For virtually all of June, it looked like White Sox starter Dylan Cease turned a corner. However, that momentum seemingly went away after a tough start in Oakland against the Athletics. In a sense, that start is a microcosm for what the 2023 season has been like for the former AL Cy Young award finalist.
A Look at Cease
It was rather obvious what the White Sox had in right-hander Dylan Cease from the onset of his Major League career. Despite concerns about his command, the Georgia native, who was originally acquired by the Sox in 2017 along with Eloy Jimenez in the Jose Quintana deal, showcased a penchant for piling up whiffs and strikeouts with an elite arsenal.
Cease rounded into form in 2021 after two turbulent campaigns, when Cease won 13 games and struck out 226 batters that campaign. Last season, the 27-year-old finished in the top three of the AL Cy Young award voting after he pitched to the tune of a 2.20 ERA and struck out 227 batters across 184 innings. This season, however, has been a real struggle for the White Sox ace.
Cease struck out 115 batters over his first 96.2 IP this season, a tad lower than his 2021 and 2022 campaigns but still well above-average. The 27-year-old’s walks have also gone down, as his 9.9% BB% is half a percentage point better than last season. Yet, Cease’s 4.10 ERA and 1.31 WHIP figures are both worse than his 2022 numbers.
Much of Cease’s struggles — which are both observable and quantifiable — have partly been because of his slider. The 27-year-old’s slider was a true ace in the hole in 2022, as it had a ridiculous 43.3% Whiff% rate and opponents were only hitting .128 off it. And, Cease possessed supreme command of it, getting right off the plate but close enough to where hitters would bite on it.
This season, batters are hitting .206 with six home runs — one less than all of 2022 — off it, its Whiff% rate is down to 40.4%, and Cease is using it less this season. Not to mention, the command just hasn’t been there. Too many pitches down and in the dirt, and less of where the slider needs to be.
It’s still a nasty pitch, but only when Cease has command of it. A lot of times this season, he’s either kept it over the plate or failed to throw it competitively. Example of that came on July 1 against the A’s, a start that saw Cease give up three runs, three walks, and six hits over 5.1 IP. Not surprisingly, many of his sliders were way off target.
Another issue with Cease’s numbers is more of his pitches have seen more of the plate. In 2022, the 27-year-old threw 18% of his pitches in the middle third of the zone. This season? 20%.
No pitcher will be perfect and hit the edges every time out, nor is that a feasible strategy. But, those numbers do give fantasy players an indication as to what kind of pitcher Cease has been this season — a strikeout machine, but one that consistently caps out at five to six innings and struggles with being at his best each night out.
2023 Fantasy Outlook
Cease isn’t the only White Sox starter that has struggled this season. Lance Lynn has been a strikeout machine for the Sox this season, but it’s hard to think about his 116 strikeouts when the 36-year-old posted a 6.47 ERA over his first 17 starts. Michael Kopech‘s strikeout numbers and velocity are up, but he too has become victim to the dreaded command problems.
Cease rebounded nicely after a tough first two months of the season, when the 27-year-old struck out 42 and posted a 2.20 ERA across five starts (28.2 IP). That, however, came before Cease gave up more runs in a start on July 1 than he did in all of June.
I still love Cease, for a few reasons. Even though his slider command has been inconsistent and his velocity is down a tick from 2022, he’s still getting plenty of swinging strikes and strikeouts. Not to mention, he could likely be had at a low price in some fantasy leagues moving forward. The command is not lovely, but he can be a good buy-low candidate if someone is willing to sell.