Steve Cishek has changed his pitching repertoire

Ralph Freso

Hidden in the success (and recent struggles) by reliever Steve Cishek is the fact that the Marlins closer has changed his approach in a fundamental way.

Miami Marlins closer Steve Cishek has had some recent struggles after what was shaping up to be a brilliant season on the mound. A few weeks ago, Cishek was looking like he was a shoe-in for the All-Star Game and appeared on his way to one of the best Marlins relief seasons in team history. Flash forward five or so appearances, and he has a 3.76 ERA and two more blown saves. His 2.12 FIP is still impressive, but not nearly the awesome number that he was boasting just a few appearances ago.

This may have prompted some folks to look a little more closely at Cishek's numbers from 2014. Where did he go wrong this season? It is obviously a bit difficult to read through six innings of data and make grand conclusions, but in perusing his numbers this year, you may notice something of interest. From his FanGraphs page.

Cishekgroundballs_medium

The first few seasons in the league, Cishek was posting regular ground ball rates above 50 percent.  It was one of his best attributes, the fact that he owned a sinker that could avoid home runs for him. Along with his typically good closer stuff, Cishek has held opponents to just 0.31 homers per nine innings.

This year, his home run rate is still comically low at 0.23 homers per nine (just one long ball allowed), but he suddenly does not have the ground ball rate that would typically help explain such a phenomenon. Instead, Cishek's ground ball rate has dipped to human levels rather than the above average marks he once put up.

The reason? It's all in his choice of pitch distribution. From Brooks Baseball's classifications:

Cishek, Pitch Usage 2011-2013 2014
Sinker + Fastball 63.1 52.0
Slider 32.2 46.8
Changeup 4.7 0.2

This is a huge change in approach between the previous seasons and now. Cishek has gone to the slider far more often, at the full expense of the changeup that he at least tried in years past against left-handed hitters. The changeup is gone, but so is some of the hard stuff he threw; it has gotten to the point that Cishek's slider is his most used pitch if you break apart the fastballs into two- and four-seamers and you buy the different classifications.

This immediately explains the difference in ground ball rate; in the past, the slider has gotten grounders on 50 percent of batted balls in play, but this year that is down to 38.6 percent. But the ground ball rate on even the sinker this season has dropped, down to 44.9 percent on the year. It would seem that the loss of grounders is not just a matter of pitch selection, but perhaps one of location as well.

Except that when you look at the location of his fastballs and sinkers, they appear to be similarly focused in the low areas of the strike zone.

Cishekzone_medium

On the left is his location of fastballs in various parts of the zone up until 2013. On the right is his work from this season. The low areas of the strike zone are more populated in this year's map, primarily because he has chosen to work both sides of the zone thus far this season. He has also thrown more pitches low and out of the zone, whereas in the past he was able to avoid that area a bit better. This may be due to his increased slider usage, as the pitch would be buried at players' feet more often.

The usage of the slider increased the most against left-handed hitters. Whereas in the past, Cishek would have deigned the changeup of some use against lefties, he decided to abandon the pitch this year and focus on the slider. In addition, he decided to use the slider as often as humanly possible against lefties, upping its usage to over 51 percent from just 26.5 percent before this season. The change is actually not surprising when you factor in the switch at catcher; Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been well-known for calling righties to throw sliders to lefties at their feet, and he has already done so with Nathan Eovaldi this year too.

Has the pitch been effective? Cishek is getting a 28 percent whiff rate on swings from lefties at the slider, which is barely different than the 29.6 percent mark overall, but lower than his career 31.3 percent rate.

How has this changed Cishek? Earlier this season, his strikeout rate had been through the roof, up above 31 percent, for the season. After a few bad starts, however, it has dipped down to 28 percent, which is only marginally better than his 26 percent mark from last season. Still, I think the trade-off was evident: Cishek started throwing more sliders to get more swings and misses, and for a while, it was working. The slight bump in the road should not change his outlook on his new approach.

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