The Strikeouts Are Ceasing: The Curious Case of Dylan Cease

The Strikeouts Are Ceasing: The Curious Case of Dylan Cease

Written by: Danny Hacker
Follow him on Twitter: @theGREATdanny94
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW

Dylan Cease has been an highly anticipated pitcher since he started rising through the Cubs organization after being drafted in the 6th Round of the 2014 MLB Draft. It was only heightened on July 13th, 2017 when he was traded to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana trade. From there, he became one of their top pitching prospects, and one of the top overall pitching prospects in the league, and eventually made his debut on July 3rd, 2019; almost two years to the day of the trade. Cease has shown flashes of his tremendous upside (like that September 2019 start against Cleveland in which he K’d 11) but many times he hasn’t touched that kind of performance again but overall coming into 2020 showed a lot of promise for improvement.

That, however, hasn’t exactly happened the way most thought it would. His K/9 has plummeted, he still has walk issues, he still is giving up home runs and he still has first time through the order issues among other things. There are positives (a 3.33 ERA and is allowing lesser hits/9) but they are severely outweighed by all the negatives as Cease continues to pitch into the 2020 season. With the playoffs looming and a career beyond 2020, I took a dive into what exactly is going on with Dylan Cease, breaking him down based off his pitch selection and his home run problems to try and find out what is going on with him and how he can put it all together to reach that sky high upside he has.

Dylan Cease’s overall career numbers to this point: 9-9 with a 4.84 ERA/5.47 FIP, 111 K (8.4 K/9), 55 BB (4.2 BB/9), 1.454 WHIP (8.9 H/9) in 119.0 IP (23 starts)

First off, we will look at what kind of pitcher Cease is. Below is his pitch percentage by season and you will immediately notice a couple of things off the get-go. From 2019 to 2020, Cease has heavily increased his Slider usage from 21% to 35.2%, dropped off his Curveball usage from 18.5% to 9.7% and slightly increased his Changeup usage slightly from 8.9% to 10%. In 2019 there was also a Sinker that Cease threw 4.2% of the time that hasn’t been thrown in 2020 so far.

So naturally the first question that pops in my mind is why did he ditch the Sinker this year? Last year it was a pitch that sat around 96.3 mph with a 2,403 RPM Spin Rate that didn’t allow a single home run and had a BA/SLG of .286/.357 and an average Exit Velocity of 89.0 mph. My first conclusion is that Savant’s programming simply classified 57 Four Seam Fastballs as Sinkers and grouped them separately because the Sinker and Fastball have very similar characteristics in velocity and spin rate; however the horizontal movement of the Sinker was very much unlike the horizontal movement on his Four Seam Fastball (7.1″ of horizontal movement vs 1.8″ of horizontal movement) despite similar vertical movement. My second conclusion becomes he ditched it because it really didn’t matter to his arsenal and didn’t impact one way or the other towards his success or failure last season and might have just not liked throwing it.

My next question then lies with majorly increased Slider usage; has it been effective in 2020? In 2019, Cease’s Slider sat around 84.7 mph with a 2,622 RPM Spin Rate that allowed 4 home runs and had a BA/SLG of .181/.375, an average Exit Velocity of 86.4 mph with 43.9″ of Vertical Movement (good for 5.9″ better than the average or 16%) and 5.3″ of Horizontal Movement (good for 0.5″ better than the average or 0.5%).

In 2020, Cease’s Slider currently sits around 84.9 mph with a 2,808 RPM Spin Rate that has allowed 2 home runs so far and has a BA/SLG of .208/.458 and an average Exit Velocity of 87.9 mph with 42.1″ of Vertical Movement (good for 5.8″ better than the average or 16%) and 6.9″ of Horizontal Movement (good for 2.3″ better than the average or 49%).

