The Miami Marlins have their setup in the rotation, with three starting pitchers competing for a final spot in the order that will eventually be taken by a recovering Jose Fernandez. There is some certainty in parts of the bullpen as well, as the Fish head into a third straight season with a clear-cut solution at closer. Steve Cishek has been one of the better relievers in baseball over the last two years, and he will go into his third straight year carrying the closer role for the Fish. Can C-Shock put up another strong year, or will the changes from 2014 portend worse results?
Closer: Steve Cishek
Setup: Mike Dunn
Setup: A.J. Ramos
Middle Relief: Bryan Morris
Middle Relief: Aaron Crow
Middle Relief: Carter Capps
Long Relief: Brad Hand
Long Relief: David Phelps
The top of the bullpen is anchored by Cishek, who has quietly put his name among the better relievers in the game. In the last three years, Cishek ranks 13th in Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs among relievers, right next to Mark Melancon and Wade Davis. That is reasonable company, though it may not be elite closer company. The truth is that, while Cishek has been mostly successful (2.72 ERA, 2.63 FIP since 2012), it is not quite enough to match up with guys like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland, and others of that ilk.
That does not mean that Cishek has not pitched well, but rather that it is difficult to be an elite reliever actually worth the money you are owed. Cishek's 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in that time frame is just 35th among qualified relievers and not in the same stratosphere as guys in the upper echelon of shutdown relief.
So how does Cishek keep up with the proverbial Joneses? Prior to 2014, it was by using the ground ball. In the seasons before 2014, Cishek was sporting a 54 percent ground ball rate off of a nasty sinker. For whatever reason, his usage of the signature pitch dipped in 2014, and the ground ball rate dipped badly. Cishek went to the fastball well in 10 percent fewer pitches than he usually did according to Brooks Baseball pitch classifications, and he used the slider to entirely compensate for the change. Furthermore, he threw more flat fastballs than he had in previous years.
This had to be a concerted effort, but for what purpose? Presumably, it was to keep up with the strikeout rates closers generally put up; Cishek bumped his strikeout rate significantly in 2014, with a career-best 30.6 percent rate. However, his whiff and contact rates have not budged really, as he posted a stable nine percent swinging strike rate and a near-identical 77 percent contact rate as compared to last season. How did he get more whiffs then? It seems that he got hitters to chase more often, at the expense of more contact in the strike zone. This dichotomy may be part of the reason why Cishek was hit a little harder this season, with more line drives and a higher BABIP.
How will this approach hold up? Cishek is probably walking a more fine line by approaching this methodology, especially against left-handers. He has never owned a great changeup, but he dropped the pitch entirely last year in favor of the slider as his out versus lefties. Ironically, however, he was remarkably successful versus left-handers last season (they hit .209/.270/.316, .269 wOBA) compared to righties. Perhaps the drop in sinkers hurt the approach against the same-handed hitters who would usually be jammed by the pitch?
Photo by Rick Schultz, Getty Images
The projection systems all have Cishek putting up an ERA closer to the high-2.00's than anything threatening an eye-popping season. They all have reasonable estimates for his strikeout and walk rates, which are in line with his career numbers. None of the systems expect him to keep the strikeout progress he made last year, and they are still trying to figure out what exactly Cishek is doing to avoid home runs. Last season, his loss in grounders was almost entirely replaced by line drives, as his home run per fly ball rate remained static. None of the systems have him allowing more than four homers this year, which is more than he has ever allowed in any one season.
The overall estimate has him at an average of a 2.85 ERA, which if you combine with his average leverage index over the last three years, would make him worth 1.4 wins in 65 innings pitched. This would be a strong season for Cishek and worthy of his presence on a team trying to eke out a playoff appearance in 2015. However, as his salary increases, the Marlins should be aware of the likely ceiling on Cishek's performance as a reliever given his work over the last few years.