Mere days before the world became consumed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Seattle Mariners signed free-agent reliever Steve Cishek to a two-year, $10 million deal.
As the ink was drying on the John Hancocks, GM Jerry Dipoto declared Cishek would be the M’s new closer.
This felt like a slightly bold statement, as Spring Training competitions are still about two months away. Now, I titled this article in jest, but I do have some concerns.
First of all, Dipoto cannot be held responsible for Jack Zduriencik’s inability to recognize the longer-term value in keeping Carter Capps over trading him for Logan Morrison. And, admittedly, the dominant side of Capps seen with the Miami Marlins this last year — a 338 ERA+!!! — was over a small sample size. As a middle reliever, Capps pitched 31.0 innings last season, with only two save opportunities. Thus, we can’t really say that if we erased the trade for LoMo, that Capps would even be a viable option at closer.
Now, something I can question Dipoto for is the trade of Carson Smith to the Boston Red Sox for Wade Miley‘s musty beard and affinity for being mediocre. Smith looked like the closer of the future for this team. In 2015 he pitched 70.0 innings and posted a 2.31 ERA, 164 ERA+, and a dominant 11.8 K/9, which was up a full K/9 over his rookie campaign in 2014. Granted, his save success rate of 72.2 percent (13-of-18) isn’t fantastic, but that could be due, in part, to the revolving door at the back end of the bullpen last year for the M’s. Through a de facto closer-by-committee season, the M’s saved 45 games in 71 opportunities last year. That’s a dismal 63.4 percent save rate.
Last year’s bullpen was a mess and Dipoto had to shuffle pieces around, so I don’t fault him for anything…yet. I’m just not sure I’m totally sold on Cishek.
Shall we start with the positives? Sure thing!
When he was a full-time closer, from 2012-14, Cishek saved 88 games in 98 chances. That’s good for an 89.8 percent success rate, which would be favorably comparable to Brad Boxberger (87.2 percent save rate) last season. It would seem that, when he’s healthy, has command of his stuff, and is confident (read: his job isn’t in question), he’s a very good closer. If he is the closer and he can continue his return to form, then he’ll be a huge improvement over last year.
Then there’s his sidearm delivery, which occasionally borders on submariner delivery. Having never played organized baseball, I cannot attest to what it is like to face a guy with a whackadoo delivery like Cishek’s. However, the general narrative you hear from former players and/or commentators is that even if just for the fact that the style of delivery is unusual, it lends itself to an amount of deception.
Also in the pro column, I like his ability to bounce back from losing the closer’s role in Miami, due partially to losing his mechanics. On the surface, his 2015 didn’t look so great, overall. He posted career highs in ERA (3.58) and WHIP (1.482). If you look at the splits between Miami and the St. Louis Cardinals, things look much brighter moving forward. His ERA with Miami last year was 4.50, but after a demotion to Double-A and a move to St. Louis, he calmed that down to a very respectable 2.31. His ERA+ also reflects this bounce-back resolve. It was 87 with the Fish and 174 as a Red Bird. All positive signs he didn’t completely lose it.
One more positive I see comes from Brooks Baseball. If you look at the zone profile below, you’ll see that, for his career, Cishek has excellent whiff rates in a couple of key zones. If he’s facing Mike Trout, for example, that high-and-in area looks fantastic to right-handed hitters. Conversely, he could make David Ortiz‘s retirement parade miserable by getting him to whiff down-and-in and possibly even below the traditional strike zone.
To compliment that, his ground ball rates look pretty tasty, too. Unless I’m experiencing a disturbance in the force, I’m pretty sure ground balls are a good thing, since they end up as outs more often than not.
From the looks of that bottom left quadrant, Kyle Seager will be pretty busy gobbling up grounders and with his glove, I’ll give that a thumbs up.
Now, onto a couple of areas where I have concerns.
Staying with the wonderful repository of info Brooks provides, I don’t like the Cishek’s zone profile when it comes to opponent slugging percentage.
See all those bright red zones inside the strike zone? That’s not too encouraging. Even more so when you think about the potential for big hits in late-and-close situations, which Cishek will, presumably, be pitching in a fair share of. If you go to his player page on Brooks and change the strike situations, it actually doesn’t get much prettier with two strikes and is even worse with one strike. Just something to be aware of when the M’s are up 4-3 in the ninth and Josh Donaldson is at bat with an 0-1 count. Incidentally, Donaldson has a career 1.017 OPS on an 0-1 count.
One other concern I have is Cishek’s severely declined K/9 rate. In 2012, he had a 9.6 K/9, which he equalled in 2013 and then saw a sharp increase in 2014 to 11.6. Last year, through his struggles and his St. Louis rebound, he only struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings. Interestingly enough and informant of my concern is that he went from 7.9 in Miami, while a mess, down to 7.7 in St. Louis. That’s not a huge decrease, but it might represent a trend.
Then again, maybe he’ll just be getting a ton of outs via ground balls and closing out a on of Seattle Mariners’ victories.