As you see above, one of the biggest improvements on Cease’s Slider is its spin rate, jumping 186 RPM over the last year thus placing it among the Top-10 best Sliders in the league relative to spin rate of pitchers that have thrown 500+ pitches overall this season (the best is Walker Buehler with a 2,974 RPM one) and of the 10, only Cease has thrown it 250+ times this season. Whether or not the ability to spin the baseball is “something you’re born with” (something a lot of people will say), Cease definitely has the feel for it as his 4 Seam Fastball, Curveball and Slider Spin Rates are all among the best in the league and all have increased in Spin Rate from last year to this year. The increase in Spin Rate on the Slider also led to the increase of Horizontal Movement. Last year Cease’s Slider was just a tick above league average (0.5% better with 0.5″) and now with an increased spin rate also comes improved horizontal movement (49% better with 2.3″). The pitch’s newfound qualities have allowed it to gain an overall 3.6% increase in Swing and Miss % and have allowed Cease to throw it more and ultimately trust it more which is a really good thing for him (because it’s an elite pitch per Spin Rates and Movement) as he gains better control of it which leads us to the other side of the coin.

The other side of the coin though is that with all the positive increases in Spin Rate, Horizontal Movement and Vertical Movement, the pitch has “gotten worse” in other departments that ultimately depend on Cease’s command/control. For example, Cease’s Slider is in the zone 9.3% less of the time in 2020 than it was in 2019 (49.7% in ’19, 40.4% in ’20) which obviously means inversely it is 9.3% more out of the zone. As a result, the pitch’s Swing % went down from 44.8% to 40.4% which ultimately ties into the fact that the pitch’s K% went down rather drastically from 39.2% to 22.6%. The less it is being swung at and the less it is in the zone means that the less chance it has to keep up a high K% and a high Put Away% (11.7% this year vs 27.1% last year) despite the pitch’s Swing and Miss % in the zone is basically the same (18.8% vs 18.5%) and that it’s in zone Swing % is basically the same (59.9% vs 60.2%). When it is actually swung at, it is hit harder than it was in 2019 with a 5.6% increase in it’s Hard Hit % (27.9 to 33.3). The pitch’s Barrel % also went up by 6.9% as hitters are sitting on it waiting for him in the zone.

Hitters are sitting on the Slider knowing that more than half of the time, it will be out of the zone which has resulted in the pitch’s Chase % going down by 2.9% in 2020. However one more positive thing to note is that when hitters do chase the pitch, it’s Chase Miss % has gone up by 2.3% so the above mentioned positive qualities of the pitch are creating more misses when the pitch is being swung at, it’s just a matter of getting them to chase it more. So to answer the initial question; the uptick in Slider usage has been relatively successful but due to the lack of control/command of the pitch and its newfound increased qualities, it has not been nearly as effective as it could be which when all said and done, can be even more of a wipeout pitch.

Next, we look at the pitch that has been basically reduced in half compared to last year’s usage; the Curveball. Cease has used his Curveball 8.8% less this year than he had last year and so my question becomes why did he cut his Curveball usage in half?

My first potential solution isn’t a numbers one but rather a physical one because Cease fits the normal target of this kind of problem; the Blister. I want to disclaim off the bat that Cease has never missed any starts recently with blister issues so don’t run to my comments saying “But he never has had issues!”. My mentioning the blister and Cease lies in that every pitcher with blister issues over the last 4-5 years has also had either very good or elite Curveball spin rates in which Cease was in the 67th percentile of that category last year and in the 70th percentile this year. It’s also more so than not that the same group of pitchers with blisters also have an elite Fastball Spin Rate in which Cease definitely has as he sits in the 94th percentile this year and was in the 87th percentile last year. Cease might have been pitching through a small blister/finger discomfort last year and figured out the correlation between the two enough to reduce its’ usage. I’m not saying every pitcher who has very good to elite Curveball Spin Rates is going to be doomed with blisters but it’s a pretty good chance you will develop one if you do. Ultimately, we’ll never know this answer unless he is asked about it but to me, it’s a potential possibility even if it’s most likely unlikely because you would be surprised what players will play/pitch through in order to help their team.

