What to do with Dylan Cease in the postseason

Dylan Cease with the White Sox in 2019
(Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

Earlier this season, after Michael Kopech had opted out and injuries and ineffectiveness sapped the outlook of Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease seemed like the default option as a potential number-three starter in a playoff scenario behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. Now, given the emergence of Dane Dunning and Cease further struggling with his command, it’s an open question how the Sox could best utilize him in the postseason. Jim noted that there doesn’t seem to be much that Cease can do to get past Dunning for the #3 starter slot, so that would leave him at best as a bullpen candidate in the first series and a candidate for a Game Four starter in a potential American League Division Series.

The issue with carving out a role for Cease is that he has generally pitched very poorly this season. He may yet have a bright future ahead of him, but he hasn’t shown the ability to command his good stuff in 2020, and in all likelihood, that’s the pitcher he’ll be through the end of the year. His walk rate (13.7 percent) and strikeout rate (16.7 percent) need significant improvement, and are entirely too close together. Unlike, say, Dallas Keuchel, he can’t hang his hat on a weak batted ball profile, as opponents own an expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .487 against him.

One might point to his 3.52 ERA and suggest that he hasn’t been all bad, but that number is wholly unsustainable with the way that he’s pitched. Thanks to all the walks, Cease works himself into a fair number of jams, and while we might credit him for getting out of a lot of them in the regular season, the question is whether we should expect that to continue. Pitching into difficult situations and expecting to dig out of them isn’t a good plan regardless, but Cease seems especially underqualified to clean up messes consistently. The best ways to pitch out of situations with multiple runners on base include:

  • Striking out hitters
  • Getting a ground ball for a double play
  • Inducing pop-ups or other weak contact

We’ve covered that Cease’s strikeout rate is unacceptably low, he’s not a groundball pitcher (39.9 percent), he doesn’t get infield pop-ups all that often (6.6 percent of fly balls, 2.5 percent of batted balls), and the amount of contact categorized as soft per FanGraphs is 11.4 percent, which is third-lowest in the major leagues. Cease has stranded 81.9 percent of opposing baserunners (11th-highest in the major leagues) despite that his profile suggests he’s more likely to pour gasoline on a fire than extinguish it.

It therefore stands to reason that using Dylan Cease in a starting capacity in the postseason would be a very bad idea. The odds of a game getting out of hand against a good, patient offense are just too high. The White Sox have Gio Gonzalez and a herd of effective relievers that can pitch through a potential Game Four, and in a game of that leverage, it’d be best for them to put their best foot forward from the outset.

That leaves the question of if and how Cease could be used effectively in relief. Typically, you’d expect to be able to better utilize a pitcher out of the bullpen than the rotation if one or more of the following applies:

  • The pitcher’s stuff might “play up” in shorter bursts, knowing they don’t have to cover several innings.
  • The pitcher has one or two very effective pitches, but lacks a third offering to keep hitters off-balance over multiple plate appearances.
  • The pitcher has significant platoon splits.
  • The pitcher has significant endurance issues.

Cease can’t reliably command any of his pitches, so I’d say the second one’s out. His biggest problem isn’t lacking a third pitch, it’s that he typically doesn’t have command of any two of them at the same time (and sometimes, even one of them). Here’s how opponents fare against Cease the first two times through the order:

  • 1st: .202/.283/.483 (99 PAs)
  • 2nd: .208/.389/.375 (95 PAs)

These are pretty small samples, but even if we were to try to draw conclusions, I’m not sure what we might be able to say in Cease’s favor. The really bad control problems don’t seem to show up until the second time through the order, but he’s getting hit pretty hard the first time through to the tune of seven homers in 99 plate appearances (for context, a hitter at that pace would have a mid-40s home run total over a full season). Given the quality of contact against him and his low strikeout rate, the low averages are likely a product of luck, so it’s hard to feel great about either of those slash lines.

Cease’s stuff is already excellent as a starter, so I’m not sure what more we could expect from a stuff perspective as a reliever. The endurance one was more or less listed for completeness; as Cease has approached or cleared the 100-pitch threshold in many outings, I don’t think that’s a concern. That leaves the platoon splits as the last possible justification for wanting Cease in the game in any non-mop-up scenario. Cease allowed a .914 OPS to left-handers last season and the secret got out quick. 59 percent of the batters Cease has faced this season have been left-handed, and opposing managers have been rewarded with a .257/.387/.500 line and a 20:15 BB/K ratio for their tactics. It’s clear that Cease needs to be shielded from lefties in the 2020 postseason, but what about righties?

