Dylan Cease Makes His Cy Young Case

Dylan Cease
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

With Justin Verlander landing on the injured list due to a mild right calf injury, the AL Cy Young race has taken a turn. On Saturday, Dylan Cease did his best to capitalize on the opportunity. Facing the Twins in Chicago, the 26-year-old White Sox righty came within one out of throwing the season’s fourth no-hitter, losing it only when Luis Arraez singled with two outs in the ninth.

Cease had twice taken no-hit bids into the sixth inning this year, on April 27 against the Royals and June 21 against the Blue Jays, and had made a total of three appearances in which he allowed just one hit and no runs (May 2 against the Angels, the aforementioned June 21 start, and July 17 against the Twins). He was even better than all of those on Saturday, and particularly efficient. He breezed through the first five frames in just 50 pitches, with a leadoff walk to Jake Cave in the third inning not just the only blemish, but also the only time to that point that he even went to a three-ball count. At the same time, he didn’t record his first strikeout until Gio Urshela fanned on a slider to end the fifth.

Cease labored a bit in the sixth, throwing 21 pitches and issuing a two-out walk to Gilberto Celestino, the second and last time he’d go to a three-ball count all night. But he escaped that by catching Arraez looking at a high curveball on a generous call:

Cease needed just 20 pitches to get through the seventh and eighth combined, running his total to 91. He’d done a great job of pitching efficiently and maintaining his velocity:

Before he could take the mound in the ninth, however, Cease had to wait out a six-run rally. The White Sox, already leading 7–0, pounced on position player Nick Gordon via a pair of walks, three singles, and a grand slam by Elvis Andrus to run the score to 13–0. Fortunately, all of that took only about 15 minutes due to Gordon’s limited repertoire (Statcast credits him with throwing 30 fastballs varying in speed from 49.2 mph to 86 mph). Despite the delay, Cease made quick work of the first two Twins, striking out Caleb Hamilton on four pitches and getting Celestino to hit a first-pitch fly out.

Up came Arraez, the AL leader in batting average at that point (.318). After taking a low slider for ball one and fouling off a 97-mph fastball for strike one, he hit a slider in the middle of the zone 100.7 mph into the right-center field gap — no man’s land, a clean single. Cease remained composed enough to strike out Kyle Garlick to complete the one-hit shutout, but it still constituted a tough near-miss.

If not for Arraez’s single, Cease would have joined the Angels’ Reid Detmers, who blanked the Rays on May 10, as the only pitchers to throw complete-game no-hitters this season. Additionally, a quintet of Mets led by Tylor Megill threw a combined no-hitter against the Phillies on April 29, and likewise for a trio of Astros led by Cristian Javier against the Yankees on June 25.

Instead, Cease became the fourth pitcher to have a no-hitter broken up in the ninth this season, after the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas (with two outs on June 14 against the Pirates), the Dodgers’ Tyler Anderson (with one out on June 15 against the Angels) and the Rays’ Drew Rasmussen (with no outs against the Orioles on August 14), who actually had a perfect game in progress before his bid ended. Anderson’s effort was retroactively obscured by a reversal of a seventh-inning ruling, where the pitcher fielded a dribbler down the first base line and made a poor throw; initially ruled a two-base error, it was changed to a single and an error.

It was about 16 1/2 months ago, on April 14, 2021, that Cease’s teammate, Carlos Rodón, threw the last no-hitter for the White Sox, against Cleveland. The last White Sox pitcher to take a no-hitter into the ninth and not complete the job was Gavin Floyd on May 6, 2008 — also against the Twins, and ended with one out in the ninth by Joe Mauer, who won that year’s AL batting title. The last White Sox pitcher to lose a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth was Ken Brett, on May 26, 1976, when the Angels’ Jerry Remy broke it up, but as that game was scoreless at the time, even if he had gotten the out, the game would have continued into the 10th inning, putting the no-hitter at risk.

In any event, it was a stellar outing from Cease, who needed just 103 pitches to finish the job. He got 14 swings and misses, nine of them via his slider, with another four via his four-seamer and one via his knuckle curve. While his overall 32% CSW% was just one point ahead of his full-season mark, and his 90.1 mph average exit velocity about three mph above his full-season average of 87.2 mph, the Twins didn’t barrel a single ball against him.

