The Cubs bullpen has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, from the top to the bottom:
Three Chicago Cubs relievers have ERAs among the top 25 in Major League Baseball this season. And six guys have sub-3.00 ERAs overall.
7. Brandon Morrow: 0.98
17. Pedro Strop: 1.52
24. Steve Cishek: 1.78
39. Brian Duensing: 2.04
74. Justin Wilson: 2.82
79. Carl Edwards: 2.88
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) June 1, 2018
The only other “everyday” member of the bullpen missing from that picture is Mike Montgomery, and he’s more of a swing-starter, super-utility type, anyway. So even if his results aren’t among the very best in baseball right now, he’s found plenty of other ways to add value/be useful – you know, like filling in successfully as a replacement starter for Yu Darvish.
At the very top of the bullpen, Brandon Morrow has been a model of stress-less consistency, while his two primary set-up men, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop, have been their usual, dominant selves (though Edwards is on the DL now (sad face)). The lefties, Brian Duensing and Justin Wilson, have done well as both full-inning relievers and left-handed specialists, and the group of relievers walking in and out of the revolving door at the back of the bullpen has more than held their own.
And yet the one guy I can’t get enough of is Steve Cishek.
If you recall, the Cubs signed Steve Cishek to a two-year, $13M deal to fairly little fanfare. And yet, upon joining the Cubs he has been used like crazy while performing extremely well. Take last night, for example, when he came in for his 26th appearance of the year, and faced the minimum in his inning of relief for the second consecutive appearance.
On the season, Cishek has earned a stellar 1.78 ERA, which ranks among the 25 best in baseball (and only eight pitchers ahead of him have thrown more innings), with an also excellent 2.89 FIP.
But don’t sleep on how often he’s been used this season. Cishek’s 26 appearances and 25.1 IP top the Cubs bullpen this year. But according to Cishek – and as discussed by Brett in the bullets this morning – he’s still going strong. “I’m feeling pretty good,” said Cishek. “When I get into a rhythm, I feel I can pitch almost every day. I know it’s not realistic, but for a little bit, it felt like it. I like being busy.”
He certainly won’t pitch every day, but I bet Manager Joe Maddon wishes he could.
As has become a custom in Maddon-managed bullpens, Cishek has taken on the role of “mid-innings closer. The idea, it seems, is to take one of your top relievers, like Cishek, and use him in those high-leverage, but early-game spots most old school managers refuse to take seriously enough (because it’s not the end of the game). But be it the fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh inning (over 70% of his innings), you can bet Maddon is leaning on Cishek when there’s trouble on the bases (Note: for all of Maddon’s questionable bullpen decisions over the years, he seems to be more aware that high-leverage moments can happen at any time than most managers).
And for good reason!
Cishek has not only been a good reliever this season, he’s been a good reliever the way you’d want for someone in that mid-game closer role: 1. plenty of strikeouts, grounders, and weak contact.
This season, Cishek has struck out 25.7% of the batters he’s faced, which is exactly equal to his career mark. His 12.4% walk rate is much higher than usual (what else is new with the Cubs bullpen?), but he’s actually cut that number in half (6.7 BB%) since the beginning of May, while increasing his strikeout rate to 33.3%. That’s huge.
And perhaps still not as impressive as his 52.5% ground ball rate, which is better than his career average and among the top-25 marks in the National League. With an extremely low fly ball rate (27.9%), plenty of soft-contact (19.4%) and a solid handle on hard-contact (30.7%) has been able to limit the damage and then some.
Armed with an above-average (in terms of value) 91.2 MPH fastball, a top-20 slider, and an unorthodox delivery, Steve Cishek has been a stabilizing force for the Cubs and Joe Maddon in the middle of baseball games.
The Cubs bullpen has been among the very best here in 2018, and Cishek is a big part of it.