Steve Cishek learned to throw a slider in 2009. Three years later, the side-winding Miami Marlins righty learned how to throw it more effectively against left-handed hitters. He has since emerged as one of the best closers in baseball.
Cishek – as Eno Sarris wrote in December – has a reverse platoon split, despite an arm angle that suggests otherwise. Eno’s article addressed the reasons why, but didn’t cover Cishek’s thought process and back story. In order to find out how the 28-year-old turned into into what he is today – a pitcher with a 13.25 K/9 and .209 BAA vs LHH in 2014 — I went directly to the source.
Steve Cishek on his evolution as a pitcher: “What’s changed since I got called up is I throw my slider to two different locations. That’s kind of my big thing. I can backdoor a slider, whereas before I was just one side of the plate. Prior to 2012, I was in to lefties and away to righties with my slider.
“For me, it’s a different feel throwing a slider from arm side to glove side. I knew what my slider did, I just couldn’t understand how to command it to that side of the plate. Once I started figuring it out, it became a matter of muscle memory. Now it’s just a spot thing. If I start it here, it will end up here.
“In spring training (2012), I was toying with it while facing our hitters. Logan Morrison said when I throw a backdoor slider it looks like a fastball that’s going to be way off the plate. My (fastball) tails away from lefties, and all of sudden the pitch would come right over the corner. If I keep it out there, it’s tough for hitters to even offer at. If I can keep in the strike zone, but away from their bats, it’s effective.
“I throw it the same every time, but it doesn’t always move the same. Sometimes my slider will sweep, sometimes I get depth to it. Other times it just stays up, and I get hit. When I give up hits, what I want to see on video is where the pitch was.
“The only thing I really look at (on video) is the location of the pitch. I can live with anything in the right spot. If I throw a two-seamer in to a righty, and it doesn’t move too much but is right on the corner, that’s a good pitch if it’s down near the knees. And if I miss inside, that’s still a win for me.
“It sounds bizarre with my arm angle, but I still have to get on top of my fastball. If I don’t, then it stays straight and sails up in the zone. If I get on top of it, I throw it fine and will get the sink I need. I’m not a power guy. With someone like Nate Eovalidi, who throws 100, it doesn’t matter. He just cuts right through it. I rely on movement and location, so I have to make sure I’m focused and behind every pitch.
“I throw two different fastballs. I throw a sinker, usually in to righties and away to lefties. But if I’m going to the left side, or want to raise a hitter’s eye level, I’ll grip a four-seamer and throw it as hard as I can. It has more lateral movement, but not as much depth. I’m not strictly sinker-slider. People think I’m just a traditional sidearmer, but in a way I feel like I throw over the top, even though I really don’t.
“I used to throw a changeup, but lost the feel for it and haven’t thrown one for awhile. I still throw it on the side – I’ve even tinkered with a split-finger grip — and it’s not a bad pitch, but it’s not consistent. I don’t want to get beat with my third-best pitch.
“Before I go into a game, I usually throw the same amount of pitches, the same locations, the same everything. I make sure it’s basically all muscle memory at that point. If I don’t feel good, I know I’m still doing the things I do when I am.
“I’m pretty much slider dominant. I probably threw my slider too much last year. Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) picks up on a lot, and noticed that. If I’m throwing nothing but sliders and the hitter hasn’t seen a fastball in awhile, he’s probably pretty comfortable. If I’m throwing too slow, and away too much, I need to start running balls in to keep them honest.
“With too many sliders, I also can get in trouble because my arm slot will start to drop a little too much. That’s more likely to happen when I throw two or three games in a row and maybe get a little lazy in my throwing program. My movement won’t be quite the same when that happens.
“In the past, because of my height (6-foot-6), people didn’t want me throwing sidearm. I kind of struggled with that. They wanted me to get my arm slot higher to create more angle, but I just couldn’t figure it out. I throw differently than the average person. I bring my arm way behind me, and they also wanted me to shorten that up. It’s almost like trying to relearn a golf swing – something I just couldn’t figure out.
“By 2010, I got over all of that. One of the pitching coaches said to just pitch, and I was finally able to go out and do my thing. I’m not discrediting anything anyone taught me – I learned a lot of valuable information – it’s just that early on in my career, I was maybe overloaded a little too much. Ultimately, I had to do what worked for me. From there, the primary thing was working on my slider, including to both sides of the plate.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.