The role of a closer on a Major League Baseball team is, in principle, an insanely difficult job. Generally, it consists of getting 3 outs with a lead of 3 runs or less against an arrangement of the best hitters in the world when their backs are to the wall and they know there is no longer any margin of error. Finish the game and close out the win for his team and they are simply doing their job. But what if the closer blows the lead? Takes his ball club from a tough-fought victory to an agonizing defeat? That is the part of the role that sets it apart from all others in the baseball world, the unacceptable failure.
Steve Cishek has been an exceptional reliever for the Miami Marlins since he came into the league in September of 2010. Cishek’s unorthodox sidearm delivery has been torturous on righties, holding them to a career .215/.280/.297 (Batting Average/On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage) slash line. Left-handed hitters have fared only a little better off Steve, hitting at a .238/.325/.359 clip. Cishek’s arsenal of pitches consists of a sharp sinker that rides in hard on right-handed batters and tails away from lefties, a Frisbee slider that he uses frequently (36.1% of the time for his career) and an average change-up that he generally only uses against lefties to keep them off-balance from time to time. Coming into the 2015 season, he had a career ERA under 3.00 and was coming off of a season in which he recorded 39 out of a possible 43 saves. But in 2015 the side-armed reliever has been a different pitcher, one who is struggling to get anybody out. Through 13 appearances his ERA sits at 10.32 and he has blown 4 out of a possible 7 saves, including back-to-back nights on Sunday in San Francisco and Monday in Los Angeles. In 2013, Cishek gave up 18 Earned Runs in almost 70 innings of work. He has already allowed 13 ER in only 11.1 innings so far in 2015. Those heartbreaking losses and staggering numbers have led Marlins manager Mike Redmond to suggest that Cishek’s 3+ year run as the Marlins closer is coming to an end, or at the very least, is going to be put on hold.
So what happened? How does a dominant reliever just suddenly lose the ability to put hitters away and close games out?
The answer could come down to a number of different mental or physical things: loss of confidence in his pitches, pitch location, lack of execution, etc. But the two that loom largest are velocity and sample size. Cishek has went from throwing his sinker at an average of 92.2 mph in 2012 to 89.7 in 2015. His slider has dipped from 82.3 mph to 79.5 mph in the same timeframe. As a result, hitters are having an easier time hitting balls in the zone. His Z-Rate%, (Percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone), according to fangraphs.com, has jumped from 83 % in 2012 to 91.5% in 2015. Cishek is having a much tougher time throwing balls by guys in the strike zone. So naturally, Cishek is trying to expand the zone when he gets ahead in the count. But when you have decreased velocity, it makes it just a little bit easier for hitters to ignore or foul off tough pitches outside of the strike zone. The dip in velocity has to be alarming to the Marlins front office and it’s clear that Cishek is going to have to be sharper locating his pitches in whichever role in Miami’s bullpen in order to make up for the couple of miles per hour that his arm has lost.
Sample size is the biggest problem that a closer has to deal with. Cishek has posted over 250+ innings of data since he debuted in 2010 that proves he is an above-average reliever. Unfortunately, a bad weekend alone as a closer is enough to make everyone forget about your good years and Cishek has had a bad month and a half to this point in 2015. In every other role in the game of baseball, traditionally good performance buys a player time to work through their struggles. Even the best hitters go through a long slump at least once or twice a season. Starters or other pitchers in the bullpen are allowed multiple bad outings in a row that may cost their teams games. But a closer? A closer gets the shortest leash in baseball. It is the epitome of a “what have you done for me lately” position.
One blown save is a blip on the radar.
Two consecutive blown saves is a problem.
Losing games late lingers in the minds of fans and players. When a ball club has a lead going into the 9th inning they expect to win the game. Yet 3 times already this season Cishek has turned likely wins into crushing losses, and for his role as Marlins closer, it seems to be 3 strikes and you’re out.