Some MLB pitchers have fastballs that can reach triple digits, pushing the limits of what is possible for the human body. Others have breaking balls that disappear, making hitters look like Little Leaguers at the plate. A select few can do both, and within that group, only the most elite can keep it up for more than a few batters at a time. White Sox starter Dylan Cease is one of those super-elite pitchers.
But it wasn’t always that way. Just a few years ago, Cease was wrestling with control problems and struggling to harness his pitching gifts. It took a series of refinements to that fastball-slider combo before Cease could finally achieve his potential — potential that was hinted at last season and is being fully realized this year.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 draft by the Chicago Cubs, Cease was shipped to the South Side before the 2017 trade deadline. Back then, Cease was a stuff-first pitcher who, despite clearly possessing a high ceiling, also had some reliever risk due to spotty command and a high walk rate.
Although Cease remained a starter as he continued his ascent through the high minors, those concerns about his command became a reality in his first two seasons at the major league level. In his rookie season of 2019, Cease posted a forgettable 5.79 ERA. And though he pitched to a much better 4.01 mark in 2020, his 6.36 fielding independent pitching was second-worst among starters with at least 50 innings. Additionally, his ability to record strikeouts — his greatest strength as a pitcher — vanished, as he was striking out less than seven batters per nine innings.
But then Cease began making the kinds of adjustments that can determine whether a young starter enjoys a long MLB career.
The biggest key for Cease last season was changing the shape of his fastball, which went from having slightly below average vertical movement in 2020 to one of the league leaders in the very same category in 2021. Cease did this not by adding velocity or spin rate, but rather by adding more efficient spin (referred to as “active spin” on Baseball Savant), which increases a pitch’s Magnus movement. Though Cease already owned one of the best fastball spin rates in the game, not all of that spin was being used to its potential. Armed with a better pitch, Cease got more swings and misses on it, as well as more swings and misses overall.
|Year||MPH||Spin Rate (RPM)||Active Spin||Inches of Drop||Whiff rate|
After striking out just 17.3 percent of batters in 2020, a well below-average rate, Cease rebounded in 2021, ending the season with a mark of 31.9 percent. That, in turn, enabled a breakout season — lowering his ERA to 3.91 in 32 starts, with a much-improved FIP to match it.
And Cease wasn’t done tinkering. His big change in 2022 has been pitch usage — using his nastiest stuff more often. Even when he was struggling in his first few seasons in the big leagues, Cease could always go to his breaking pitches for swings and misses, especially his slider. In 2021, hitters whiffed on just over half of all swings against it. This season, Cease is achieving a similar whiff rate on his slider, but has taken the pitch to new heights, as it’s now his most-used pitch.
And it’s not just that Cease is throwing the slider more, he is also trusting it more in every situation. Whether he’s ahead or behind in the count, facing a righty or a lefty, Cease is ready to throw his slider, which has been the key difference between last year and this one. He’s also gotten hitters to bite more often, increasing his chase rate on sliders from 35 percent to 40.8 percent.
By run value, which measures an event’s impact on the base, out and ball-strike count situation, Cease’s slider is far and away the most valuable pitch in baseball, coming in with a staggering run value of -32, 10 runs better than the next best pitch at the time of this writing. For context, the most valuable pitch in 2021 was Carlos Rodón’s four-seam fastball, which came in with a run value of -26 (on 240 more pitches).
|Rank||Name||Team||Pitch Type||run value||whiff rate||exp. woba|
All of this has led to wild success on the mound. In fact, to this point in 2022, Cease has been one of the best pitchers in the American League. He is fifth in ERA (2.27) in all of baseball among qualified starters. From May 29 to Aug. 11, Cease went on a maniacal run of 14 consecutive starts while allowing one run or fewer — a major league record. Even though he’s slowed down a bit recently, that midseason stretch of excellence helped insert him firmly into the Cy Young Conversation.
For as much as the White Sox have underperformed in 2022, they are still on the fringe of the playoff race out of the AL Central. Chicago sits five games behind the Cleveland Guardians in the division and 6.5 out of the wild card, with a 12 percent playoff probability according to the FiveThirtyEight model. Some White Sox starting pitchers have faltered, contributing to the team’s disappointing record so far, but Cease has been one of the bright spots.
And with a whole month of the season remaining, Cease has a chance to snatch up the Cy Young, especially if his team can follow his lead and play to its full potential.
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