The more likely reason as to why he did it lies in the fact that of all Cease’s secondary pitches thrown 100+ times last year (eliminating the Sinker thrown only 57 times), the Curveball had the highest BA (.257), xBA (.247), xSLG (.384), wOBA (.327), xwOBA (.332), Barrel Percentage (7.7%), Hard Hit Percentage (38.5%), Exit Velocity (88.5 mph), Walk Percentage (14.6%) along with having the lowest Put Away Percentage (11.7%), In Zone Percentage (41.9%) among other things. Essentially it was the pitch Cease seemingly struggled the most last year despite a 29.7% Swing and Miss Percentage. That, along with the fact he developed a better feel for his Slider, seemed to have led to the pitch being reduced quite a bit in 2020. The pitch qualities are roughly the same as its Spin Rate (2,664), Horizontal Movement (62.8″ of Break) and Vertical Movement (7.3″ of Break) are all pretty much in line or slightly better than the 2019 version so with that being said, has the pure reduction of the pitch become the reason Cease is having strikeout issues this season because of the fact it was the 2nd highest Swing and Miss Percentage of any of his pitches last year?

No, it is not the pitch’s reduction that has drastically reduced its Swing and Miss Percentage but rather it is because Cease can’t get it in the strike zone more than two-thirds of the time. In 2019, Cease threw the Curveball out of the zone 58.1% of the time vs 67.5% of the time in 2020 which is definitely not good. Yes you want to throw the pitch out of the zone to get chases and whiffs but you still have to establish it in the zone first. Hitters are laying off of Cease’s Curveball quite drastically as a result as its Chase Percentage dropped from 19% to 3.7% (!!!) making it basically non existent to be chased at due to the fact they expect it to be out of the strike zone and a non threat. I do wonder if Cease will eventually ditch it all together like Rich Harden, someone Cease reminds me of, did when he was having these strikeout struggles early on in his career. Either way, it again comes down to Cease’s control/command being the culprit as to why he isn’t getting the swings and misses that he once was due to familiarity and as the season goes on, it’s probably the reason he keeps reducing its usage vs last year due to no improved success in the limited times he is throwing it.

Now that we’ve looked at the Slider and the Curveball, it’s time to look at Cease’s Changeup which, for all intents and purposes, is so much the tale of two Changeups that Charles Dickens would be writing about it.

2019: 8.9% Thrown, 83.1 mph, .125 BA/.281 SLG, .167 xBA/.362 xSLG, .180 wOBA/.230 xwOBA, 86.3 mph Average Exit Velocity, 21.2 K%, 3% BB%, 1 HR, 27% Swing and Miss Percentage, 20.6 Put Away Percentage

2020: 10.0% Thrown, 82.8 mph, .353 BA/.941 SLG, .387 xBA/.880 xSLG, .526 wOBA/.532 xwOBA, 90.9 mph Average Exit Velocity, 22.2 K%, 5.6 BB%, 3 HR, 28.1% Swing and Miss Percentage, 28.6% Put Away Percentage

That’s pretty wild, isn’t it? I was absolutely stunned when I initially saw it doing the beginning research for this project. Cease’s Changeup got tremendously worse in just about every category you can think of EXCEPT the ones relating to strikeouts. He’s throwing it more in the zone (56.1% this year vs 52.5% last year) yet hitters are swinging at it quite less (75% last year vs 52.2% this year) and missing less (29.2% last year vs 25.2% this year) when it is in the zone and swung at, it is hit harder (46.2% this year vs 28% last year) meaning its Barrel Percentage has also gone up (23.1% this year vs 4% last year). Overall it is swung at 12.6% less than last year yet missed 1.1% more than last year. When it’s out of the zone, it’s chased less (25.9% last year vs 22.2% this year) yet when it is, it’s missed 17.5% more than it was last year (20% last year vs 37.5% this year).

