. “You don’t want to put (Alcantara) in anybody’s category or put any kind of label on him, but he is getting to be that guy that you kind of count on him. It’s almost like it’s six or seven on a bad night. He keeps his pitch count down early, and he’s getting everything over, he’s a lot to handle.”

Since joining the Marlins’ rotation for good in 2019, Alcantara ranks among the league leaders in innings pitched and batters faced, with only a 26-day stint on the COVID list in 2020 preventing him from claiming the top spot on each list:

(Nola and Wheeler appearing on those leaderboards is a testament to their effectiveness and durability, and also at least partly a function of former Phillies manager Joe Girardi not trusting his bullpen, and riding his horses as long as possible.)

Alcantara is more than just an innings eater, of course. He owns a 1.68 ERA this season and a 2.76 ERA since 2020, which is 52 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark and the league’s offensive environment. That is fourth among all pitchers. Alcantara leads all players (pitchers and hitters) with 3.9 WAR this season. He is an ace, through and through, and far and away the best player the Marlins received in their fire sale trades three-and-a-half years ago.

Happ’s improved contact ability

It has been a difficult season for the rebuilding Cubs. Probably more difficult than expected, as Chicago is riding an eight-game losing streak and is on track to finish with one of the sport’s five worst records for the first time since 2013. It’s not all bad news, of course. Ian Happ has bounced back from a down 2021 and is having his best, most complete offensive season. 

Happ, now one of the club’s longest tenured players, owns a .274/.374/.458 batting line with seven home runs and by far the lowest strikeout (20.2 percent) and swinging strike (10.1 percent) rates of his career. No player has increased his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone this year as much as Happ (minimum 400 plate appearances in 2021 and 200 plate appearances in 2022):

  1. Ian Happ: +8.5% (77.8% to 86.3%)
  2. Matt Chapman: +6.0% (76.1% to 82.1%)
  3. Eric Hosmer: +5.9% (87.4% to 93.2%)
  4. Austin Hays: +5.6% (86.9% to 92.5%)
  5. Christian Walker: +5.3% (82.2% to 87.5%)

Truth be told, Happ’s improved contact ability dates back to last season. He had a miserable first four months last season before making some adjustments, and hitting his stride in August. Happ hit his stride in August and hasn’t slowed down since. The before and after numbers:

April 2021 through July 2021

312

.180/.294/.326

28.8%

12.8%

77.6%

August 2021 to present

461

.281/.369/.519

24.7%

11.9%

82.1%

“It’s just trying to find a way to get on time,” Happ told MLB.com about his turnaround last August. “Finding a way to be on time and trusting that when you’re on time, you’re going to have the ability to have success. There’s a couple mechanical things that are kind of falling in place.”  

Happ is a switch-hitter and much of his improvement is tied up his right-handed swing. He authored a weak .213/.301/.352 line against southpaws last season and was no better than average against lefties in his career prior to 2022. This year Happ is hitting .354/.415/.542 against lefties. Small sample size caveats apply, though never in his career did Happ hit lefties as well as he has right now, even in a random two-month stretch.

“We talked to him a little bit about a mechanical move within it during spring training,” Cubs hitting coach Greg Brown told MLB.com last month. “He did a lot of work right-handed. I think he takes a lot of pride in that. So, I think you’re seeing his overall profile strengthen, because his right hand’s really solid.”  

Happ has always brought strong exit velocities and hard-hit rates to the table, though making contact was a real struggle at times, and pitchers could exploit the holes in his swing. He hasn’t completely closed up those holes — Happ is still susceptible to elevated fastballs — but he’s closed them enough to drastically improve his contact ability and thus his overall production.

Given their place in the standings and the fact Happ is scheduled to become a free agent after next season, chances are his name will be popular at the trade deadline. So, if nothing else, this great start and improved contact ability improves his trade stock a bit. At this time last year Happ was a hitter who needed to be fixed. Now he’s a comfortably above-average hitter who’s already made the adjustment and fixed himself.

Yankees controlling the running game

At 45-16, the Yankees have baseball’s best record by five games, and they’re off to one of the best starts of the wild card era. They are improved in every phase of the game: offense, pitching, defense, and baserunning. Baserunning works both ways too. The Yankees themselves are running the bases better. They’re also doing a better job limiting the opposition on the bases.

Last season the Yankees were one of the very worst teams in baseball at preventing stolen bases. You could run on them almost at will. This year they rank among the best teams at preventing stolen bases. Here are the numbers:

Stolen bases allowed

86 (9th most in MLB)

16 (fewest in MLB)

Caught stealing rate

17% (2nd worst in MLB)

36% (3rd best in MLB)

Stolen base attempts per game

0.64 (10th most in MLB)

0.41 (fewest in MLB)

Teams are averaging 0.68 steal attempts per game with a 24 percent caught stealing rate this year, for reference. The Yankees were well below average last season and are well above average this season. There has been a seismic shift in New York’s ability to keep teams in check on the bases. Those extra 90 feet are harder to take in 2022.

Personnel changes, specifically replacing catcher Gary Sánchez with Jose Trevino, has helped. It goes beyond that too. As The Athletic recently explained, new third base coach Luis Rojas has spearheaded the Yankees’ efforts to prevent stolen bases, including using PitchCom to relay strategies to hold runners. From The Athletic:

(Yankees quality control and catching coach Tanner) Swanson sets the Yankees’ menu for holds and pickoffs in PitchCom, which allows for 27 options — nine types of pitches, nine different locations and nine separate control-the-running game instructions. Other coaches study opposing baserunners’ behaviors and exchange ideas with Rojas on different strategies that might work against specific baserunners.

“We’ve just been more situationally aware: ‘These are the guys that are running. Here’s how they’re running. Here are the things you need to do it when they’re on base,'” (pitching coach Matt) Blake said. “It doesn’t have to be picking guys off. We have picked guys off. But you’re not trying to pick them off. You’re trying to control them. It’s more managing the attempts against us.”  

The Yankees are off to this incredible start not because they’re excelling in one or two areas and are deficient in others. They’re doing everything well right now, including controlling the running game. It was a vulnerability last year that could be exploited, particularly in close games where one run meant so much. Now the Yankees don’t give away that extra 90 feet easily.

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