Steve Cishek entered the 2014 season as the undisputed closer for the Miami Marlins for a second straight season. He had also entered with a brand new payday, earning himself nearly $4 million in salary as a Super Two arbitration player. It would be easy for Cishek to post mediocre numbers on his way to a good season of saves and still get paid on track during the rest of his time in arbitration. But Cishek did what very few relievers end up doing: he improved this year.
One cursory glance at Cishek's numbers reveals that he made a change in his gameplan. He threw his slider more than ever over his fastball; For his career, Cishek had thrown his slider in nearly 37 percent of his pitches thrown. This year, he tossed it in 48 percent of his pitches. He dropped his fastballs a bit, but also completely abandoned his changeup, likely at the behest of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who apparently has a reputation for suggesting this.
The result is that Cishek was celebrating far more strikeouts now than he did in seasons past. In the past, he was already doing a solid job in racking up K's, whiffing 25 percent of batters faced. But this year, that rate has climbed even further, as he struck out 30.6 percent of batters faced this season. That whiff rate was 20th in baseball among qualified relievers, which made him feel far more like a flamethrowing ace reliever than a ground ball artist with decent stuff.
Photo by Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports
Of course, Cishek maintained a decent amount of control as well, as his walk rate remained steady at 7.6 percent. His difference between strikeout and walk rate was tied for 20th among qualified relievers as well and trailed only eight regular closers. Either way you slice it, Cishek entered into some elite relief company with a second straight strong season.
There were trade-offs to be made with this move, however. Cishek lost a lot of his ground balls by going to this methodology. He used to regularly induce grounders with a strong sinker, but this year, that sinker only got grounders on 52 percent of balls in play. In the meantime, his more often-used slider got grounders on a career-low 33 percent of balls in play. This is suggestive of a change in location of pitches, and without looking at his strike zones, you can see some differences in the numbers. Cishek's zone rate dropped this year to 48 percent from a typical rate around 51 to 52 percent. This is likely due to him increasing his slider usage and throwing the pitch more and more out of the zone, in order to get hitters from either side to chase.
That approach seemed to be working. According to Pitch F/X zone data provided by FanGraphs, Cishek has gotten more swings outside of the strike zone while simultaneously inducing fewer in-zone swings than ever before. This is a perfect, ideal combination of swings that should lead to weaker contact and more swings and misses.
The strikeouts were there more often, but hitters actually made the same amount of contact (77.4 percent of swings) as they did last year. And instead of making weaker contact, they actually made better contact! Cishek allowed a career high in line drives on 26 percent of his balls in play. He also let through a career-worst .331 BABIP. It helps to almost entirely explain the difference between his career-best FIP of 2.17 and his worst ERA of 3.17.
But those differences are unlikely to stick. Cishek upped the most important part of the game, particularly for relievers, without losing much of anything that is well-controlled by pitchers. The 2014 season was one trending in the right direction, and his performance mirrored the Marlins' on the field. Cishek picked up a career-high 39 saves for a better Marlins team and is on his way to second, larger payday this offseason.