TORONTO — Less than a year later, trading utility player Joe Panik and minor-league Andrew McInvale for Adam Cimber and Corey Dickerson in June 2021 is already looking like one of Ross Atkins’ best under-the-radar moves. Consider this: BJ Ryan (1.68) is the only pitcher in franchise history to post a lower ERA than Cimber (1.97) in his first 68 games with the franchise.
But today’s version of Cimber is drastically different from the one that traded three times in less than three years before he arrived in Toronto.
A closer look at his performance, pitch selection and pitch position reveals that Cimber has made some significant changes over the past two seasons. And speaking to Cimber, it’s clear these changes were made with the intention of maximizing deception and minimizing hard contact.
Change #1: Hill Position
Before joining the Jays, Cimber’s starting position on the mound had been almost entirely on the first base side of the rubber. But since joining Pete Walker’s staff, Cimber has switched to the third base side and changed his average release point by about a foot. That move made Cimber an extreme runaway, one of only six pitchers in Major League Baseball whose release point is more than four feet from the center of the rubber.
“I’d always gone to the first base side because I heard[former MLB sub pitcher]that Brad Ziegler did that to get a little bit more run against righties,” Cimber said. But Cimber felt his command wasn’t as great from the first base side, and he struggled to keep balls off right-handers with this setup. “About the time I got traded, I was like, ‘I’m just going to go there full-time and see what happens.'”
What’s happened is he’s second to the Jays this year, has three saves, has eight holds, and is one of the key fixtures in the Toronto bullpen. A role that seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
Change #2: Use of pitches
When Cimber was traded from San Diego to Cleveland in 2018, the Guardians viewed him as a specialist, a groundball machine who would throw a lot of sinkers and play almost exclusively right-handers.
“I didn’t really compete against lefties and I didn’t really throw the squares at all,” explained Cimber. “At one point I thought, ‘I think I need to work a little bit more in the zone,’ but I couldn’t figure out how to find it up there. I had to practice and feel comfortable enough to trust that pitch.”
After a move to Miami earlier in the 2021 season, Cimber faced Evan Longoria, a right-handed hitter with over 300 home runs in his career. He started with a sinker and three sliders and was on the mound with a 1-2 count.
“You can hypothesize what a change will do, but I think until you get into a game and see it work, it doesn’t mean much,” Cimber said.
He beat Longoria with a four sailer up in the zone. His first strikeout against a right-hander with a four-sailer in a year and a half and a sign for the future.
“I’ve seen it work and it’s slowly becoming a legitimate option,” he said.
Since that day, Cimber’s use of his square against right-handers has doubled. He’s hit 19 right-handers with four-seaters over the past two seasons, after hitting just four on the pitch in the first three seasons of his career.
Change #3: Pitch location
Of all the changes Cimber has made since coming to Toronto, the biggest is where he throws his pitches, specifically his slider.
It’s a change that goes against years of conventional baseball wisdom, and the genesis of the move was text from a former Jays auxiliary and fellow sidearm.
“Joe (Smith) texted me a few years ago and said, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to throw the slider in the zone.'” Cimber said. “And my first reaction was like, ‘I don’t know, man. This works for you, but I don’t know how to do it.’”
Could Cimber trust Smith enough to defy conventional baseball ideology? break balls? With that text in mind, Cimber began to realize that the best sliders he threw in terms of break were the ones he accidentally passed. Smith was right.
“When I let it ride up and follow my arm path instead of trying to force it down like an over-the-top conventional slider, these had the best break,” Cimber said.
When Cimber joined the Jays, the team’s internal metrics confirmed that the top of the zone sliders were his best.
“Once I was convinced these were my best sliders this past offseason, I went to work.”
The average height of Cimbers sliders this season is the third-highest in MLB, and the average height of all his pitches is the highest among Blue Jays pitchers. Ironic that the guy with the second lowest trip point in baseball works in the zone so often.
And it was successful. By the end of May, Cimber as Jay had thrown 101 sliders into the zone and opposing hitters were 1-to-20 (.050 average) against her. However, in Los Angeles, Cimber Max passed Stassi a cement mixer with a measured zero inch horizontal break, and the field was started for a home run.
“I threw a couple of those[that game],” Cimber said. “I was gassed.”
That’s the catch, isn’t it? All of these changes have transformed Cimber from someone just trying to earn a spot in a big league bullpen to a valued helper, having already appeared in 16 high-leverage games this year (ranked tenth in the MLB). He said it’s impossible not to feel that lever in your mind and body at times.
“You try to hide the narrative of every game, but you feel it,” Cimber said, “but getting all that leverage for all of us is probably a good thing.”
“Come in October when it’s really all at stake, it won’t be that big of a deal.”