Perhaps Chicago Cubs fans should have known exactly what they were getting when 32-year-old veteran Steve Cishek signed with the team last December.
After all, Steve Cishek had posted consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA, and a stellar 1.09 ERA in the second half of 2017 after he was traded from Seattle to the Rays. And yet, Cishek has been far more than just another quality arm in the Chicago Cubs bullpen this year. He has been an anchor.
Amidst all the buzz surrounding Brandon Morrow‘s ability to replace Wade Davis as the closer in Chicago, Cishek quietly went about his business. Even as Morrow has struggled to bounce back from bicep inflammation, Cishek has continued to perform in one of the best years of his career.
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As of Saturday, the right-handed submariner held a career-high 1.68 ERA. According to FanGraphs, his 1.3 WAR is already the third-best value of his career, while his 2.73 FIP ranks as his best since 2014 with the Marlins. But on the surface, these numbers hardly do justice in describing how much Cishek has meant to the Cubs out of the bullpen.
Maddon has used him in any and every situation. Though he has been used most commonly as a middle reliever, Cishek has become the ultimate escape artist. Opponents have just two hits in 10 at-bats against Cishek with the bases loaded.
In fact, Cishek has been Chicago’s ultimate weapon in shutting the door on all scoring opportunities. Opposing hitters have just a .185 average against Cishek with runners on base, and are hitting just .146 with runners in scoring position.
These are numbers befitting a classic kind of arm in the bullpen that can come in relief to halt any rally, and they represent Cishek’s place as the Cubs’ version of Andrew Miller.
Cleveland’s use of Miller in the 2016 postseason reflected a new approach to relief pitchers. Rather than being built in the more typical Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera-mold of closing games in the ninth inning, Miller has become a star for his ability to pitch in the middle innings. He can pitch multiple innings and use his fastball-slider combination to get strikeouts and escape jams.
Well, Cishek has almost become a mirror image for the Cubs in this regard. After posting an 8.26 K/9 ratio last season, Cishek has posted a 10.07 K/9 thus far. Perhaps most notably, he is mixing his biting slider in with more fastballs. According to Fangraphs, Cishek’s 7.8 pitch value with the fastball is his highest since 2013, while also still posting a 6.7 value with the slider.
Cishek may have been one of the more unheralded signings of the past offseason, but he has quietly become Chicago’s super-reliever.
In 2017, Chicago’s bullpen was punished for their inability to get outs and escape jams when they needed to most. But with Cishek in the mix, this year figures to be different.