The Miami Marlins are set to debut on Opening Day versus the Colorado Rockies with 12 pitchers on their staff, meaning Miami will carry seven relievers in their bullpen. While the back of the pen is still being determined, the top of the bullpen is solidly secured for the Fish. In the 2014 season, the bullpen discussion begins (and the games end) with closer Steve Cishek.
Long Relief: Kevin Slowey / Brad Hand
Steve CIshek is the Marlins' first homegorwn closer since Braden Looper, and he is perhaps the first guy to close games for the Marlins who actually was drafted by the Fish. Cishek came up in 2011, began dominating, and has not stopped since, and last year was his best season as a pro. He posted career-best marks in strikeout rate (26.2 percent) and walk rate (7.8 percent) and continued his success on the ground (53.1 percent ground ball rate). In short, he has done just about all you want in a closer, and he has done so with a handicap of being unable to throw effectively against left-handed hitters due to his style of delivery. Despite struggling against lefties (2.94 FIP versus 2.58 versus righties, 11.3 percent walk rate versus 6.7 percent versus righties), Cishek has carved out a solid career as a closer.
What is expected to change in 2014? As RotoGraphs author and friend of the blog Eno Sarris notes on this post, it is difficult to tell. Part of Cishek's trouble against left-handed pitching is that his changeup just is not an effective pitch. He throws it almost ten percent of the time to lefties, and he does throw it exclusively to left-handers. The numbers are terrible, and they speak to why he has struggled against lefties relative to his overall success. Cishek has posted a whopping 6.6 to one ratio of balls to called strikes on the pitch, which helps to explain his lack of control versus lefties. When hitters bother to swing, it has induced a 30.7 percent whiff rate, but given that Cishek can't place it in the zone at all, hitters can be patient and let him beat himself.
But the pitch itself does not solely explain those problems; it merely highlights the overall concern with Cishek. He only threw 34 changeups last season and 146 in his career, so he is not leaning on the pitch. Instead, he is continuing to use primarily his sinker/slider combo versus left-handed hitting while mixing in the change and a flatter four-seam fastball. The biggest difference thus far, however, has been with the performance of his sinker. Against lefties, the two-seam fastball has only garnered a 2.0 balls-to-called-strike ratio. This does not sound like a major concern, except that against righties, Cishek has thrown more called strikes than balls with that same pitch.
The change in performance of the fastball explains a little as to why Cishek has pitched worse versus lefties. But the important thing is that, overall, he has not been bad against them, merely worse than normal. That may be Cishek's saving grace as a closer; he is so lights-out versus righties that his drop-off against lefties is a mere blip in the radar.