Adam Cimber Is an Outlier of Outliers

The following three figures correspond to measurements for which objective data exists. One of them is the height above the ground at which the average major-league pitcher releases the ball. Another is the height at which a particular mystery pitcher releases the ball. Finally, the third is the height of this author’s three-year-old son.

(a) 2.18 feet
(b) 3.25 feet
(c) 5.75 feet

Here, with a minimum of suspense, are the corresponding answers:

(a) Mystery pitcher’s release point.
(b) The height of this author’s son.
(c) The average vertical release point of major-league pitchers.

As to the identity of the mystery pitcher, the title naturally gives it away. If you’re familiar with the work of Adam Cimber in San Diego, you are also familiar with one of the lowest release points in the game. In fact, Cimber features the second-lowest release point (2.18 feet) of any pitcher in baseball, trailing only teammate, fellow submariner, and NPB import Kazuhisa Makita (1.86 feet).

Cimber’s release points:

Cimber’s fastball and slider locations via pitch graphs here at the site:

The Padres have literally cornered the market on a pitching characteristic: Cimber and Makita (2.94 feet) are the only two major-league pitchers whose average fastball Z-height (vertical height) at the plate is greater than their release points. In this age of fascination with spin and rise, their pitches actually finish at a higher elevation than that from which they start their journey toward the plate.

The Cimber fastball:

The Cimber slider:

There are only six pitchers who have vertical release points below four feet, 27 under five feet. Conversely, there are 194 pitches who release the ball five feet or higher on average. It’s fair to say Cimber gives batters an unusual look, one they have rarely ever faced.

The average major-league sinker arrives at the plate three-and-a-half feet lower than from its release point, while, conversely, Cimber’s “sinker” arrives about five inches higher than it’s released; Makita’s, by more than a foot. Submarine-style pitchers are fun, unusual outliers. And I’m going to focus on Cimber over Makita in this post for a couple reasons. First, because he is even more of an outlier, as he entered the spring as one of 24 non-roster invites to Padres’ camp. And second, because he’s been more effective. By some measures, he’s been one of the best relievers in the game.

Pitchers have a lot of control over three basic plate-appearance outcomes: strikeouts, walks, and batted-ball type (grounder vs. air ball). Cimber has acquitted himself well in each case, having recorded an above-average strikeout rate (32.0%), a below-average walk rate (6.2%), and a slightly better than MLB-average ground-ball rate (49.2%). He has not allowed a home run this season. He and bullpen teammate Kirby Yates are among 14 pitchers who have not allowed a “barrel” through at least 25 batted-ball events.

Few have squared up Cimber.

While he has the fourth-lowest sinker velocity (87 mph) among 135 major-league pitchers to have thrown 100 such pitches, he has the 27th-best whiff rate (20.3%) and the pitch is generating a 12:1 GB:FB ratio.

Among relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings, Cimber (1.34) ranks second to only Josh Hader in FIP (0.75) and FIP- (0.33).

That’s good company to keep.

Everything about Cimber is unusual, including his pre-pitch routine, about which he spoke about with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

U-T: On the mound, your mechanics are as different as anyone’s. Can you breakdown what it is you’re doing?

Cimber: Well, when I come into the game the first thing I do is I write on the back of the mound, “GHAP.” God Has A Plan. I swipe over the top of it so when I step over that line, it’s just God’s plan and I’m trusting in it and attacking. I do a little hop around that started in college when I was more physical when I was thinking of throwing punches like shadow-boxing. Like it’s a fight. With the squat, I’m picking up a little rock on the ground and focusing on it – a small target. I’m taking a deep breath and resetting and getting my sign and throwing. I kick the dirt off the rubber, too – that’s a clearing mechanism for me. I have a lot of stuff that’s evolved over the years.

The one glaring problem for Cimber? As you might expect with that arm angle and lack of a changeup, lefties are raking against him, posting a .368 on-base mark and .594 slugging mark. (He did hold lefties to a .205 average in Triple-A last season.) So if the Padres really wanted to be creative, they could employ Cimber as a starting pitcher, or “opener,” like the Rays did with Sergio Romo over the weekend.

Still, this is an NRI success story. It’s just a matter of determining how great a success story.

Can Cimber keep it up against righties? Perhaps this is a peak he cannot sustain, perhaps batters — especially those in the NL West — will better zero in. Perhaps the Padres should consider selling high on Cimber.

The Padres are in an interesting position. They’re unlikely to make the playoffs, but they possess the game’s fourth-best bullpen by relief WAR, trailing only the Brewers, Red Sox, and Yankees. We suspected the Padres might have built a super ‘pen, albeit an unusual one, and they have done just that.

And if the Padres do fall further out of the NL West and Wild Card races, they could sell their relief arms at potential premium returns. Most contenders want to to bolster their bullpens as we saw in the offseason, when relievers were the only segment of the MLB free population immune from the ice-cold market. Some teams have major bullpen needs. See: Indians.

Cimber has been fascinating to date, and it will be interesting to see where he goes form here, how batters adapt, if they can adapt, and what the Padres elect to do with him. What we do know is that, outside of the San Diego bullpen, there is really no one like him, and there’s value in that alone.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

First! Jk, nice article.