On Tuesday, the Marlins will face the Braves to begin the NLDS.
The Marlins’ postseason run is unlikely, to say the least. Where other teams seemed to grind their teeth with each loss this year, the Marlins seemed genuinely, delightedly surprised to find themselves headed into October—the sort of team that gleefully posed for a celebratory photo wearing “Bottom Feeders” T-shirts after winning its wild-card series at Wrigley Field. That Miami is playing in the NLDS—and indeed, that the team has somehow never lost a playoff series—is undoubtedly the product of a small sample size. Before the MLB season was postponed and then shortened to 60 games because of the coronavirus pandemic, PECOTA projections gave Miami a 1.4 percent chance to make the playoffs; instead, the team that finished 48 games below .500 in 2019 finished two games above .500 this season, and then swept the Cubs in a matchup last week.
The Marlins now might be poised to advance even deeper in the playoffs. Their lineup has proved capable of coming through with timely home runs, as Garrett Cooper, Jesús Aguilar, and Corey Dickerson did in Chicago. Their bullpen has been effective in close games, with Yimi García and Brandon Kintzler shutting down opposing batters in the eighth and ninth innings. And they have a rookie who might just emerge as this fall’s breakout star: budding ace and fan-favorite phenom Sixto Sánchez.
Some numbers on Sánchez, just to get the ball rolling: He is 22, and has made a grand total of eight starts in the majors since he was called up in August. He posted a 3.46 ERA and racked up 33 strikeouts over 39 innings. Also? 100, 89, and 88.
Sixto Sánchez, 100mph Fastball, 89mph Changeup and 88mph Slider, Overlay with Tails. pic.twitter.com/WUBCfjaDyL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 29, 2020
Sánchez is a thrill, and he’s only getting started.
Since his arrival in the majors, Sánchez has quickly become the darling of baseball obsessives, with mega velocity and the kind of control rarely seen among players his age, beginning with his very first pitch, a 98 mph fastball that was called a strike. He’s made a habit of carving up offenses, and is a legitimate NL Rookie of the Year contender. As Miami manager Don Mattingly put it last week: “He sets the tone for us.”
Sixto throwing straight in his postseason debut! pic.twitter.com/uzxSbhcpTb— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) October 2, 2020
Sánchez’s regular-season highlights reliably dazzled, from a 10-strikeout masterpiece against the Rays in his second start to a seven-inning complete game to close out a doubleheader against Philadelphia last month, an outing in which it took him just nine pitches to retire the side in the fourth inning. In the wild-card series, he blanked the Cubs across five scoreless innings, with six strikeouts against just two walks, to help seal Miami’s sweep.
Sánchez’s success is a particularly bitter pill for Phillies fans, who in February 2019 saw their team ship off a group of players headlined by Sánchez—then the top prospect in Philadelphia’s system—in exchange for catcher J.T. Realmuto, who was entering the final two seasons of his contract with Miami. The Phillies then failed to nab a spot in the postseason in either of the last two years; Realmuto is now not only a free agent, but also coming off a season in which he was second in team WAR only to Bryce Harper. He’s easily the most in-demand free agent on the market. Wherever he lands, Realmuto will undoubtedly command a major contract, both in terms of value and duration.
It’s a price that Philadelphia has heavily hinted it might not be willing to pay. In trading away Sánchez, the team quite literally mortgaged its future, and now may well squander its present. The looming debacle has not been lost on many: Phillies managing partner John Middleton said in no uncertain terms over the weekend that if the team is unable to work out an extension with Realmuto, trading away Sánchez was a mistake.
Sánchez was originally spotted by the Phillies in 2015 in his native Dominican Republic, where he, then just 16, was playing shortstop. He signed for just $35,000 after a call from the Phillies that was so unexpected Sánchez has said his “father was laughing.” Within a year, he was making waves—now as a pitcher—on the Gulf Coast Phillies. At 17, he already had a 98 mph fastball, and in 2016 had a 0.50 ERA across 11 starts. As then–GM Matt Klentak put it at the time: “Sixto. Wow.”
Still, pitcher development is an imperfect science, and when the Marlins traded for him—as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro, fellow pitcher Will Stewart, and $250,000 of international bonus pool money—it was widely considered to be a gamble. Realmuto was a prize certain to command a hefty price; Sánchez, while promising, had fewer than 200 minor league innings under his belt. Fast-forward to last year, when Sánchez’s manager in Double-A characterized the pitcher as having the best arm he had ever seen on one of his teams. “No moment is too big for him,” Kevin Randel, skipper of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, told Baseball America. “He loves the spotlight.”
Sixto Sanchez, Unfair 93mph Changeup. pic.twitter.com/dEnqtwKOgd— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 2, 2020
Sánchez has drawn comparisons to the game’s greats, some of which he has actively courted: He has the number 45 tattooed on his neck as an homage to Pedro Martínez. Sánchez has long been likened to Pedro for everything from his stocky build to his uncannily similar delivery. Last month, Martínez went so far as to dub Sánchez “Mini-Me with better stuff.”
Now, Sánchez has the opportunity to join a pantheon of young pitchers who’ve shined in the playoffs as rookies, from Madison Bumgarner in 2010 to Michael Wacha in 2013. Or perhaps most relevant: Liván Hernández in 1997. Hernández’s performance that year—4-0 with a 3.18 ERA over 28 and 1/3 innings—helped the Marlins secure the first World Series title in franchise history.
The Braves are well aware of what awaits them in the NLDS, in which Sánchez is slated to start Game 3. “If he stays healthy, [Sánchez] will give people fits for a long time,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker told Baseball America last month. “He’s the total package. He throws a lot of strikes, and he can go get more [velocity] when he wants. There’s a lot to like.”
If the Marlins manage to top the Braves, this unlikeliest of Miami bandwagons is sure to fill up fast. If there’s a ceiling to Sánchez hype, it’s one we haven’t seen yet. In short: Get in, loser, we’re cheering all the way.