White Sox’ Dylan Cease Belongs On Any List Of MLB’s Top 10 Starting Pitchers

This week, MLB Network rolled out their list of the Top 10 major league starting pitchers. In that soft couple of weeks before spring training camps open, it’s a fun exercise, as the network goes position by position, running down the best players in the game. Obviously, there’s tons of subjectivity involved, and the exercise is largely based in fun, and geared to generate conversation and feedback.

Every now and then, however, there are omissions that are so egregious that deserve to be called out. The Phillies’ Aaron Nola is one such omission – in my humble opinion, he was the very best pitcher in major league baseball in 2022, and as he is squarely in his prime, he should be included in any current Top 10 list. I’ve written plenty about Nola this offseason, and will choose to focus on another hurler today.

There are three basis components to pitching – missing bats, minimizing walks and managing contact. For the very best starters, the Cy Young contenders, you can throw in a fourth – durability, carrying a heavy innings load. Nola was in the elite range at three of those disciplines, and was a slightly above average contact manager.

The AL Cy Young race was a close one in my book, going down to the wire. Ultimately, I believe the voters made the right call in electing Justin Verlander. However, in the “Tru” Pitching Runs Above Average (TPRAA) system I use to pick the award winners, he nosed out the White Sox’ Dylan Cease by the tiniest of margins, by 24.1 to 23.8 TPRAA. It literally came down to the pitchers’ last starts.

Like Nola, Cease is in the elite range of three of the four basic pitching disciplines – his K rate, durability and contact management were all exceptional last season. He still has a long way to go with regard to commanding the baseball, but given his tool kit and overall feel, that should fall into line over time as well.

There are a couple of facets of Cease’s game that deserve a bit more attention, and both suggest that he may just be scratching the surface of his potential.

First, contact management is not often the purview of the youthful power pitcher. Cease was the 2022 American League Contact Manager of the Year with an 81 Adjusted Contact Score. Most hurlers who win that title have either an extreme pop up or ground ball tendency. Not Cease.

He just throttles exit speed across all batted ball types. Cease was one of only three qualifying AL starters who held hitters to materially lower than average overall, fly ball, liner and grounder exit speeds. His overall and liner exit speed allowed ranked 3rd and his grounder exit speed allowed ranked tied for 2nd lowest among ERA qualifiers. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 70 was the best in the AL; though his average fly ball exit speed wasn’t as notable, that was because he yielded an extremely high number of “can of corn” fly balls in the 75-95 mph range.

The only “lucky” part of Cease’s contact management effort was his low liner rate allowed of 17.4% – such rates tend to be volatile from year to year, and this was the first time he graded out as better than average in this area.

But perhaps the biggest reason to be bullish on Cease’s future is the fact that he’s getting it done with his four-seam fastball. I’ll be rolling out my annual “Best Pitches” series in the coming weeks, and every year we see that the starters with the most staying power have exceptional four-seamers.

Cease’s 10.2% four-seam whiff rate is solidly above the MLB average of 9.3%, and while most pitchers in both leagues allow authoritative contact with their four-seamers, Cease bucks that trend. Based on the actual exit speeds allowed against his four-seamer, he should have yielded .290 AVG-.489 SLG on the pitch. Among ERA qualifiers in either league, only Jose Quintana (!) managed contact better with his four-seamer.

Toss in the dramatic year-to-year improvements that Cease has already made, and it’s clear that he is extremely intuitive and coachable. He has one big item remaining on his career development to-do list – that pesky control – and I’m betting that he can wrap his arms around it.

The last relatively young established starting pitcher that I was this excited about was Jacob deGrom, in his immediate pre-Cy Young days. Barring injury, Dylan Cease is going to be in everyone’s Top 3 list for the foreseeable future.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonyblengino/2023/02/03/white-sox-dylan-cease-belongs-on-any-list-of-mlbs-top-10-starting-pitchers/