In four seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Jose Cisnero has never topped out as the best reliever in the bullpen. Yet he’s been durable and effective now for a long time in reliever years. Since his fairly remarkable return to the major leagues in June of 2019, the 34-year-old right-hander has remained a stabilizing piece rather than a starring one. But he’s done it long enough and well enough to make him the third longest tenured Tigers player after Miguel Cabrera and Spencer Turnbull. Now in 2023, a healthy arm and a rebuilt cutter have him pitching the best baseball of his career.
Cisnero’s presence over parts of five seasons has pretty opaque. He doesn’t say much. He usually isn’t too demonstrative on the mound. He seems very well liked in the dugout. Outing after outing he just does his job without fanfare, like the Dad of the bullpen.
However, he also has one of the more interesting career stories on the team. It hasn’t really been explored too much in recent years, but Cisnero really had to fight for his career to a unique extent.
He wasn’t a notable prospect as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. The Houston Astros picked him up when he was 18 after he’d really sprouted physically. Cisnero toiled in the farm system for five seasons, finally reaching the major leagues in 2013. He was pretty mediocre over parts of two seasons with Houston and was released late in 2014. Then came Tommy John surgery and brief minor league deals with the Reds and Diamondbacks, and just like that he was out of the major leagues.
Cisnero spent parts of the next few seasons playing Mexican League and Independent league ball here and there, but by 2016 it appeared to be over. But in November of 2018 the Tigers saw him pitching in the Dominican and offered him a minor league deal. From that long awaited second chance, Cisnero has built an admirable career. The details in that story are probably fascinating.
So for four years, Cisnero has just toiled away as an effective but unimposing member of the bullpen while the Tigers went through the worst periods in franchise history. He watched as the club traded away top away top relievers and developed new ones like Alex Lange, Jason Foley, and Will Vest. Always Cisnero just lay in the cut, rarely closing out games but often doing the dirty work, pitching in high leverage situations and providing more than three outs whenever required.
In 2023, a few small improvements in Cisnero’s game have suddenly made things a lot more interesting, particularly with the trading season now upon us.
Jose Cisnero 2019-2023
Probably the first thing to note is Cisnero’s health and velocity. After the shoulder strain in spring training in 2022, it took him time to get his velocity and fastball command back. He was effective in the second half anyway, but the walks did pile up early on in his return, making for some scary outings.
He came to camp a little leaner this season, and he’s built velocity as he’s worked into the season. He isn’t quite back to his peak of 96.5 mph from 2019-2021, but he is trending up from last year’s 95.4 mph. More than any other measure, the fact that he’s cut his walks way down again this season is a good sign that he’s in a good place physically.
Cisnero had a rough go to begin this season. The walks were still high, and while his ERA was only 3.72 in March/April, he gave up five walks and three home runs in 9 2⁄3 innings. His FIP was 7.83. Since then the command has improved, the velocity is up a bit, and perhaps the final piece of the puzzle is the development of his cutter.
The really odd thing about Cisnero’s season is that his whiffs are down on all his pitches, and yet his strikeout rate is way up, back close to his peak season. His called strike rate is up almost three percent on the year, but his swinging strike rate is just 8.8 percent, lowest of his career. Even last year it was 11.9 percent. Some of that is probably the return of Jake Rogers behind the dish.
One other small factor involved, is that Cisnero has leaned into his fourseam fastball more than the sinker this season, throwing the former 41 percent of the time after using it 30 percent last year. He’s throwing less breaking balls overall, but the mix now tilts more toward the 88 mph cutter he’s been working on, with less of the prototypical slider we’ve seen most of his time in Detroit. Cisnero has added a couple inches of depth to the cutter this season, while retaining the above average horizontal movement on the pitch.
It’s not that the cutter generates more whiffs than the slider, but as it did in his best work back in 2020 and 2021, it just seems to play better with Cisnero’s fastball. Maybe it’s less obvious to the hitter, maybe he just spots it better, but using it more seems to add another wrinkle to his game that is just enough to keep hitters guessing. Hitters are doing nothing with the cutter this season, posting a wOBA of just .295 with an expected wOBA of .267 against it. The revised version appears to have more spin deviation, meaning there has likely been an adjustment to his grip and release to get more seam shifted movement on it, making it more deceptive.
Meanwhile, the usual steady diet of fourseamers and sinkers, which have very similar spin profiles, but move in different directions, makes it hard to square him up. He’s using the fourseamer more this season, but he’s still throwing about 70 percent fastballs overall. With better command, the results have been great over the last two months as Cisnero has posted a 1.59 ERA/1.87 FIP combination since May 1, with a 30 percent strikeout rate and an eight percent walk rate.
Cisnero seems likely to be traded
Right now it’s hard to get a read on what the Tigers’ front office is thinking as we enter the month of July. The Tigers are surprisingly only four games back in the Al Central after 83 games, and they’ve played as well as both Minnesota and Cleveland over the past 10 weeks. Obviously the offense has some major flaws, but with Riley Greene starting a rehab assignment this week, and Tarik Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez returning to the rotation, with others to follow, it doesn’t feel that crazy anymore to think the Tigers could be in this to the end.
Unfortunately, it does feel a little crazy to expect Scott Harris to make a big trade for a bat and try to go for it. Acquiring a controllable bat in July takes prospects, whereas the Tigers’ most obvious trade assets are in major league pitching. So the expectation is of a few smaller deals for prospects. A major deal for a bat would be a surprise.
Were they to really push in their chips more than expected and go after such a bat, then maybe you wouldn’t trade Cisnero. If you’re all in you keep all arms on deck. But, if you’re just going to stand pat, deal a few minor assets, and see what all the players coming off the injured list and perhaps, just maybe if we’re very good and say our prayers, the call-up of Colt Keith to pitch in during a potential stretch drive, can do to help the team win this somewhat abysmal division, trading Cisnero makes good sense.
Even the upgraded version we’ve seen recently isn’t really a top tier relief profile, but Cisnero is pretty clearly peaking here. He’ll be a free agent after next season anyway, and in his final year of arbitration he’ll likely be due something like $4.5M, which can probably be better spent elsewhere. For all parties involved, it’s a good time to part ways.
For Cisnero, the chance to pitch for a serious contender in his mid-30’s would presumably be in his best interests. And for the Tigers, if they can pick up controllable young pitching to develop, that would probably be enough. Hopefully he can stay hot through July and help get the best deal for both himself and the team.