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How Steve Cishek got his groove back

Despite a few bumps in the road, Cishek enjoyed a pleasant bounce-back season

Milwaukee Brewers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Steve Cishek was bad in 2015.

He entered the year as a key piece in the Miami Marlins’ bullpen, but plummeting strikeouts and skyrocketing walks left his numbers all kinds of crooked. His 4.17 xFIP and 3.51 FIP were both career-highs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio had never been uglier. On July 24th, 2015, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Kyle Barraclough, a 25-year-old, hard-throwing reliever. The change of scenery did nothing; his struggles would persist.

When the dust settled, he had, well, I mean just look at it:

He managed to keep runs from crossing the plate often when he was in St. Louis, which I suppose is what everything boils down to in the end, but the peripherals were bad and his value was shot. Not long after putting up 2.0 fWAR in 2014 as a Marlin, he was signing a measly (heh) 2-year, $10 million deal with the Seattle Mariners with a promise of the first shot at their closer opening and the hopes that he could reestablish himself as a dominant presence on the mound.

Let me star out this section by acknowledging that he did run into a few bumps during his first year in Seattle. Between a few blown saves and health concerns and moments where he lost all touch for all of his pitches at once, his season was rife with small moments that drew understandable frustration from fans. For those who feel Steve Cishek did not get his groove back, put your pitchforks down. You have been heard.

Despite these periods of struggle, Cishek put together a season that drastically improved upon his 2015 performance:

He was unable to revert to his 2014 levels of mastery–he surrendered a career-high eight home runs in 2016, double that of his previous season high–but the strikeouts were back up, the walks were back down, and his xFIP dipped down nearly a full run.

Most importantly for Cishek, he was moved out of the closer role and into a far more suitable setup role, which presents the Mariners with a bit more flexibility regarding his usage.

With relievers, of course, the question always comes down to how legitimate their numbers are from year to year. Which Cishek should we expect in 2017: the horrid, 2015 version or the pleasant bargain we saw this past season? Hell, could he potentially be the bullpen ace he was in 2013 and 2014? To understand the answer to this question, we need a better understanding of what exactly changed in 2016. I shall do my best.

He leaned heavily on his slider again

Cishek turned into a sinker-heavy pitcher in 2015, an odd deviation from the slider-heavy pitch usage that made him so successful in 2014. In 2016, he switched back to making the slider his dominant pitch, as evidenced below:

If we break it down to a month-by-month look in 2016, you can really see just how heavily he relied on the slider down the stretch:

When a pitcher leans this heavily on a single pitch, the hope is that it’s his best offering, or at least a fairly decent one. For Cishek, this was very much the case, as the slider graded out as his most valuable pitch by a pretty hefty margin, at 10.8 wSL and 2.00 wSL/C.

A bit more evidence that the slider helped can be found in batted ball numbers. If we consider the charts above, it appears that the slider became his go-to pitch in July. Look at how the numbers stack up before and after:

The increase in fly-ball percentage is something you can live with when it blends with the limited hard-contact rate. The line-drive percentage dipping down was also a welcomed change.

The switch wasn’t a total, across-the-board success, some numbers here and there slipped a bit, but he appears to be a more sustainable asset when he’s riding a working slider.

His release points shifted

After making small changes over the last couple years, it appears Cishek opted for a larger switch in his release point with the Mariners:

Put whatever stock into these charts you’d like, but there’s fairly dramatic movement at the tail end of it, most of which resulted in different behavior from his slider and sinker offerings. It’ll be interesting to see whether these mechanical changes hold up next year or whether they were a one-year blip.

Other small changes

Here are other small changes I noticed while running through things:

  • He was better at keeping his slider on the edges of the zone. Not leaving a 79mph slider over the heart of the plate seems like a pretty good idea if you’re trying to make it in Major League Baseball.
  • The horizontal movement on his slider was much greater than ever before, with Brooks Baseball marking it at 7.86 inches. If I’m an umpire and I see Cishek walking out to the mound, I am quitting.
  • This past year, Brooks Baseball had him registering four-seam fastballs for the first time since 2014. Pitchf/x disagrees with this assessment, but it’s something worth pointing out.
  • Oddly enough, Cishek threw his slider at a lower average velocity (79.10 mph, a full two ticks below his previous low) than ever before, which could’ve played a significant role in the change of movement on the pitch.

The improvement in 2016 wasn’t a fluke, Cishek very much has his career back on track with tangible changes that fall outside of the “eh, he just got luckier” argument. Will he ever again be the Sultan of Sidearm he was in 2014? Probably not, but there’s a happy medium between 2014 Cishek and 2015 Cishek and it appears he has settled into it. If his health fully recovers and he continues the trends we saw in his debut season in Seattle, the Mariners probably have a setup man capable of duplicating the 3.53 xFIP and 0.9 fWAR performance (for what it’s worth, Steamer projects him at 3.95 xFIP and 0.6 fWAR in 2017).

Considering some of the names the Mariners had to live with in late-inning roles last year (hi, Joel Peralta), that’s a heck of a contributor to have.