Does Miami Marlins Closer Steve Cishek Have a Platoon Problem?

Can Steve Cishek overcome his sidearm-style delivery and get lefties out enough to be a successful closer? Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE

Yesterday, I discussed the Miami Marlins viewing guide for the rest of the season, and I said one of the things that fans should continue to watch for is closer Steve Cishek's potential platoon concerns.

Steve Cishek: Enjoy watching Cishek's kooky delivery, then ponder whether a pitcher with a siderarm or extreme delivery like his can get opposing hitters out. If there is one barrier to Cishek playing the traditional closer role.

Reader Jigokusabre then mentioned that a few pitchers with deliveries akin to Cishek's have succeeded in the past as late-inning relievers forced to face both lefties and righties. Having said that, we have seen Cishek look more dominant against right-handers with the deceptive delivery than against lefties, who get a better look at the ball from that angle.

If Cishek has an issue with platoon splits, it is worth investigating. Can we say that he has enough of a concern that it could hinder his chances at being a closer?

The Numbers

The first thing that comes to mind when you think platoon problems may be present is to check FanGraphs and look at his career splits.

Cishek, Career PA K% BB% GB% HR/FB% FIP
vs. RHH 267 21.7 7.5 63.3 4.8 2.80
vs. LHH 200 25.5 12.0 42.2 4.3 3.25

Just from those numbers, it seems very evident that he has a sincere career split. The strikeouts are present versus both sides, indicating the likelihood that indeed Cishek's stuff is still confusing enough to move around against batters on either side and fool them. But the fact that he has a significantly harder time placing pitches could mean something, and the distinct lack of ground balls against lefties versus his rate versus righties means that he is much less effective overall.

So what is the deal with the split? What is behind that? Let's look at some of the Pitch F/X data for his career to find out.

Pitch Selection

Let's start with pitch selection. Once of the reasons why there is a concern for Cishek against lefty hitters is that he is primarily a two-pitch pitcher, with a two-seam fastball and slider as his two best pitches. Is that the case against both sides of the plate?

Cishek, Career Two-Seamer% Four-Seamer% Slider% Changeup% Curveball%
vs. RHH 58.8 6.5 32.8 0.0 2.0
vs. LHH 61.6 6.9 19.8 11.5 0.1

Obviously, Cishek has had to change his approach significantly between bouts against lefties versus righties. The most obvious change is the drop in the usage of his slider, one of his two most effective pitches. Cishek's slider usage is cut by 13 percent and his changeup usage is increased drastically; he essentially only uses his changeup versus left-handed hitters.

Naturally, you would expect that using your effective slider less often and having to rely on a third pitch that is less developed would decrease his effectiveness, but is that the case?

Pitch Effectiveness

As always, we are going to look at a number of metrics when it comes to the results of these pitches. Here is Cishek's performance on each of his pitches versus right-handed hitters.

Cishek, vs. RHH Zone% Balls/Called Strikes Swing% Whiff%
FT 62.4 1.3 41.3 10.8
FF 44.1 2.0 39.0 17.4
SL 52.0 2.6 44.3 28.6
CU 44.4 2.0 50.0 44.4
CH -- -- -- --

The important numbers are in the two-seamer and slider data, as his other pitches constitute just 8.5 percent of his pitches against righties. You can see that the two-seamer is used to get called strikes in the zone and presumably a heavy amount of ground balls, as per the usage of all two-seamers. Meanwhile, the slider is primarily designed to induce swings and misses, and by volume, it is easily Cishek's best pitch at doing just that.

So what about those pitches versus lefties?

Cishek, vs. LHH Zone% Balls/Called Strikes Swing% Whiff%
FT 53.4 2.2 46.3 23.2
FF 46.9 5.3 49.0 45.8
SL 51.8 1.8 42.6 26.7
CH 30.5 6.7 43.9 25.0
CU -- -- -- --

Contrary to the belief from before, the problem is not necessarily in his slider. It actually seems his slider is just as efficient against righties as against lefties in this relatively small sample (141 sliders versus lefties, 300 versus righties). The difference is in the incorporation of the changeup. While the pitch seems to be getting the same number of whiffs as the slider, it is not close to being effective at being placed in the strike zone. Only 30.5 percent of the changeups thrown were located in the large strike zone used here, compared to numbers in and around the 50 percent mark for almost all other pitches for Cishek. Combine that with his decreased placement of two-seamers in the zone, presumably because he needs to be more careful with the pitch against lefties, and you can easily understand why Cishek's walk rate has jumped against lefties.

Big Problem?

So the problem seems to lie in his underdeveloped changeup. Cishek either needs to improve the pitch or lean more heavily on his slider and risk it losing effectiveness with increased use against opposite-handed hitters. The increased walk rate seems to be highly correlated with those issues.

Having said that, check out the split in the first table of the article. While it is appreciable, it is not major. We are not talking about a Chad Bradford or Randy Choate-type split in effectiveness. Cishek is still getting swings and misses versus lefties, and his stuff is still useful. If he can develop a strong changeup or begin to use his slider like Josh Johnson uses his, it will take him from being a good reliever to a great reliever. For now, his two-pitch arsenal with two supporting pitches is enough to get him by in the ninth, but he will not be a high-level closer without better stuff against the other side. But that does not mean he is not already a good reliever who is worth a look at in the closer role.

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