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Evaluating Steve Cishek's Pitch F/X mechanics

Steve Cishek blew another save yesterday afternoon, and Marlins fans are growing more concerned about his play. Can we glean anything from his early 2015 Pitch F/X data?

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Miami Marlins had another late-game lead lost at the hands of the bullpen, and Steve Cishek was the culprit once again. Cishek blew the save against the San Francisco Giants when he loaded the bases and eventually walked home the tying run and allowed a game-winning single in consecutive plate appearances with two outs.

Marlins fans were admittedly not happy about the situation. This is Cishek's third blown save of the season in six save opportunities.He has never looked this poor on the mound, and his struggles have helped to cost the Marlins some games. We discussed Cishek's early season problems earlier this year, particularly with regards to a drop in velocity. However, with just 11 innings in the books, it is almost impossible to make statistical judgments on a pitcher. All we can say is that Cishek has not pitched well, but we cannot say whether this is a loss of skill or a temporary lapse in play.

What We Know

Here is what we do know. Cishek has walked a lot more batters than he usually does, with a rate up to 13 percent this season. His strikeout rate of 24.1 percent is nothing impressive, but it is within his career limits. We also know that Cishek has been slowly losing his ground ball rate, a trend that started last season and has continued this year. Finally, hitters are getting some good fortune against him early on, with a .364 BABIP not working in his favor.

How can we explain some of this? The BABIP thing can be tossed up to poor placement of balls in play, a matter of seemingly bad luck. Cishek is not getting hit any harder than he usually does; FanGraphs's new quality of contact data shows that Cishek's hard-hit rate is actually lower than his career marks and that his soft-hit rate is comparable to his career numbers.

As for the walks, Cishek has been dabbling further and further from the strike zone, as his zone rate is down to a career low 42 percent. However, this appears to have only had a minor effect on his plate discipline numbers. Hitters are swinging at 41 percent of his pitches in total, down very slightly from last year. Hitters are being more selective, as they are avoiding the out-of-zone pitches more so far, but they are also making slightly less contact on pitches overall as compared to last season.

So far, Cishek has seen some bad luck with his balls in play, has thrown more pitches outside of the strike zone, but has gotten a similar number of whiffs as well.

The Slider and Mechanics

Last year, we talked about how Cishek had relied significantly more on his slider, and how that has changed his game. Gone are the 50 percent ground ball rates because he is throwing fewer sinkers and fastballs and more of his primary breaking pitch. Cishek did this particularly to work against left-handers, against whom he had struggled before.

It worked for Cishek last season, but in an interview with FanGraphs' David Laurila, Cishek noted that this may become a problem if it continued.

"I’m pretty much slider dominant. I probably threw my slider too much last year. Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) picks up on a lot, and noticed that. If I’m throwing nothing but sliders and the hitter hasn’t seen a fastball in awhile, he’s probably pretty comfortable. If I’m throwing too slow, and away too much, I need to start running balls in to keep them honest.

It sounds like Jarrod Saltalamacchia initially noted that the slider usage was up more than a healthy amount. We figured last year that Salty was the reason why Cishek was throwing more sliders, particularly to left-handers, given that he had influenced Nathan Eovaldi to do similarly. It definitely worked to get Cishek more strikeouts, but it also led to him pitching less in the strike zone to do so. This year, the work out of the zone is starting to bite Cishek with walks.

From the above quote, it sounds like Cishek wanted to drop his slider usage a little, but so far, that has not happened.

Cishek, Pitch Usage Fastball% Slider%
2014 51.4 48
2015 49.0 47.5

The slider usage is still as high as it was last season. If Cishek thought he was throwing too slowly at hitters, he may still be doing so.

The other thing that he mentioned is that his excessive use of his slider may get him in trouble mechanically.

"With too many sliders, I also can get in trouble because my arm slot will start to drop a little too much. That’s more likely to happen when I throw two or three games in a row and maybe get a little lazy in my throwing program. My movement won’t be quite the same when that happens.

This actually appears to have happened, as we can verify his release points by PItch F/X.

That last set of release points is the lowest angle of Cishek's career. It is not a whole lot lower than his work from previous seasons, but it does correlate with the idea that his increased slider usage could affect his arm slot. His concerns were that the drop in arm angle might hurt the movement of his pitches, and it does seem like the break on his fastballs has been a little dampened. The horizontal or lateral break on the two- and four-seam pitches has decreased a little bit, though the vertical drop on the sinker remains intact.

Whether that is the cause of his problems is hard to to tell. There is a decent amount to unpack, and I still sense that we are overreacting to essentially two bad starts by Cishek. However, there is some real change thus far this season in addition to dropped velocity, and all of this should be something we keep an eye on.