Chicago White Sox righthander Dylan Cease had a solid first full season in the big leagues. A 3.91 earned run average with 226 strikeouts over 165 2⁄3 innings (32 starts, tied for American League lead) is encouraging, no doubt. However, the 25-year-old’s breakout was not without speed bumps.
There were bouts of control issues (3.69 walks per nine ranked 37th out of 40 qualified MLB starters) and Cease ranked at or near the bottom of the same group in first-pitch strike rate (58.3%, 34th of 38), WHIP (1.25, 29th), and barrel rate (9.9%, last among MLB starters). Not ideal, but we’ll just call that room for improvement. There will be more. It’s a process. Always is.
Though, again, there was a whole lot to be thrilled about, too. Cease’s 4.4 fWAR was good for 12th in the majors, his 3.41 fielding independent pitching rating (FIP) was 14th, his 30% called-strike-and-whiff rate placed ninth, and Cease’s 12.28 strikeouts per nine innings was second-best among starting pitchers. That’s outstanding.
Following a middling first half (4.11 ERA, 11.45 K/9, 18 starts), things were kicked into another gear post-All-Star break. Over his final 14 outings, Cease allowed more than three earned runs only once (Boston tagged him for seven over 2 2⁄3 innings on Sept 11; the Pale Hose came back, but lost in the 10th), pitching to a 3.67 ERA with a 3.06 FIP (11th among MLB starters), and 13.32 strikeouts per nine — best in the majors among the same group.
Outside of the walks, the majority of Cease’s issues were actually attached to one of his most alluring offerings, his four-seam fastball. This thing is ridiculous. Its 2,543 rotations per minute on average ranked eighth among all MLB hurlers (92nd percentile) and its 10.5´´ of vertical drop was 2.3´´ better than average (32nd in MLB). The absence of that drop gives Cease’s pitch an illusion of rising that we’ve all come to know and love. And it’s unquestionably elite.
So if that’s the case, where are the elite results? Good question. The .355 weighted on-base average (wOBA) with a 23% whiff rate (18% putaway rate) Cease compiled on his four-seam last season doesn’t reflect the ilk of his cheese in any way, shape, or form.
And Cease’s secondary arsenal is just as impressive as his fastball. His slider (.176/.238/.264, 50.0% whiff rate, 2,880 RPM fourth in MLB), curve (.200/.229/.326, 40.5% whiff, 61.7´´ of average vertical drop!), and changeup (.205/.236/.308, 47% whiff) are all among the game’s best. This is a blank canvas of upper-crust proportion. So, again, where’s the beef?
Location, location, location. And also, maybe sequence. But let’s focus on the former.
Carlos Rodón, who White Sox fans are all quite familiar with, had the most valuable four-seam (-26 run value, per Statcast; .199/.275/.336) in all of baseball last season. Take a look at where his fastball generally lands.
Centralized. Crisp. It’s a beautiful thing. And, when utilized correctly, a consistent fastball path allows for the potential of dastardly pitch sequencing and deception via secondary pitches falling out of the same tunnel. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Now take a look at Cease’s four-seam heat map from last season. Kinda all over the place and without much of a discernible plan. It’s certainly something to take a look at over the winter.
Creating a course of attack out of what’s already an outlandishly tight repertoire for Cease should be the focus. Taking a page out of Rodón’s book of four-seam command could go far in the young righty making his own headway.
Let’s hope the coaching staff has noticed the same deficiencies. Because if they can assist Cease in making the necessary adjustments and it actually pans out ... watch out.
As the saying goes, it’s all about staying within yourself. Within Cease, there’s an upper-echelon major league pitcher just waiting to turn that corner.