Yesterday, the Cardinals strengthened their bullpen by acquiring late-inning reliever Steve Cishek from the Marlins in exchange for Double-A pitcher Kyle Barraclough. Cishek was the closer for the Marlins from 2012-2014 before losing the title in 2015 due to early season struggles. The Cardinals are hoping for a bounce back performance from Cishek, and there are reasons to be optimistic about his performance going forward.
From 2012 to 2014, Cishek was one of the best and most underrated relief pitchers in all of baseball.
Over that period of time, Cishek's FIP ranks 16th among all qualified relief pitchers, and his fWAR ranks 13th. Cishek was especially good in 2014, when he posted career bests in strikeout rate (30.6%), FIP (2.17), xFIP (2.54), and fWAR (2.0) over 65 1/3 innings for the Marlins. The fact that Cishek was able to post those kinds of numbers over a full season suggest that he is capable of being an elite relief pitcher.
With that being said, the Cardinals were able to acquire Cishek for next to nothing, in large part due to his struggles in 2015.
While it was certainly going to be hard for Cishek to repeat the season he posted in 2014, he has been significantly worse in just about every way this year. His ERA has been hurt by a .350 BABIP and a 66.4 percent strand rate, he is still striking out far fewer batters and walking slightly more batters than he has in previous seasons. While relief pitchers often have big fluctuations in performance due to the small number of innings that they throw, the Marlins were clearly worried enough about Cishek that they sent him down to Triple-A at the beginning of June.
Fans of small sample sizes and arbitrary endpoints will point out that Cishek has given up just one earned run in 12 2/3 innings since being recalled from the minor leagues. Over that time period, he has eleven strikeouts and four walks. While those results are certainly encouraging, it is hard to say whether Cishek is truly "fixed" based on such a small number of innings.
Looking at Cishek's Brooks Baseball data, there are some signs that he may, in fact, be rounding into form after a rough start to the season. Cishek is primarily a sinker/slider pitcher, throwing each of his pitches roughly 45 percent of the time. As the season has gone along, Cishek has seen steady increases in the velocity of both of his pitches.
The velocity of his Cishek's two main pitches has increased by nearly two MPH since April, which was far and away his worst month of the season. In June and July, Cishek's average velocity for each of his pitches was right in line with his average velocity from 2014.
Cishek has also made some alterations to his vertical release point as the season has gone along. Cishek is best characterized as a sidearm pitcher, so his vertical release point will be considerably lower than that of most other pitchers. At the beginning of the year, though, Cishek's vertical release point was unusually low, much lower than it had been for most of last season.
Since April, Cishek has brought his release point up by a few inches. Oddly enough, Cishek saw a lot of variation in his vertical release point throughout 2014, when he was at his best. Even with this fluctuation, Cishek's release point was consistently higher throughout 2014 than it was in the first few months of 2015. It is hard to say whether this variation in vertical release point is normal for a pitcher like Cishek, but it is notable that his improved effectiveness and increased velocity in June and July occurred at the same time that his vertical release point moved closer to where it was in 2014.
Ultimately, the Cardinals' acquisition of Cishek is a low-risk, high-reward type of trade, as the team gave up next to nothing (a Double-A reliever with serious control issues) to acquire a pitcher capable of being one of the top twenty relief pitchers in all of baseball. While it may be unrealistic to expect Cishek to be as good as he was in 2014, he is not nearly as bad as his 2015 numbers would indicate. His true talent level probably lies somewhere between his 2014 and 2015 results, and it may be much closer to the former if we believe that his changes in velocity and vertical release point have something to do with his improved effectiveness and can be sustained for the rest of the season.
Relief pitching was not the Cardinals' number one priority going into the deadline, but it was becoming more of an issue in the last couple of weeks, especially with the injury to Matt Belisle and the overuse of Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness. With the Cardinals' being close to a playoff lock at this point in the year (99.4 percent playoff odds according to Fangraphs), it appears that this move is as much about the regular season as it is about the postseason. As much as people talk about the importance of having great starting pitchers for the playoffs, a higher emphasis has been placed on relief pitching in recent years. In acquiring Steve Cishek, the Cardinals have added yet another high-end relief pitcher who could be an important part of a dominant bullpen come October.