What is exactly the story on his Changeup? Well for starters, Cease is throwing it more in hitter’s counts (14.7% this year vs 10.5% last year) than in pitcher’s counts (6.0% this year vs 6.8% last year). That means it is a pitch that he uses to get back on track when he falls behind to hitters more so than actually when he’s got them down in the count. It’s also the pitch he has thrown the least this year with two strikes on a hitter (for example he has not thrown a single Changeup on an 0-2 count this entire season). So first then why does the pitch have the highest Put-away Percentage of them all? It’s the 3-2 Count. Cease has thrown the Changeup 11.1% of the time when the count is 3-2 (still a hitter’s count but a strikeout count) and is Cease’s most effective pitch when it comes to Swing and Miss Percentage in that count (33.3% of the time) because hitters are expecting either the Fastball (Thrown 64.1%) or Slider (Thrown 24.4%) which means they’ll sit on the pitch more likely. That has resulted in hitters taking Cease’s Changeup for a called strike three as 75% of Cease’s Ks on the Changeup have been taken for strike three called this season. Cease should continue to take advantage of hitters sitting on 3-2 counts due to his iffy command/control and throw even more 3-2 or two strike Changeups in general because hitters sit so much on the FB/SL predictability. That could definitely go a long way in helping him get the strikeouts back.

That’s a great piece of knowledge in figuring out the future of his strikeouts but then if it’s so great at getting strikeouts then why is getting so trashed and hit all over the place? It’s because Cease is throwing less first pitch strikes than last year (59.2% vs 55.4%) and is often falling into hitters counts. When the count is 1-0 (45.6% of the time), Cease throws the Changeup 18.8% of the time and when the count is 2-1, he throws the Changeup 27.1% of the time. To put that in perspective vs last year, Cease threw his Changeup 13% of the time on 1-0 and 17.5% on 2-1. As Cease has fallen into more hitters counts, he is trying to get back ahead with the Changeup which hitters have grown accustomed to. Just as they sit on the Fastball and Slider above on 3-2, they are seemingly sitting on the Changeup because it has become very predictable on hitters counts early throwing either the Changeup or Slider 49.4% on 1-0 (vs the FB 38.8%) and 62.5% on 2-1 (vs the FB 35.4%). Yes they are whiffed at some and are effective on 1-0, they are again predictable on 2-1 and as a result are swung at more and are not nearly as effective as they are hit harder and are resulting in men on base. All in all, Cease’s Changeup has become too predictable in only certain counts and as a result, hitters have learned when to sit on it and as a result, it has gotten hit extremely hard. He needs to mix it up in more counts in order to keep hitters off-balanced and like I said above, it could be the key for him to getting his strikeouts back.

The last of Cease’s pitches to discuss is his Fastball which has always had great characteristics (97th Percentile Velocity and 94th Percentile Spin Rate) but was hit all over the place last year when it wasn’t whiffed at 22.3% of the time. This year, it dropped off in Swing and Miss Percentage along with those whiffs (16.3%) which leads to some questions as to how the pitch is actually doing.

This year, the pitch is still being thrown out of the zone more than it is in (50.6% out vs 49.4% in) but that is better than it was last year (57% out vs 43% in) which is definitely on the right track of improvement but he still walks way too many with it (13.8 BB%). In regards to it’s actual characteristics, the pitch has also gained almost 100 more RPM of Spin Rate along with almost 3″ more of Horizontal Movement which is a really good sign because while the Spin Rate has always been elite, the Horizontal Movement has been far from it. As the pitch improves, it has shown better results overall in which you can see below:

2020: 47.8% Thrown, 97.4 mph, .289 BA/.433 SLG, .289 xBA/.476 xSLG, .338 wOBA/.376 xwOBA, 90.9 mph Average Exit Velocity, 12.1 K%, 13.8 BB%, 4 HR, 16.3% Swing and Miss Percentage, 12.2% Put Away Percentage

