TORONTO – Less than a year later, the June 2021 trade of utility player Joe Panik and minor-leaguer Andrew McInvale for Adam Cimber and Corey Dickerson already looks like one of Ross Atkins’ best under-the-radar moves. Consider: B.J. Ryan (1.68) is the only pitcher in franchise history to post a lower ERA over their first 68 games with the franchise than Cimber (1.97).
But today’s version of Cimber is drastically different from the one who was traded three times in less than three years leading up to his arrival in Toronto.
A closer look at his delivery, pitch selection and pitch location shows Cimber has made several significant changes over the last two seasons. And in conversation with Cimber, it’s clear those changes were made with the intent of maximizing deception and minimizing hard contact.
Change No. 1: Mound Position
Before joining the Jays, Cimber’s starting position on the mound had been, nearly exclusively, on the first-base side of the rubber. But since joining Pete Walker’s staff, Cimber has moved to the third-base side, changing his average release point by about a foot. The move made Cimber an extreme outlier, one of only six pitchers in Major League Baseball whose release point is more than four feet away from the middle of the rubber.
“I had always gone first-base side because I had heard (former MLB submarine pitcher) Brad Ziegler did that to get a little more run inside against righties,” Cimber said. But Cimber felt like his command wasn’t as good from the first base side, and he struggled to keep balls away from righties with that setup. “Right around the time I got traded, I said ‘I’m just going to go full-time over there and see what happens.’”
What’s happened is that he’s second on the Jays in wins this year, has three saves, eight holds, and is one of the most important fixtures in Toronto’s bullpen. It’s a role that seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
Change No. 2: Pitch Usage
When Cimber was traded from San Diego to Cleveland in 2018, the Guardians viewed him as a specialist, a groundball machine who would throw lots of sinkers and go up against righties almost exclusively.
“I wasn’t really facing lefties and wasn’t really throwing the four-seam at all,” Cimber explained. “At a certain point, I was like, ‘I think I need to work up in the zone a little more’ but I couldn’t figure out how to locate it up there. I had to practice and get comfortable enough to trust that pitch.”
Following a trade to Miami, early in the 2021 season, Cimber was facing Evan Longoria, a right-handed hitting slugger with over 300 career home runs. He started with a sinker and three sliders and stood on the mound with a 1-2 count.
“You can hypothesize about 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 struck Longoria out with a four-seamer up in the zone. His first strikeout against a righty with a four-seamer in a year and a half, and a sign of things to come.
“I saw it work, and slowly it becomes a legitimate option,” he said.
Since that day, Cimber’s use of his four-seamer against righties has doubled. He’s struck out 19 righties with four-seamers over the last two seasons after striking out just four with the pitch over the first three seasons of his career.
Change No. 3: Pitch Location
Of all the changes Cimber has made since coming to Toronto, the biggest is where he throws his pitches, in particular his slider.
It’s a change that goes against years of conventional baseball wisdom, and the genesis of the move was a text from a former Jays reliever and fellow side-armer.
“Joe (Smith) texted me a couple years ago, and said, ‘hey, don’t be afraid to throw the slider up in the zone.’” Cimber said. “And my initial reaction was like, ‘I don’t know man. That works for you, but I don’t know how to do that.’”
Could Cimber trust Smith enough to defy the conventional baseball ideology of breaking balls down? With that text in the back of his mind, Cimber started to realize the best sliders he threw in terms of break, were the ones he was throwing up, accidentally. Smith was right.
“When I was letting it ride up and follow my arm path, instead of trying to force it down, like an over-the-top conventional slider, those had the best break,” Cimber said.
Once Cimber joined the Jays, the team’s internal metrics confirmed those sliders up in the zone were his best.
“So, this past offseason, when I had conviction knowing those were my best sliders, I went to work.”
The average height of Cimber’s sliders this season is third-highest in MLB, and the average height of all his pitches is the highest among Blue Jays pitchers. Ironic that the guy who has the second-lowest release point in baseball works up in the zone so often.
And it’s been successful. Up until late May, Cimber had thrown 101 sliders up in the zone as a Jay and opposing hitters were 1-for-20 (.050 average) against them. In Los Angeles, though, Cimber left a cement-mixer up to Max Stassi with a measured horizontal break of zero inches, and the pitch was launched for a home run.
“I threw a few of those (that game),” Cimber said. “I was gassed.”
That’s the rub, right? All these changes have transformed Cimber from someone just trying to earn a spot in a big-league bullpen to a valued reliever who has already appeared in 16 high-leverage games this year (tied for tenth-most in MLB). He said it’s impossible not to feel that leverage in your mind and body at times.
“You try to block out the narrative of any game, but you feel it,” Cimber said, “but it’s probably a good thing to be getting all this leverage, for all of us.”
“Come October, when stuff is really on the line, it’s not going to be that big of a deal.”