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Steve Cishek and the nature of relief pitching

Steve Cishek has blown a few saves recently. But is there a problem, or are we blowing a small sample of innings out of proportion?

Bob Levey

Heading into the month of July, Steve Cishek had a 2.88 ERA and was a sure-fire lock to be selected to the All-Star team as a reliever; few National League closers could boast his saves success, strikeout rates, and ERA. Heading into the All-Star break, his ERA had ballooned to 3.76 and he was definitely out of the bidding for a selection.

Heading into August, he had recuperated with a 3.31 ERA for the year, and it seemed like things were back on track. Now, at the tail end of August, he has a 3.81 ERA and we are once again asking questions about Cishek's struggles.

Right-hander Steve Cishek entered Saturday having allowed five earned runs in seven August opportunities. But because he had managed to convert all four of his save opportunities this month and 11 consecutive overall, Cishek's struggles were looked at as more of a rough patch than any serious cause for concern.

That all changed when he left a ball in Corey Dickerson's sweet spot to blow his fourth save Saturday.

For their part, Cishek and Mike Redmond cannot seem to come up with a solid explanation about what is going on.

"He yanked it," manager Mike Redmond said of Cishek's pitch to Dickerson. "I actually thought his last couple [appearances] have been pretty crisp. … But it probably got to him a little bit, giving him up the home run."

...

"I don't really have an explanation for what's going on," Cishek said. "It's just a fact that I need be able to locate my pitches better, get ahead of hitters and attack like I did earlier in the year."

The complaint is that Cishek has had a few bad outings in August. Sure, August has not been great, as Cishek's 6.75 ERA can attest to. But take a look at the numbers over each month and you will see similarities between now and "earlier in the year."

Cishek, 2014 IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
April 8 2/3 27.8 8.3 2.08 1.87 2.73
May 13 34.0 6.0 2.08 1.21 1.98
June 12 2/3 28.6 8.9 4.26 2.82 3.08
July 12 29.2 6.3 4.50 2.89 3.16
August 8 26.8 9.8 6.75 3.51 2.98

Yes, August has been Cishek's worst month of the 2014 season. But the month has very little to do with the things that Cishek does best. The strikeout rate has barely dipped below 27 percent this month. The walk rate has not climbed above 10 percent. He may have an uglier ERA, but his strikeout rate is improved since last season with a similar walk rate. Cishek's 2.40 FIP in 2014 is the best of his career.

So why is he having all of this trouble? Because Cishek has only pitched 54 1/3 innings, and in that amount of time, anything can happen. We are discussing his recent struggles like there is a clear and evident cause. But Cishek and Redmond could not identify one, and while the numbers have noticed a blip, they do not indicate anything particularly troublesome. The truth is that Cishek has only pitched eight innings this month, Eight random innings can yield all sorts of crazy results, from no-homer dominance like in April or the struggles of August.

And this sort of month is pretty par for the course for most relievers. Every one in a while, a reliever will have some bad games, like all pitchers. The problem is that closers are in high-profile situations any time they enter the game, so their play is scrutinized more. When a closer struggles to finish off games because he has two or three bad innings, suddenly there are "issues" to be fixed. A starter can have two or three bad or unfortunate innings scattered throughout a week's worth starts and not be all the worse for wear. But a closer's innings are at the end of games, and they come fewer and far between, making their struggles more memorable.

Not every reliever can be Mariano Rivera with clockwork-like efficiency. And that is why, even with an elite-level reliever like Cishek, the Marlins should be wary of signing him to a long-term deal and paying top dollar for it. Beyond the issue of reliever attrition, these assets are just not reliable to provide consistent, good performances. You never know when one reliever will have a terrible season, and given that they only pitch 65 innings a year, they could easily have a month's worth of bad performances ruin a year's worth of good peripherals and numbers. Why risk $10 million a year for such a player?

Miami would be wise to rethink the idea of Cishek as a central piece of the team. That's not because he is having a bad August, but because teams have a harder time trying to figure out when or how often a reliever will have a bad stretch.