Dylan Cease came to the White Sox in July of 2017 in the now famed Jose Quintana trade with the crosstown Cubs. At the time, Cease was a top 100 prospect a few years removed from Tommy John surgery and was looked at as a rotation cornerstone for the next contending White Sox team. Through his first 26 starts in the big leagues, however, Cease’s performance has left a lot to be desired. The Georgia righty is now at a bit of a crossroads in his early professional career, not all that different from the crossroads his rotation mate, Lucas Giolito, faced after the 2018 season.
When comparing the two White Sox hurlers, their early career performances are more similar than you would think:
Even their Statcast data isn’t far off:
|Avg. Exit Velo (MPH)||Avg. Launch Angle (Degrees)||wOBA||xwOBA||Hard Hit %|
By now we all know the story of Lucas Giolito’s transformation. After the 2018 season, Lucas enlisted the help of his former high school pitching coach and overhauled his mechanics, most notably shortening his arm path. Since then, Giolito has emerged as one of the true top-of-the-rotation arms in the game of baseball. The overhauled mechanics have helped Lucas add roughly 200 RPMs on his four-seam fastball, while also improving the spin efficiency of the pitch.
In addition to the mechanical tweaks, Giolito made notable changes to his pitch mix. Early in his career, he relied heavily on a four-seam fastball, sinker, and curveball mix to which the results were not great. Since the start of the 2019 season, he’s shifted to that now high spin four-seam fastball and change-up (for over 80% of his offerings), while mixing in the slider. He’s entirely ditched the sinker, at the discretion of Sox minor league pitching instructor Danny Farquahar, and lessened the reliance on the curveball to an almost non-existent amount.
That brings us to back to Dylan Cease. Is a change in pitch mix needed for the righty? I posed the question to the always pleasant Steve Stone a few months ago when Cease had a low 3.00 ERA, and the response was, well, interesting:
I think he should do exactly what he’s doing. He’s 4 and 1 with a ERA just over 3. He’s 24. How much better do you need him to be— Steve Stone (@stevestone) August 19, 2020
Cease closed the year poorly, as we all know, and was passed by Dane Dunning for the Game Three start in the AL Wild Card Series against the Athletics. So, if a change in pitch mix could work effectively for Lucas Giolito, could it work effectively for Cease? The data seems to support, that it’s quite possible.
To this point, Cease is utilizing his fastball over 47% of the time and it’s producing largely negative outcomes. He’s using breaking balls roughly 39% of the time and the results have been outstanding. He did make some slight tweaks in 2020, using the curveball less in favor of the slider, but both have been solid offerings to this point. In a strange turn of events, Cease’s change-up went from being a well above-average offering in 2019 to getting hammered to the tune of .434 wOBA in 2020.
What needs to happen now with Dylan Cease? A lot has been written in recent weeks about the inefficiency of his fastball spin being a potential culprit for the poor results on a pitch that is top 5 in terms of average velocity across the entire league. In my opinion, I think this needs to be the top priority for Dylan to address this winter. If he can improve the spin efficiency of that overpowering heater, giving it spin that is more true and not the sidespin we are currently seeing, it very likely would go from being a pitch getting smacked all around the yard consistently and that he struggles to locate, to one that produces the desired outcomes.
The question now becomes do you trust that Cease can make the necessary improvements in the way Giolito did? People love to rip on the Sox development team, but as I mentioned above that development team, including Danny Farquhar and Matt Zaleski, helped in the transformation of Giolito and other pitchers like Matt Foster, Jonathan Stiever, and Jimmy Lambert. With the dismissal of Rick Renteria and long time pitching coach, Don Cooper, can the next pitching coach, whether an internal promotion (Zaleski or Hasler) or an external hire, untap the potential in Dylan’s right arm?
Dylan Cease is at a crossroads in his career. Will he go the route of Lucas Giolito and make the necessary tweaks to become the pitcher that earned him such highly touted prospect pedigree? Or will he go the route of Reynaldo Lopez, see his development stagnate and find himself without a clearly defined role going forward? Lopez is a shining example of a pitcher who has never figured it out and for the last two years people said “he’s young, give him more time.” The White Sox can’t afford to make that mistake again with Cease. With Renteria’s dismissal and a new high profile manager presumably coming in, the stakes are elevated. It’s entirely possible that Cease may find his way out of the organization by the time Spring Training begins.
One thing I can say with certainty is that if it was my baseball team, Dylan Cease wouldn’t be guaranteed a rotation spot in 2021. I know that will leave many of you screaming that “he’s still young, it’s too early to judge him you fool!” But the fact is, this team’s expectations have changed. They are bringing in a new manager, a move that I believe also signals they will be active this winter. The measuring stick in 2021 is a Central Division title and battling to win an American League pennant. Dylan Cease has done nothing to this point to earn that rotation spot.
If I’m going into a season with elevated expectations in 2021, I need more certainty from my starting rotation. Dylan Cease doesn’t provide that certainty. I stated recently that I believe the Sox should sign two, yes two, starting pitchers this winter and force competition to earn those spots. The fact is Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning, and Michael Kopech (who I don’t believe can be counted on) all have minor league options remaining. If this team can provide greater certainty in the free agent or trade markets to the rotation, they need to do so.
It’s no longer time to worry about Dylan Cease’s feelings and development, it’s time to win. If he comes to Glendale a changed pitcher and earns a rotation spot, that’s great. If he doesn’t and needs to go down to Charlotte to continue addressing areas of weakness, so be it. The clock is ticking on Dylan Cease, and it’s time he make the necessary adjustments or he will find himself without a rotation spot, or worse, out of the White Sox organization.