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Dylan Cease’s Talent is Finally Taking Over

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Dylan Cease has been a top prospect with ace potential, a struggling young pitcher with severe command issues, and one of the league’s most electric starters ever since he was drafted. In this article we break down who Cease is as a pitcher, what has led him to this point in his career, and the unique way he’s dominating this season.

The Minor League Journey 2015-2019
In one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory back in 2017, Dylan Cease was dealt from Chicago… to Chicago when the Chicago White Sox acquired both he and Eloy Jimenez from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for the well regarded (at the time) starting pitcher Jose Quintana. It’s obvious now that the Southsiders won the trade, and they clearly saw what everyone else saw in Eloy Jimenez’s bat, but why was the inclusion of a young starter with severe command issues so critical for Rick Hahn? The best way to describe it, granted I’m not Rick Hahn, would likely be present stuff at the time and projectability in regards to command due to a low effort delivery. Unfortunately, the command didn’t develop as hoped and Hahn would be forced to endure a seemingly ever repeating series of events as Cease developed during his time in the mid to upper minor leagues. Every year his pure stuff dominated hitters, but every year he walked too many hitters and missed with his location in the zone too often to take the next step from prospect to legitimate MLB starter. The walk rates (often parked in the 4.2-4.5 per nine innings neighborhood) were one thing, but it was actually the lack of command within the zone that would prove to be the biggest issue. Cease was able to post elite ERA’s and WHIP’s at almost every stop in minors even with his poor walk rates because his stuff carried him and he typically limited hits and home runs while posting elite strikeout rates. Cease would find out the hard way early in his MLB career that stuff isn’t enough to succeed against the best hitters on the planet.

A Rude Awakening – 2019-2020
It became apparent right off the bat (no pun intended) in 2019 and also in 2020 that Cease simply didn’t command his arsenal well enough to succeed against Major League hitters despite his arsenal featuring a lively upper-90’s heater, a wicked mid-80’s slider, a sharp diving 12-6 curveball in the 79 MPH range, and a raw changeup thrown in the lower-80’s with great velocity separation from the fastball. There are very few starters with the ability to sit in the upper-90’s while sprinkling in multiple nasty secondary offerings; that Cease is one of them and still struggled mightily with the transition to the majors is a testament to why command is so critical at that level. Cease’s elite hit and home runs suppressing traits from the minor leagues evaporated when he made the jump and became well below average because he couldn’t hit his spots and fell behind in the count far too often. When you leave pitches in hittable locations MLB hitters will make hard contact, it’s that simple when explaining why Cease gave up so many hits and home runs early in his career. On the surface, it seems like Cease made a big jump in 2020 after a poor debut season, but that was hardly the case.

While Cease did go from a 5.79 ERA to a 4.01 ERA from 2019 to 2020, he actually missed a lot fewer bats and the advanced metrics pegged him as a markedly worse pitcher in 2020 as can be seen when you contrast his 4.60 SIERA in 2019 with his 5.86 SIERA in 2020. Cease struggled even more with command in 2020 than he did in 2019, as his walk rate surged from an already ugly 4.32 BB/9 in 2019 to an awful 5.25 BB/9 in 2020, and he gave up a ton more hard contact while continuing to serve up home runs with regularity. You’re probably wondering how the massive ERA improvement is even possible at this point, and I don’t blame you. Let’s just say it took an extreme amount of good luck. Cease’s 2020 BABIP came in at .238 (league average is around .300) which was already extremely fortunate, but especially so when you consider that balls came off the bat of his opposing hitters at nearly 90 MPH on average. And then there was the unsustainable left-on base rate of 80.2% (league average is around 70 percent). On top of the regression in terms of hard contact allowed, in 2020 Cease’s K/9 dropped precipitously all the way down to 6.8 K/9, which is shocking considering his previous marks in that area and the quality of his stuff.

While Cease’s 2019-2020 struggles in terms of allowing too many hits and home runs are easy to explain, the dramatic decrease in whiffs from 2019-2020 is somewhat puzzling, but there are some clues amidst the chaos. First, Cease fell behind in counts even more than he did in 2019, so he wasn’t able to put hitters away as often with nasty breaking stuff in two-strike counts. Second, Cease cut his 2019 curveball usage in half in 2020, which was a bit of a head-scratcher considering that it was his second-best whiff rate pitch back in 2019. However, it seems like the decrease in usage was due to a lack of feel with the pitch, as he wasn’t able to get on top of it enough and thus he wasn’t confident throwing it. When he did throw the curve it wasn’t located well, and hitters weren’t biting. All things considered, it was really hard to expect good things out of Cease going into 2021 given how poorly he pitched in 2020, but Cease’s early 2021 success is perhaps a lesson in that it’s unwise to bet against raw talent finding a way.

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