Earlier this week, Joe Maddon expressed his desire for the type of bullpen that could propel a team through the postseason and into the World Series. And with guys like Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr., and Mike Montgomery already in the fold, the Cubs at least had a start.
Since then, the Cubs added one of the top relievers on the market in Brandon Morrow, and, earlier today, a quality middle-relief/set-up type in right-hander (and side-armer) Steve Cishek.
You can check out the full details of his deal right here, but for now, let’s dig in a little deeper and really get to know the Cubs newest reliever.
Cishek was originally drafted by the Marlins in the fifth round of the 2007 Major League Draft, though, interestingly, was taken as (and always has been) a reliever. Usually, guys taken that high in the draft are starters or, at worse, starters who will very likely one day be relievers. But Cishek was a reliever since the beginning, which is pretty unique.
Cishek climbed through the Marlins’ system at a steady pace and reached the Major Leagues for the first time by 2010. He did head back to Triple-A in 2011, but has been pitching in the Majors – quite effectively and mostly healthily – ever since: 2.73 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 25.7 K%, 8.8 BB%
His early seasons with the Marlins were arguably his best, as he posted a 2.70 ERA, 2.59 FIP, 26.5 K%, and 8.6 BB% (plus 91 saves) over 253.1 innings pitched. Amazingly, over all of those innings, he allowed just 10 home runs – we’ll get to why/how later.
In 2015, Cishek got off to a rocky start (4.50 ERA) and was eventually traded to the Cardinals at the deadline. But despite pretty great results in St. Louis (2.31 ERA), his 4.33 FIP was troubling. During that stint with the Cardinals, Cishek’s strikeout rate plummeted to 20.2% and his walk rate spiked to 13.1%. Worse, he stopped getting ground balls and began allowing a lot more medium and hard contact than usual. It was only a 23.1 inning sample, but the Cardinals had seen enough and decided to non-tender him after the season.
After that, Cishek signed a two-year deal with the Mariners and he was eventually traded to the Rays this past year. Fortunately, he’s bounced back in each of the last two seasons to make the struggles of 2015 a distant memory:
2016: 2.81 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 29.5 K%, 8.1 BB%
2017: 2.01 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 23.6 K%, 8.1 BB%
Obviously, some of those stats are a bit all over the place, but the general takeaway is that he’s been a sub-3.00 ERA guy for most of his career with an above average strikeout rate, an walk rate, and results that almost always outperform his peripherals. And it’s that last bit is where things get very interesting for the Cubs (and us!)
By now you should know that, while peripheral statistics like strikeout rate, walk rate, and FIP can do an OK job of projecting future performance, they’re not the only thing that matters. In fact, guys like Kyle Hendricks have shown us that contact management and piles of ground balls, if you’re good enough at getting them consistently, can be just as effective in the results department as extreme K/BB numbers.
And that probably goes double in the current fly ball revolution, triple in the juiced ball era, and quadruple in front of an elite infield defense like the Chicago Cubs.
So is Cishek an elite contact manager? Oh you know it.
He didn’t finish enough innings to qualify last season, but Cishek’s 22.4% soft contact rate was about three percentage points greater than average and tied with Pedro Strop for the 44th best mark in baseball. And if you’re thinking that’s good but not the elite contact manager you promised, get this: Cishek’s 23.3% hard contact rate would’ve been a top ten mark among all relievers in the game.
Moreover, his 56.1% ground ball rate was about 12 percentage points better than the league average and would’ve ranked among the top 20 relievers in all of baseball. And it doesn’t end there! Cishek also had a 26.3% fly ball rate last season, well below the league average of 35.9%, that would rank among the top 25 lowest fly ball rates among relievers last season. For a middle relief arm costing $7M a year, you have to love that. Especially because he’s been doing it for his entire career.
Numbers (and ranking) from 2011-2017:
Soft-hit rate: 19.3% (13th in MLB)
Hard-hit rate: 27.4% (12th in MLB)
Ground ball rate: 49.9% (9th in MLB)
Fly ball rate: 31.0% (10th in MLB)
Dude. That’s a career built on limiting hard contact and keeping the ball on the ground.
And just for a little added bonus, Cishek’s 417.1 IP from 2011-2017 ranks as the 14th most in baseball. He did hit the disabled list with a hip injury back in 2015 and had surgery to correct it before the 2017 season, but all in all he’s mostly been a reliable reliever out of the pen, in terms of health.
In terms of pitch mix, Cishek is mostly sinker-baller/slider guy, though he does mix in a four-seamer occasionally and does technically have a changeup, too (though he rarely uses it). He doesn’t pitch with a ton of velocity, but his slider (9.2) rated as the 16th best among all relievers with at least 40IP last season and his sinker (11.5) was the 6th best.
It’s worth pointing out that he was far more devastating against fellow righties last season (.192 wOBA, 2.62 FIP) than lefties (.287 wOBA, 5.08 FIP), but that’s the stronger side of the platoon, and his splits aren’t quite as dramatic for his career. I doubt he’ll be used *strictly* as a ROOGY, but it might make some sense later in the season.
All in all, it’s kinda hard not to love this addition to the pen, especially for the Cubs, whose infield defense is in for some serious work. He may not be a sure-fire closer type, but as far middle relievers/set-up men go, Cishek is pretty darn great.