There is no denying that Dylan Cease has great stuff. At any given moment, he can blow hitters away with a fastball that can reach triple digits, or make them look silly with one of the best twelve to six curveballs in all of baseball. Whether you value movement, velocity, spin rate or a deep arsenal, Cease can do it all. But in a decent sized major league sample that has now spanned across three separate seasons, the results have not quite matched the ceiling for the former top 100 prospect.
Cease appeared to have taken a step forward in run prevention in 2020, posting an ERA almost two full runs better that the year before, but his inability to miss bats and an unsustainable walk rate foreshadowed a rendezvous with the regression monster. Among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings last year, Cease had a -2.35 ERA-FIP, which was the worst in baseball by a pretty good margin. Quality of contact metrics told a similarly ominous story, as his .388 xwOBA against ranked in the 5th percentile, predicting an xERA of 6.87. Much of Cease’s run prevention was floated by a flukey .238 BABIP and an 81.7 LOB%.
So far in 2021, it looks like Cease has been able to shoo the regression monster away for the most part. In 30.1 innings of work, he has posted a very good 2.37 ERA, with a FIP and xFIP that are much more in line at 2.81 and 3.60, respectively. The walk rate still is far from low, but it’s better than last year, and his swing and miss ability has gone from non-existent to comfortably above average. We are still looking at a pretty small sample for the ‘21 season, but the difference is enough to call it what it is — Dylan Cease is having a breakout.
Dylan Cease 2020-2021
|BB% (PCTL)||13.3% (11th)||12.0% (23rd)|
|K% (PCTL)||17.3% (14th)||32.0% (86th)|
|Whiff% (PCTL)||25.3% (40th)||32.0% (79th)|
|xwOBA (PCTL)||.388 (5th)||.287 (73rd)|
While Cease hasn’t changed his pitch mix much from last year to this year, as breakout pitchers with large improvements sometimes do. It is instead the changes to the pitches themselves, combined with some mechanical tweaks made to allow for the changes, that has made Cease more effective to start the year. To begin breaking down the transformation, consider these two fastballs, the one on the left from ‘20, and the one on the right from ‘21.
It’s hard to see with the naked eye, but there are some small differences in his delivery. Let’s break it down in a little more detail. Here is the same video slowed down, and the differences should be more apparent.
I want to stop this video at three separate points in order to better uncover these changes, explain why they are important, as well as what they have resulted in. First, let’s look at a still right after his leg lift.
In the left photo, Cease is much more upright, and notice how his drive leg is almost perfectly straight. In contrast to the right side photo, where his back leg is a little more bent, his weight is a little more in his heels, and he is in an overall much more athletic position.
Next, let’s look at a still at the moment he breaks his hands and starts the drive phase of his delivery.
The story is similar. Cease is in a much more dynamic position as he starts his drive in ‘21, with his leg slightly more bent and his weight still over his heels. In ‘20, it looked like he was trying to generate power be leaning back, while in ‘21, he is using his lower half much better. His more effective use of his lower half is also evidenced by his lower head position.
Finally, here is a still at front foot strike.
In the first few photos we saw a difference in the lower body, now we see a difference in his upper body. In the ‘20 photo, Cease’s head is inside of his front foot, while in the ‘21 photo, his head is on the outside of it. Additionally, we see some slight tilt in his upper body toward the first base side in ‘21.
The reason why all of these changes working in tandem are so important is because it has allowed Cease to optimize the shape of his fastball, which was one of the biggest things that was keeping him from being a quality major league pitcher. Though Cease brought a high speed, high spin fastball with him to the majors from day one, it didn’t have the rise or the swing and miss one would expect from pitches of that type.
In ‘20, Cease’s fastball had a little over 9 inches of rise on average, per Texas Leaguers. Per Baseball Savant, which measures pitch movement a little differently, the pitch had 0.3 inches of vertical movement below average. Again, not what you would expect from a pitch in the high 90’s with a spin rate of over 2500 rpm. Coincidentally, the pitch did not get many swings and misses, with just a 17.2 Whiff%.
But thanks to his mechanical adjustments, Cease’s new fastball not only does have the rise you would expect, it has some rise to spare. In ‘21, thanks to a bump in spin efficiency (listed as Active Spin on Baseball Savant) from 82% to 90%, Cease has added two inches of rise to the four seamer, now coming in at 2.2 inches of vertical movement above average. As expected, it’s getting more swings and misses that it was a year ago, with a 24.5% Whiff%.
The changes have also had a positive effect on Cease’s secondary pitches as well. Here is a movement chart from ‘20 via Texas Leaguers.
And here is a similar chart showing the pitch movement data so far in ‘21.
In addition to the added fastball rise, we see some differences in the slider and curveball shape as well. Cease has created better vertical movement separation from his slider to his curveball, subtracting movement from his slider and adding movement to his curveball (The slider bubble is closer to the zero while the curveball bubble is further below the -10 mark).
In addition to being able to create two more distinct pitches, this has also allowed Cease the potential for more swings and misses in the zone with the slider...
...as well as the potential for more sings and misses out of the zone with the curveball.
It is important to note that even with Cease’s positive start to the ‘21 season, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be smooth sailing from here. He has made the necessary adjustments to maximize his potential from a stuff perspective, and he is finally getting the swings and misses at a high enough rate to get him in the conversation of being a solidly above average major league starting pitcher, but his 7.1% rate of home runs on fly balls will regress as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow, and the walks, while better than a year ago, are still a huge problem.
For now, Cease is riding his improved skillset and a little bit of luck to a achieve some better results so far in ‘21 until he can improve the rest of his game. For a White Sox team that is watching its depth get tested on all sides of the ball, they will surely need Cease to be the best version of himself.
Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.