The quickest way to winning in fantasy baseball is finding players late in drafts that turn into studs. There is no better feeling than picking your guy before the season, and then watching your “little engine that could” turn into the high-speed train you knew he would become. Heading into the 2020 season, that player for me is Chicago White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease.
With a blistering fastball that ranked top 10 in velocity and two breaking pitches that ranked top 30 in downward movement, Cease has the arsenal to become an elite starter in the near future.
It all starts with the fastball for the 24-year-old flamethrower.
According to data retrieved from Baseball Savant, Cease’s fastball averaged 96.5 mph, ranking him 10th overall among 237 qualified starters. Even more impressive, he paired that velocity with a spin rate that ranked 26th overall, putting him in the top 30 among both. The other true starters that had fastballs ranking in the top 30 in velocity and spin included Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Mitch Keller (everyone’s favorite breakout pitcher). That is elite company.
As far as results, Cease induced a 22.3% Whiff rate with the fastball, a respectable number. In comparison, Walker Buehler had a 24.6% Whiff rate, Jack Flaherty had a 22.0% Whiff rate, and Shane Bieber had a 13.7% Whiff rate with their fastballs.
As great as his fastball looks on paper, he needs to be more than just a flamethrower. He learned the hard way that MLB hitters are too good to overpower with velocity. Of the 15 home runs he allowed, 9 of them came off of his fastball.
The batting average allowed against his fastball was by far the highest of any of his pitches, sitting at .356. The next closest was his curveball, which gave up a .257 average, despite having a 1-degree launch angle.
Perhaps the key to him unlocking true ace potential is to increase his off-speed pitch usage. He has three of them that more than hold their own weight, but he only threw a combination of the three 48.4% of the time.
Although it is his least thrown pitch, his changeup was the pitch that produced the best results in 2019. It does not jump off the page looking at its spin rate and movement, however, at 83.1 mph it plays off his heater extremely well.
In 122 pitches, it induced a .125 batting average, .183 wOBA, 86.3 mph exit velocity, and a 27.0% Whiff%. Those are ace-like numbers from a changeup.
The slider is a borderline dominant pitch. His spin rate, like his fastball, was among the top 30, ranking 28th out of 183 starters who threw sliders. The horizontal movement on the pitch ranked a respectable 62nd, but what makes the pitch so good is the downward movement, ranking 25th.
Cease’s results using the slider were great, yielding a batting average of .181, a wOBA of .243, and a Whiff rate of 34.4%.
His curveball was heralded as his second-best offering behind his fastball, and it was a good pitch last year.
The curveball, like the changeup, is a relatively slow pitch, averaging 79.5 mph. It doesn’t generate a ton of spin, but it does drop, a lot. His vertical movement ranked 27th out of 220 pitchers who threw curveballs.
Surprisingly, the pitch underperformed despite the big hook ability. While a .257 batting average, .329 wOBA, and a 29.7% Whiff rate are not bad, they are not as high as they should be paired with that fastball. What is holding him back from taking that next step?
The answer to that is simple, it is his ability to control his pitches. His walk percentage last year in 73 major league innings was 10.7%, putting him near the bottom 10 among all starting pitchers. His critics will argue this is the reason not to trust Cease, and he could be sent back down to the minors this year if the control remains an issue.
Fear not, they have shown patience with two young pitchers that each have had their share of control issues in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. The former is the one I want to focus on.
Giolito, like Cease, was a former high pedigree prospect that struggled to find himself in the majors. He was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018, and was comparable to Cease’s 2019 numbers… Giolito in 2018: 6.13 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 11.6% walk percentage versus Cease in 2019: 5.79 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 10.7% walk percentage.
That offseason, Giolito tinkered with his delivery, increasing his velocity, confidence, and command. In 2019, he became one of the best pitchers in baseball.
The main takeaway from his breakout 2019 year was the walk percentage dropping down to 8.1%, which was a little over 30 fewer walks than the year prior.
Guess what? Cease adjusted his delivery this offseason in order to get more control over his pitches. If one elite prospect can do it, why can’t another?
If Cease can get closer to that 8.1% walk percentage that his counterpart got to, all sorts of things begin to happen.
A lower walk rate means he is placing his fastball better. Placing his fastball better means batters will begin swinging at more pitches. Swinging at more pitches means swinging at more off-speed pitches. Swinging at more off-speed pitches means more whiffs, strikeouts, and weak contact.
If he can figure out whatever Giolito figured out, I believe the ceiling for Cease in 2020 is: 175 innings pitched, 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 200 strikeouts. Quite a bargain for someone going in the late 200’s in most drafts.