The Miami Marlins thought that their closer position was reasonably secure heading into the 2015 season, After all, Steve Cishek was among the 10 to 15 best relievers in baseball since 2012, and he had put up at least two and a half successful years as a primary closer for the Marlins. The Fish were certain that sort of performance would repeat this year.
Of course, I spoke of the folly of expecting relievers to be consistent, as there are only a few who can maintain elite performance over multiple years. Cishek ended up being the victim of yet another one of these stories, as he struggled in 2015 at the start of the year and eventually was so bad that he was demoted from his closer job and eventually traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in a deal that was one year too late.
Cishek had a poor 32 innings for the Marlins in 2015, but even those innings probably were better than were given credit for. Part of the issue was that Cishek gave up a monstrous .350 BABIP, something he never struggled with before last season. In 2014, he did post a .331 BABIP which likely inflated his ERA worse than what we should have expected to see. Part of that probably was the Marlins' poor defense, but some of that certainly could have been skill-associated at the time. At the same time, in 2014, Cishek's hard-hit ball rate remained steady from his 2013 marks at 31 percent. In 2015, they actually dropped, down to 24.5 percent, with almost all of those balls being converted into weak contact according to the BIS classifications.
There was bound to be more bad luck involved with Cishek's poor results on balls in play, but those were not the only changes that we saw. There were legitimate changes in the way of missing bats; Cishek was simply failing to do so. His 19.4 percent strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, while his walk rate ballooned back up to 2012 levels at 9.7 percent. That season, Cishek struck out a reasonable 24.2 percent of batters faced, essentially 2.4 times the number of hitters he faced. That ratio was down to just two this time around. Losing strikeouts and gaining walks left too many batters on base for Cishek to afford to have poor balls in play luck as well, and all of these contributing factors combined for one awful and unlucky season.
The signs were mixed for Cishek in terms of his pitches. He lost about one mph in his sinker velocity as well, which portended bad news for the 28-year-old reliever. Cishek primarily worked in the 90-91 mph range, which is not the type of velocity expected from an elite, shutdown reliever. However, some positives were definitely noted. His contact and swinging strike rates had remained essentially stable from 2012 to 2015, meaning that even though Cishek's strikeouts were down, his underlying pitches were still missing bats. Even with the decreased velocity, the sinker only lost a little bit in terms of whiffs per swing and his slider only lost two percentage points on its whiff rate.
All of this was to say that Cishek was having a bad year, but there were signs of a potential recovery. He had two solid months in June and July, with 12 2/3 innings of 0.71 ERA and 2.27 FIP with a modest 21 percent strikeout rate and 7.8 percent walk rate. Things were not perfect like they had been in the previous two years, but they had been improving, and it signaled that perhaps the early season was a little more of a blip rather than a true trend.
But the Marlins were not going to pay any more money to find out. The team knew Cishek was due another raise in arbitration and the club decided to cut its losses. Cishek was dealt to the Cardinals for mediocre relief prospect Kyle Barranclough, a hard-throwing righty with control problems in the minors. Cishek's tenure with Miami ended in a hurried fashion, as the Fish had no desire to pay nearly $7 million or more next season for a middle reliever whom they thought might be broken.
The Marlins once again learned an important lesson: never trust relievers. In an instant, their production can disappear, and even if there is regression to be had, the Marlins simply do not have the resources to afford to find out.