Jose Cisnero has been one of the more reliable bullpen arms for Ron Gardenhire and the Detroit Tigers since debuting with the team in June of 2019. Following the injury to Buck Farmer, an increased role in the bullpen will allow Cisnero to showcase the improvements he’s made throughout his career.
Cody Stavenhagen of the Athletic told the story of Cisnero’s extremely unique career. The 31-year-old signed with the Astros as an International free agent out of the Dominican Republic all the way back in 2007 and worked his way through their minor league system. He showed some promise for the Astros in his two seasons with the team, but a UCL tear in 2014 sent him spiraling into baseball purgatory for the next several years. Between the time of his injury and his Detroit Tigers career, Cisnero even found himself pitching in the Mexican League.
Despite his injury struggles, one thing was apparent when the Tigers got a look at him – he can throw the baseball extremely hard. Here he is showing off his stuff against a few Atlanta Braves prospects last year, courtesy of James Chipman.
Fast forward one season and Cisnero is a key contributor in the Tigers bullpen. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News detailed Cisnero’s bid to secure a high-leverage bullpen role coming into the season. Thus far, he has done just that, becoming a top-four option for Ron Gardenhire in a surprisingly stable Tigers bullpen.
Jose Cisnero is fairly consistent in his approach to attacking hitters. He throws his fastball just over 50 percent of the time while supplementing it with a slider primarily against right-handed hitters and a changeup against lefties. He occasionally mixes in a sinker, though it was his worst pitch in 2019 and he has almost entirely scrapped it so far this season.
Cisnero’s average fastball velocity of 96.4 miles per hour in 2019 put him in the upper echelon on relief pitchers in terms of pure heat on the fastball. When he is controlling the fastball well and hitting his spots, he is able to use his top-notch velocity to blow by opposing hitters. However, he loses his feel for the fastball too often, resulting in hard contact. His .417 expected slugging allowed on his fastball was the worst of all of his pitches he uses regularly.
Despite throwing so hard, Cisnero’s best pitch is his slider. In 2019, he allowed an expected batting average of .177 against his slider, while getting his opponents to whiff 34 percent of the time. Though he has hung a few sliders thus far in 2020, he has actually increased his whiff rate to 45 percent. When he controls the pitch down in the zone, it is virtually unhittable for opponents.
His changeup remains an adequate third pitch and a decent out-pitch against left-handed hitters. He doesn’t get many swings and misses on the pitch, but he is able to get hitters off balance and limit hard contact. Thus far in 2020, opponents are struggling to make hard contact off the changeup, hitting it with an average exit velocity of 77 miles per hour. By keeping hitters off-balance, his changeup allows his fastball to play up.
Command is Key
Cisnero provided a mixed bag of results when he was summoned from the bullpen in 2019. His 4.33 ERA was passable, though his higher FIP and xFIP suggest that he may have benefited from some good luck. He relied heavily on the strikeout, punching out 10.2 batters per nine innings. His swing and miss stuff was unfortunately offset by poor control. He walked near five batters per inning, a mark that undoubtedly led to his poor xFIP.
Cisnero has seemingly improved his control thus far in 2020, cutting his walk rate to 1.5 per nine innings, while maintaining strong strikeout numbers. Limiting the free passes this season has allowed him to lower his FIP to 1.5. Despite the small sample size, his newfound control remains encouraging and gives Tigers fans some hope that Cisnero can provide more than average bullpen production.
All things considered, Cisnero is an average relief pitcher at this point in his career. That being said, if he is able to continue the improvements he has made in regards to his fastball control, he has some upside as a solid seventh-inning reliever. For a minor league free agent signing who hadn’t pitched in the MLB in four years, the Tigers have to be happy.