The Steve Cishek signing presents us with a really interesting opportunity. And I mean “us” as the outside observer, in this case, not the Cubs (who also, presumably, believe Cishek presents them with a great abundance of interesting opportunities).
Specifically, this is a reliever who has been very good for a long time, but who went through a down period a couple years ago, then had hip surgery, then pitched well in the first half with the Mariners in 2017, and THEN pitched lights-freaking-out with the Rays in the second half of 2017. What makes that setup particularly interesting is that the new pitching coach with whom Cishek began working after that trade to the Rays is the same pitching coach he’ll now have with the Cubs, Jim Hickey.
What I’m wondering: what was different about what Cishek was doing with the Mariners and Rays that could explain the spike in productivity? Were their tangible changes that he might now carry over to the Cubs, which would then give us even more confidence in his impending performance?
First, the 2017 results:
- With Mariners – 20.0 IP, 3.15 ERA, .185 BABIP, 83.3% LOB, 18.8% K rate, 8.8% BB rate, 61.4% groundball rate, 28.1% hard contact rate, 26.3% soft contact rate
- With Rays – 24.2 IP, 1.09 ERA, .220 BABIP, 86.4% LOB, 27.7% K rate, 7.5% BB rate, 50.9% groundball rate, 18.6% hard contact rate, 18.6% soft contact rate
Right off the bat, there’s a lot going on in those numbers, and, because they are tiny samples, I’d caution against taking too much away from them. You could point to better luck with the Rays, but the drop in hard contact will help you with that. You could point to the huge drop in soft contact, too, but look at the stark change in K and BB rates. Cishek may not have “deserved” a 1.09 ERA with the Rays, but he clearly pitched very, very well.
I want a little more granularity on those numbers, though. Given that Cishek is a sidearming righty, you immediately worry about his effectiveness against lefties. They tend to get a much better look at sidearmers from the opposite side, and you’d rather not spend significant money for a ROOGY.
For his career, Cishek has limited righties to a ridiculous .200/.267/.286 line, while lefties have hit a much more robust (but still not very good) .229/.326/.360. By 2016, though, that difference had ballooned to .168/.229/.269 against righties, and .216/.316/.412 against lefties. And 2017 was just as pronounced (.147/.218/.194 versus righties, .208/.309/.354).
But that immediately got me wondering: for Cishek to have put up such dramatically better numbers with the Rays than he did with the Mariners, is it possible he was handling lefties a little bit better?
Consider first his numbers in 2017 against righties:
With Mariners: .192/.263/.275, 21.1% K rate, 7.0% BB rate, 65.0% groundball rate, 35.0% soft contact rate, 25.0% hard contact rate
With Rays: .105/.177/.123, 29.0% K rate, 6.5% BB rate, 50.0% groundball rate, 20.5% soft contact rate, 15.4% hard contact rate
That’s actually fairly similar to the overall changes he saw from the Mariners to the Rays, especially in the contact rate changes. I can immediately see, though, that his improvements against lefties in the K and BB departments must have been really significant.
So let’s check those 2017 numbers against lefties, and sure enough:
With Mariners: .150/.261/.500, .067 BABIP, 13.0% K rate, 13.0% BB rate, 52.9% groundball rate, 5.9% soft contact rate, 35.3% hard contact rate
With Rays: .250/.344/.250, .350 BABIP, 25.0% K rate, 9.4% BB rate, 52.6% groundball rate, 15.0% soft contact rate, 25.0% hard contact rate
YO. Massive improvement: located. That’s a substantial spike in the strikeout rate AND a substantial drop in the walk rate. Cishek was, quite simply, much more effective against lefties with the Rays than he was with the Mariners.
Also: look at those BABIPs. Cishek benefited from an absurd .067 BABIP against lefties with the Mariners despite an equally absurd 5.9% soft contact rate and sizable 35.3% hard contact rate. To say he was VERY lucky with the Mariners is an understatement.
With the Rays, he was clearly *unlucky* on the BABIP side, seeing it spike all the way to .350 against lefties despite improvements in hard and soft contact rates.
So, then, we can see that Cishek was a better pitcher with the Rays than with the Mariners, especially against lefties. Now the question becomes: can we tell if he did something different to improve against lefties after that trade, or did he simply get better results and post better peripherals because he was feeling more healthy or had a better defense or whatever?
I’m not seeing anything out there about significant changes Cishek revealed to the press after his trade to Tampa Bay, so we’ll have to look in a couple obvious places: his pitch mix, and his release point. The former’s potential impact is obvious, and the latter can show mechanical changes (even if we don’t know exactly what they are).
On the pitch mix front, the one thing you notice after his move to Tampa Bay was a decreased reliance on his slider and sinker, mostly coming in favor of a slightly increased sprinkling of his four-seamer (Brooks):
So, why the change? Well, we can take a guess and keep things simple – he was getting better results on his four-seamer with the Mariners than he was on his sinker and his slider. When hitters were doing damage, it was coming against the sinker and the slider, but not against the four-seamer (which he had only really picked back up in July – so maybe this change was coming regardless of his trade to the Rays).
Moreover, before he came to the Rays, lefties were doing all kinds of nothing against his four-seamer. So maybe there was a conscious attempt by the Rays and Cishek to counteract those previous struggles against lefties by letting him just pound the zone a little more with his four-seamer against lefties.
Some more evidence that this was a change by design? Note the drop in his groundball rate with the Rays – that’ll happen when you move away from your sinker and slider in favor of more four-seamers. And if the effectiveness goes up, then hey, you can live with a drop in the still-very-good groundball rate.
So, then, it looks like the pitch mix did change a bit after the trade to the Rays, and the results probably did bear out the effectiveness of that change. But what about the other thing – any mechanical changes we can surmise from the release point data?
Very yes (Brooks):
An immediate change in the release point upon arriving with a new team doesn’t get more obvious than this. With the Rays, Cishek started throwing from a much higher arm slot, and also moved laterally. Tips from his new pitching coach, Jim Hickey? Were the change not so stark, I might be inclined to say there’s the simple matter of health here – thanks to the hip surgery, Cishek did not debut with the Mariners until May 15, and maybe he just started feeling better and better mechanically as the season went on.
But the release point changes are so dramatic and perfectly-aligned with the trade that it’s a virtual lock the Rays spotted something specific they thought they could work with on Cishek, helped him effectuate that change, massaged his pitch mix, and saw his results take off, especially against lefties.
As you anticipate what Cishek might be for the Cubs, and why they targeted him – among so many other options – as their second addition to the bullpen this offseason, you should find this information very heartening. Cishek became all kinds of dominant with the Rays, working with the pitching coach he’ll get in Chicago. That doesn’t mean he’ll automatically be just as dominant with the Cubs – bad things happen all the time, and the samples here are very small – but it does give you reason to believe his uptick in performance with the Rays last year could be something that carries over into 2018 with the Cubs.
I liked the Cishek signing before digging into this. Now I freaking love it.