When the Detroit Tigers extended a non-roster invite to Jose Cisnero for their 2019 Spring Training camp there were no expectations. The big righthander had been out of the major leagues for four years and was attempting a comeback in his age 30 season. However, reports from Dominican Winter League play were promising and he proved to be a nice little find for General Manager Al Avila during the 2019 season. Now, after a fantastic 2020 campaign, Cisnero is the Tigers reigning best reliever.
The 31-year-old hails from Bajos de Haina in the Domincan Republic. He was initially signed at age 17 by the Houston Astros was back in 2007 and ultimately reached the big leagues in 2013, putting up respectable numbers in relief for one season before UCL surgery derailed his career in 2014. For the next four seasons, he rehabbed from surgery and built his arm back up while bouncing around pitching in Mexico and the Dominican.
The version of Jose Cisnero the Tigers acquired was substantially upgraded from his early days in the Astros organization. He built three miles an hour onto his fastball, comfortably sitting 96-97 miles per hour, and also developed a solid slider in the intervening years. Walks were a bit of a problem in 2019, but the new and improved Cisnero was racking up strikeouts as well.
In 2020, things got even better as he finally trimmed his walks down to league average levels while a posting an excellent strikeout rate of 27.6 percent, slightly better than his 2019 numbers in both regards. The results were outstanding. Cisnero put up a 3.03 ERA and a FIP of 2.65, ultimately ranked as the ninth most valuable reliever in the game this season per FanGraphs.
Command was the most obvious source of the breakout, but the movement profiles on his two primary offerings improved as well. He added a little more drop on the slider, and a little more horizontal action on his fourseamer. In both regards he’s now producing above average movement. The results were impressive as Cisnero posted a whiff rate of 48.5 percent on his slider this season. All this appeared to show up in his confidence too, as he made big pitches with consistency for most of his 29 1⁄3 innings of work this season.
Cisnero did have a couple of rough outings as the Tigers faded in mid-September, but he also ripped off a pretty tantalizing streak of scoreless innings in the middle of the short season that will have us hoping for more next year. From August 11 through September 4, he didn’t allow a run across 11 appearances. That stretch ended with a set of games over which he blew up a bit, allowing seven runs in four innings of work, but Cisnero turned things right back around to close out the season with six straight scoreless appearances.
The issue to wonder about going forward is Cisnero’s home run rate. For a pitcher who allows a few more fly balls than grounders each season, a home run rate of just .30 per nine probably isn’t sustainable in the current scoring environment. He was certainly better with his location this year, but after posting a 1.27 per nine mark in 2019, that’s a pretty big jump that can only partly be explained by the slight improvements in his stuff. Considering the vagaries of reliever performance, and the short sample size of this home run suppression, the jury is still out on whether Cisnero can hold onto at least a portion of his gains here.
The Tigers will still be paying very little for Jose Cisnero in 2021 and right now he looks like their best reliever. He won’t reach free agency until 2024, and isn’t arbitration eligible until 2022. If he can sustain something roughly like this level of performance he’s going to be a very valuable part of the Tigers bullpen. It should be interesting to see how A.J. Hinch and Chris Fetter deploy him next year. The question then becomes whether his injury history leads the club to sell high on him in trade, or risk it to keep him in the bullpen for the long haul.