About that slider: Cease is throwing it harder than last year (87.3 mph versus 85.9 mph). It’s getting a bit less movement in both planes, but by Statcast’s measure, it’s the single most valuable pitch in the majors this year, and not by a little:

Most Valuable Pitches by Statcast
Player Team Pitch Runs PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff% xBA xSLG xwOBA HH%
Dylan Cease CHW SL -34 291 .117 .194 .175 46.6 .139 .223 .190 23.2
Shohei Ohtani LAA SL -22 200 .173 .297 .240 39.8 .187 .316 .248 34.7
Justin Verlander HOU FF -22 282 .195 .293 .252 18.0 .233 .402 .301 40.9
Carlos Rodón SFG FF -20 398 .214 .362 .292 26.9 .213 .359 .284 44.7
Yimi Garcia TOR FF -18 102 .106 .128 .154 27.4 .151 .234 .199 32.8
Edwin Díaz NYM SL -18 145 .129 .152 .172 53.9 .129 .167 .180 38.6
Max Scherzer NYM SL -17 126 .168 .200 .177 47.8 .147 .196 .155 18.9
Dillon Tate BAL SI -17 131 .230 .278 .244 11.9 .251 .352 .275 41.8
Sandy Alcantara MIA CH -17 208 .144 .191 .185 35.1 .174 .240 .211 30.1
Spencer Strider ATL FF -17 317 .201 .303 .263 27.3 .210 .350 .286 41.2
Corbin Burnes MIL FC -17 381 .215 .336 .299 28.1 .251 .382 .321 39.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through September 4

You can see the anemic numbers associated with Cease’s slider when batters make contact. Last year, they hit .176 and slugged .264 against the pitch, and they haven’t even been able to match that this year. That while his usage of it has increased from 30.6% to 42.6%; he’s compensated by reducing the usage of his four-seamer from 46.8% to 39.7%, and his changeup from 7.4% to 2.8%. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings as a starter, only Jakob Junis, Chris Archer, and Clayton Kershaw throw their sliders more often, and none of them has enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

That’s created an impressive amount of volume. Twenty pitchers have one pitch they’ve relied upon enough to finish at least 274 PA this year, but of that group, only Cease and Burnes have done so with something besides a four-seamer or a sinker. Combine that frequency with that effectiveness and voilà, that’s one hell of a season.

As The Athletic’s James Fegan reported in June, Cease changed his slider grip in order to add more depth. The pitch’s spin rate increased as a result; he averaged 2,778 rpm in April, but that’s up to 2,849 rpm since. As Fegan summarized last month:

[H]e started throwing it at a 47 percent clip since his last start of May, which is when he first mentioned that he had “fiddled” with it. The adjustment to hold his slider deeper in his hand was aimed at hammering out some of the cutter-like movement — and has ironically produced a faster, spinnier version that has Cease and [pitching coach Ethan] Katz exploring the upper limits of how much you should throw an unhittable pitch.

Cease has tested those limits, throwing the slider about 49% of the time since the start of July. Batters are hitting just .099 and slugging .218 against the pitch in that span, during which he has a 1.68 ERA, albeit with a 3.60 FIP.

Overall, Cease’s 2.13 ERA ranks second in the AL behind only Verlander’s 1.84, and his 2.62 xERA is second behind Shane McClanahan’s 2.54. Meanwhile, his 3.03 FIP and 3.8 WAR both rank sixth. He’s third in strikeout rate (31.4%), but his 10.2% walk rate limits him to sixth in strikeout-walk differential (21.2%).

In a year in which so much has gone wrong for the White Sox — who at 68–67 are nonetheless just two games out of first place in the AL Central, albeit with the Twins (68–65) one game above them and one game behind the Guardians (69–64) — few things have gone as right for them as Cease and his breakout. Not that he was bad last season, but his 3.91 ERA and 3.41 FIP put him in a different class than he’s in now. While his strikeout and walk rates are similar to 2021, he’s taken a big step forward in preventing hard contact, cutting his barrel rate from 9.3% to 6.2% (68th percentile), his average exit velo from 89.2 mph to 87.2 (78th percentile), and his hard-hit rate from 38.8% to 32.1% (88th percentile). That’s shaved more than a run off last year’s 3.65 xERA.