2019: 47.9% Thrown, 96.5 mph, .356 BA/.637 SLG, .306 xBA/.524 xSLG, .448 wOBA/.398 xwOBA, 88.6 mph Average Exit Velocity, 21.3 K%, 13.8 BB%, 9 HR, 22.3% Swing and Miss Percentage, 17.9% Put Away Percentage

In regards to the overall performance of the Fastball, it has improved in most non strikeout metrics across the board other than a slight tick up in Exit Velocity. That is a good sign considering last year it was really battered around though you still want it to get even better. Looking at the comparisons of the two, you will notice that he really didn’t have a high Put Away Percentage last year to drop off though there was almost a 10% drop in K% as you see above. The reasoning for that is, still, Cease’s lack of overall command/control illustrated by his 13.8 BB% and if it wants to get more strikeouts in general as well as it, he is going to have to command it a lot better to paint the corners of the zone and get hitters caught looking.

Now, It’s definitely no secret Dylan Cease has a home run issue (1.8 HR/9 in 2019 and 1.8 HR/9 so far in 2020) and while it is true the balls have been played with to create an overall MLB home run increase (I know those comments are coming), that is not an excuse as to why Cease has said home run issue. It’s a first time through the order issue/first few couple of innings issue.

Of the 24 home runs Cease has given up in his career so far, 17 (70%) of them have come within the first time through the order (6 in the 1st, 8 in the 2nd, 3 in the 3rd) while the remaining ten are spread out with four in the 4th, two in the 5th and one in the 6th. That trend has definitely continued into 2020 from a home run stand point as 7 of the 9 home runs Dylan Cease has given up in 2020 have come within the first two innings. Why does he have this issue with home runs? Rather, why does he have this issue in general because it applies to everything:

Here is another update of those numbers to date:

Innings 1-3: 5.88 ERA, 64 K, 32 BB, allowing a .273/.358/.873 slash and 17 HR (67.1 IP, 23 Starts)

Innings 4-6: 3.26 ERA, 43 K, 19 BB, allowing a .241/.314/.763 slash and 7 HR (49.2 IP, 21 Starts)

7th Inning: 9.00 ERA, 4 K, 4 BB, allowing a .143/.455/.597 slash and 0 HR (2.0 IP, 4 Starts)

During the first time through the order/first few innings, there will be times that his Fastball Velocity will sit around 94-95 mph vs the 96-97 mph later on in the game as he gets going which could be a reason why he gives up so many home runs early on; he is still getting warmed up to reach that upper velocity limit he can throw at consistently. I half joked last year in that thread about how maybe they should let him warm up longer than normal to see what kind of effect that would be but honestly I really think that might be the actual solution to this issue because right now, it seems like the first few innings of game time are still trying to get fully warmed up. Of course you don’t want to warm someone up too much before game time and waste bullets but it just doesn’t seem like he gets warmed up enough early on and as a result, his fastballs are a lot more hittable at 94 mph than at 96 mph and his control/command isn’t as sharp as it normally is albet shaky to begin with.

All this said, what does this tell us about Dylan Cease moving forward and his future in the White Sox rotation? In summary, it tells us that there are three very significant things holding him back from getting his strikeouts back and reaching the upper eons of his upside which are his control/command, his predictability and his first time through the order/first few innings issue. As he improves his control/command, he will be able to keep hitters more honest with his stuff and they will have to swing at it because sitting on it will just send them back to the bench. As he gains with his control/command, he will also gain more confidence to throw any of his pitches (specifically his Changeup) in any count which the lack of has created major predictability of what he will throw allowing hitters to take advantage of it and batter him around. By improving the first two, and perhaps something as simply warming up more before game time, he should be able to get rid of his first time through the order/first few innings issue which should drastically reduce his home run rate and overall number of home runs surrendered.

Tonight, as of this writing being finished, Cease will take on the Minnesota Twins in one of the biggest games he will have pitched in his young career so far with first place on the line. Will he be able to take down the Twins or will these traits continue to limit him from dominating tonight? That will be very interesting to watch unfold. Hopefully the strikeouts will stop ceasing.

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