HOUSTON -- All it took was one phone call with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom a couple of weeks ago for free-agent pitcher Steve Cishek to make up his mind.
“I talked to another team, and then the next day talked to the Astros,” he said. “As soon as I was done talking with Strom, I called my agent and said, ‘Alright, let’s make it happen.’ This exactly where I can think I can fit in here.”
The Astros revamped their bullpen this winter by signing veteran free agents Pedro Báez, Ryne Stanek and Cishek, who received a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He’s pretty much a lock to make the Opening Day roster considering his experience and track record. If he does, he’ll make $2.25 million this season.
Cishek, 34, admitted Thursday he did a lot of homework on potential landing spots this winter. The Astros wound up being his seventh team in nearly a dozen years in the big leagues. Cishek, a side-arming right-hander, said the fact that Houston was a contender and had its Spring Training base near his home in Jupiter, Fla., were big positives, but Strom pushed them over the top.
“I’ve always had my eyes on Houston,” he said. “You have Strom as the pitching coach, and I hear awesome things about him and awesome things about [manager] Dusty Baker. I did my homework on everyone. ... Like I said, they’ve always been on my radar, and to have the opportunity to play here and taking an NRI, I felt pretty confident with it.”
Strom, 72, has built a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, a sage authority who’s been responsible for helping pitchers take their careers to another level. That list in Houston includes Will Harris, Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. Cishek is coming off a poor short season with the White Sox (5.40 ERA in 20 innings) but has already identified where he fell short in 2020.
While working out this winter at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Cishek noticed that about halfway through last year’s short season that his arm slot was about six inches higher than normal. He was leaning across his body and cutting his two-seam fastball, so it didn’t have the proper rotation. The pitch was flat.
Opposing hitters teed off on Cishek's sinker last year, with a .395 batting average, .789 slugging percentage and 93 mph exit velocity on average. By contrast, the previous year, opposing hitters batted .261 with a .405 slugging percentage and 86.2 mph exit velo against the pitch. Cishek had a 2.95 ERA in 64 innings for the Cubs in 2019.
“That’s the first time in my career my two-seamer has been hit that hard,” he said. “I’ve been hit hard plenty of times, but not on a consistent basis like that. Obviously, that was a wake-up call that something is not right.”
Cishek tried to make adjustments during the season, but it ended too quickly. He tried to force his arm slot back down. He hopes working closely with Strom and the Astros' analytics team can help him get back to form and win a spot on the club. Cishek hasn’t ruled out winning the job as closer (his 132 saves are nearly twice as many as the rest of the Astros’ pitchers in camp) with help of Strom.
“[Strom is] a combination of old school and new school with the numbers,” Cishek said. “He can give you all the information you want, but he also respects the old-school guys who go off of feel. That’s kind of what I am. The numbers help me out and show me what I struggled with last year, so I’m thankful for that, but once I get those numbers back, it’s a matter of feel. He’s able to do both those things. I liked hearing that, so that was a huge deciding factor [in joining the Astros].”
If Cishek makes the club, the Astros will have two side-armers in their bullpen. Joe Smith, who sat out last season and is baseball’s active leader in games pitched, throws from a bit lower arm slot than Cishek. The two don’t know each other very well, though Cishek saw Smith throwing at Cressey a couple of weeks ago and was perplexed.
“With the mask on, I couldn’t figure it out,” Cishek said. “I said, ‘That guy looks familiar.’ He came to me and introduced himself and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve watched plenty of video of you!’ We always watch each other’s videos, I’m sure. ... Whether we interact or not, I feel like we all know each other.”