Last week, Peter Gammons did a tweet.
Alex Speier noted the Red Sox could not offer Travis Shaw $4M until they clarified their payroll situation. Falmouth's Steve Cishek--over last 4 yrs. ave. 61 G, 2.52 ERA. 9.3 K/9, 1.05 WHIP--would like to sign w/Boston, but made $7.1M last season and may be out of their pay range— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) December 29, 2019
The initial reaction to that from most, myself included, was, “Wow! That really stinks on ice, man!” Obviously, that feeling is based on the fact that the Red Sox couldn’t offer $4 million without moving payroll first. I’m going to choose to move past that for the purposes of this article and just focus on that middle part where Gammons indicates Steve Cishek would like to sign with the Red Sox. It’s always nice to be wanted, ya know? The natural question from there, though, is whether or not the Red Sox should reciprocate those feelings.
For a little background, Cishek is a local guy as Gammons notes growing up on the Cape in Falmouth. The now 33-year-old (he’ll turn 34 in mid-June) righty was a fifth round pick back in 2007, had a small cup of coffee in 2010 and has been a major-league mainstay since 2011. He spent the first six years of his big-league with the Marlins (who drafted him) before bouncing around from St. Louis to Seattle to Tampa Bay to Chicago. It is worth noting that Chaim Bloom was, of course, with the Rays when they acquired him in a midseason trade for the 2017 stretch run.
As far as whether or not the Red Sox should be interested, we’ll start with the negatives. For one thing, 2020 will be his age-34 season. He’s been remarkably sturdy and consistent over his career, which we’ll get to in a bit, but he’s getting to the end of his career, a fact that started showing up in some of his numbers last year. For one thing, he walked just about 11 percent of his opponents, the second highest rate of his career.
It’s not really that he missed the zone a lot — that’s always been how he pitches — or that he didn’t get chases — his O_Swing rate per Baseball Prospectus is consistent with his career norms. Instead, it’s that opponents made contact when they chased. He couldn’t get the whiffs on these pitches, which is a big part of his game. Among 267 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches in 2019, Cishek’s O_Swing rate was 24th highest.
As a result he also saw the second lowest strikeout rate of his career as well as the second time in his career he finished with a worse-than-average park-adjusted FIP. This could just be a blip on the radar and he’ll get back to normal in 2020, or it could be a sign of aging-related decline in skill. His slider specifically comes to mind here, as it induced whiffs less than 30 percent of the time for the first time since 2012, per Baseball Savant. It’s also worth noting his home run rate was much higher than normal, though given what happened around the league that’s not a surprise.
So that’s the case against Cishek, but a more optimistic person could look at his numbers and say he could be a steal. Even with the peripherals taking a downward turn in 2019, he still ended the season with a park-adjusted ERA that was 33 percent better than league-average. Some of that was probably luck, but some was also because he was still getting those swings on pitches out of the zone, and the extra contact was almost certainly mostly weak. That leads to better results on balls in play.
A more optimistic person could also look at his career and just marvel at the consistency. He’s never had a park-adjusted ERA that was worse than average, and he’s usually been significantly better than average. We know ERA isn’t the best way to judge relievers, but this is pretty remarkable for a guy who has thrown at least 40 innings in nine consecutive seasons and at least 50 in eight of them. He has also finished with a FIP- of 85 or better (i.e., he was at least 15 percent better than league-average by this measure) in seven of those nine years. There’s also the durability inherent in those innings totals, though that could by spun as a negative by a pessimist who points at the mileage on the arm.
There’s also the fact that Cishek has generally been effective against both righties and lefties. This is always important, but it’s going to be even more valuable this coming season with the new three-batter rule expected to be implemented. Over his career, lefties have a wOBA of .302 compared to a .245 mark for righties. He’s faced over 1000 of each.
Then, there’s the price, which is ultimately the most important factor for all Red Sox decisions this winter. Gammons points out in that tweet above that Cishek made $7.1 million in 2019, though I’m not sure how relevant that is this year. Looking at the list of relievers who have signed so far this winter, I would probably say Cishek’s best comps are guys like Joe Smith and Sergio Romo, who signed deals with average annual values of $4 million and $5 million, respectively. Maybe you can make the case for him being closer to Chris Martin, but even that is a hardly intimidating contract.
I am of the opinion that the Red Sox should sign another reliever from the right side who can be mixed with Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman in the late innings, and preferably a veteran with some stability. Sergio Romo was my top choice, but Cishek is a nice alternative. He’s not at the top of my list, and I suspect he’s not at the top of Boston’s either. But he wants to be here, he fits a need and he won’t cost too much. That all adds up to me.