I don’t care how strenuously Matt Vasgersian objects to loads of subjective data, the balls are juiced. Home runs are flying out of ballparks at a higher rate than ever and hard contact is increasing all the time. Since such things started being measured in 2002, only six seasons have featured a hard-contact rate of 30% or higher. Four of those have come in the last four seasons.
Until last year, 2007’s aggregate 32% rate had stood as the high-water mark. Then came 2018, when the juiced-ball theory really started to gain traction and multiple studies revealed that the ol’ horsehide really did have a different composition that it had in the past. That season saw hard contact leap to 35.3%, a number that is being easily surpassed by the 37.8% so far this season.
Only 44 of the 364 pitchers who’ve accumulated at least 20 innings of experience this season have allowed less than 30% hard contact. Only three have generated more than 30% soft contact. At the top of both lists is non other than the Cubs’ Steve Cishek.
The sidewinding righty’s 18.2% hard contact makes him the only pitcher in MLB below 20% and his 35.1% soft contact leads the league as well. Both of those marks are much better than his career averages and clearly run counter to league trends. Man, just imagine what he’d be doing had Brandon Kintzler not tried to go all Jeff Gilooly on his ‘pen pal.
So to what can we attribute the improvements? On the surface, there’s very little to indicate a big shift in what, where, or how Cishek is pitching. His sinker/slider mix is pretty much the same, his velocity hasn’t really changed, and his location is virtually identical this year to his historical results.
There is almost nothing in the data to suggest that the results should vary from what he’s done in the past. Except…the one area in which we see a marked difference is outside-the-zone contact, which currently sits at 69.8%. That’s nearly eight points higher than his career average and it’s more than seven points higher than league average (62.4%).
Even though Cishek isn’t throwing out of the zone much more than usual and isn’t giving up much more overall contact than before, he’s getting hitters to swing at and hit more of what would otherwise be called balls. And given his propensity to throw low and/or outside, that means inducing weaker contact.
I’m not sure whether or to what degree this is sustainable, though the inordinately high O-contact% tells me regression is going to catch up to him. However, we’re over 40% of the way through the season and it’s not as though there are all kinds of other fluky things going on to produce these results.
The best part of all this is that even if Cishek does regress to the mean, he’ll do so in lower-leverage situations against hitters who aren’t able to do as much damage. Craig Kimbrel’s imminent arrival and Pedro Strop’s continued good health will push Cishek down a bit and mitigate any return to normalcy in his contact rates.
In the meantime, though, he might want to avoid playing catch with guys who are vying for those late innings while they’re still available.
Ed. note: I didn’t have time to comb through the entire timeline, but this post was inspired by a Bleacher Nation tweet about Cishek’s soft contact. At least I think that’s what it was.