As to how he stacks up in the AL Cy Young race, here’s a table of AL pitchers who rank among the league’s top 10 in any three categories from among ERA, FIP, xERA, fWAR and bWAR with a minimum of 120 innings pitched:

Top AL Pitchers
Justin Verlander HOU 1.84 2.73 2.71 4.8 4.8
Dylan Cease CHW 2.13 2.69 3.03 3.8 5.4
Shane McClanahan TBR 2.20 2.54 2.65 3.8 3.8
Alek Manoah TOR 2.48 3.53 3.35 3.4 4.2
Shohei Ohtani LAA 2.58 2.80 2.55 4.4 4.6
Framber Valdez HOU 2.63 3.30 3.23 3.3 3.6
Nestor Cortes NYY 2.68 2.80 3.41 2.6 3.3
Martín Pérez TEX 2.89 3.43 3.32 3.1 3.9
Patrick Sandoval LAA 3.02 3.95 3.08 3.2 2.8
Shane Bieber CLE 3.06 3.43 2.86 3.9 2.6
Kevin Gausman TOR 3.14 3.48 2.13 5.1 2.7
Gerrit Cole NYY 3.28 3.07 3.22 3.2 2.6

I presented it this way to illustrate all of the “what about” guys who have pitched very well but probably won’t figure in the top tier of the voting, such as the AL FIP and WAR leader Gausman (doomed by a .368 BABIP), his teammate Manoah, and Cortes. Five guys are among the leaders in all five categories, but Valdez doesn’t crack the top five in any of them, so barring a strong September that changes the picture, it’s difficult to see where he would have the edge on anybody. Even his 14 wins rank second behind teammate Verlander’s 16.

The remaining four are tougher to separate, and there’s little point in splitting hairs at this point because of where their final handful of starts may take them. I suspect that so long as Verlander is able to return to action, the conditions probably favor him given the unprecedented nature of his comeback from Tommy John surgery at age 37, his leads in two of the three traditional triple crown categories (wins and ERA), and the fact that he ranks so highly in both flavors of WAR. But if his injury has left the door ajar for others, Cease — who leads in bWAR and is second in strikeouts (197, seven behind Cole) — has at least a few more starts to continue making his case. If any of them approach the quality of Saturday’s start, we may not have heard the last of this race.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

The Twins seemed to have an approach of “don’t let him get two strikes on you” which seems like a good plan since the slider is pretty much unhittable with two strikes, but I don’t think that is a good approach against Cease.

Cease is dead last in BB/9 among qualified pitchers. Because of that, he’s only 18th in IP despite being 10th in WAR and not missing a start this year. That also explains why is bWAR is better than his fWAR since bWAR is based on RA/9 and fWAR is based on FIP, so walks only hurt your bWAR if they score and Cease strikes out enough guys to pitch over most of the walks. But it means he throws a lot of pitches and doesn’t work deep into games. In fact, the very first time he had ever pitched in the 8th, much less the 9th inning was his previous start against Arizona 8/28. He has only finished 7 innings 7 times in 85 career starts.

So the best approach vs Cease might be to let him run up his pitch count, live with the strikeouts, hope your pitching has a good day, and hope to score some runs in the late innings against the bullpen. You can also pressure the White Sox bad defense…if you put balls in play, but that is going to difficult against Cease. Up until recently you could also count on TLR screwing something up, but that’s off the table for the foreseeable future.

If Cease ever does figure out his control and can cut down on the walks while maintaining the strikeouts, he’s a perennial Cy Young candidate and one of the very best pitchers in the game. Maybe that’s just a matter of “trusting his stuff” and not trying to get guys to chase out of the zone so early in the count. His Z-contact% is 2nd best in MLB among qualified pitchers at 77.7% and well below the league average of 85.4%, so saying “here it is, hit it” a little more often might work well for him.

Last edited 1 year ago by MikeS
Ostensibly Ridiculousmember
1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Wonder how much of the walks are strategic – deliberately being more cautious around the strike-zone when the bases are empty and the hitter has power.

1 year ago

Few if any. His stuff isn’t that of a pitcher who ever needs to nibble. Control lapses are less frequent these days but there are still sum that recall his recent past as a high-upside prospect with command concerns that had him projected to the bullpen.