  • 2019: .257/.333/.431
  • 2020: .190/.292/.381

That 2020 line is just over 96 plate appearances with a fortunate BABIP, so it’s not as comforting as the raw numbers suggest. That’s still a 12.5 percent walk rate and a .191 ISO. However, it’s not terrible either, and it suggests Cease might be able to hold his own against a stint of same-handed batters. The issue is that out of the bullpen, the standards are raised for the quality of pitching for high-leverage work, and assuming neutral luck, Alex Colome, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, Jimmy Cordero (before you yell at me, Cordero’s been great against righties this year), and Evan Marshall all seem like better options against right-handed batters, which would make Cease, at best, the sixth righty out of the pen.

Let’s assume the Sox carry 14 pitchers, which would allow for Jarrod Dyson, Adam Engel, Yolmer Sanchez, James McCann and another position player (possibly Zack Collins in case they want an emergency catcher) as reserves, assuming they use their most common lineup. From the left side, let’s assume Gio Gonzalez will be tabbed for long relief (and possibly an opener/fourth starter in later rounds), and that Aaron Bummer, Jace Fry, and Garrett Crochet will all be members of the bullpen. That leaves Cease, Steve Cishek, Reynaldo Lopez, Ross Detwiler, and (recovery-willing) Carlos Rodon for the last couple of slots. Of those, Detwiler would be my top preference due to his dominance of lefties this year. I suppose I’d pick Lopez or Cease in case a stretched out arm needs to handle a deep extra inning game, and which one I’d choose would actually depend a lot on who shows more in this last week of the season.

* * * * * * * * *

None of this is a commentary on Dylan Cease’s future. He has eye-popping stuff and if he develops the ability to command it, there’s tons of upside there. The Sox should continue to explore Cease, but the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 12 seasons is not the time. He simply does not have much to offer as either a starter or a specialist in his current form, and leaving him off the playoff roster could potentially be justifiable. Nonetheless, I’d imagine that the Sox will find a way to carry Cease; there’s enough health question marks and roster-building strategies that would lead to it making sense. If they do, they’d be wise to relegate him to soaking up innings in low-leverage relief. As a 24-year-old pitcher, he’s not yet a finished product and he doesn’t have to be. Patience is called for, but with the playoffs looming, so is an honest assessment of where he’s at right now.

(Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

 

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knoxfire30

Cease and Lopez really aren’t gonna matter for the first playoff series, there just isnt a scenario to envision when they will be needed. Giolito, Keuchel, Dunning are starting those games and with a situation where its all hands on deck even if those guys have rocky starts you are gonna go right to your mix of strong relievers . If a disaster strikes and you need to cover innings 3-4 it would probably be dettweiler and cordero, by innings 5 and 6 you are looking at foster and marshall, and innings 7,8,9 are gonna be heuer, bummer, colome…. And this is before factoring in that right now there is no reason cease or lopez in a 1 inning situation mid or early in a game should give anyone more confidence then Crochett.

ParisSox

Well analyzed pnoles. Just the fact that we are having these kinds of discussions feels so good!

gibby32

I agree that the problem is well analyzed. The solution, however, leaves me dissatisfied. Unless Rodon is being stretched out in Schaumburg such that he is a viable starter, which I doubt, Cease is a member of the playoff rotation beginning in the second series. So is Lopez, given that there are no off-days. Gio Gonzalez is no more stretched out than Rodon might be. Starting him in a game is likely to gut your bullpen for the succeeding game or place too much stress on them because of utilization in prior games. While I would have no confidence in them, Cease and Lopez give you a shot at 5 innings. In the second playoff series, games 4 and 5 need to use Cease and Lopez as the starters, depending on the state of the series, with quick hooks to the bullpen, perhaps to Gonzalez. Perhaps Giolito relieves in the fourth or fifth on three days rest and goes several innings ala Bumgarner. The lack of depth in the starting rotation is why the White Sox are a long shot to go deep into the playoffs.

Eagle Bones

It’s choosing between several bad options, but I still think I’m going Gio over the rest of those guys. He may not get you deep, but I think there’s a decent chance he gives you 3-4 solid innings at least. I don’t see that from the other options. It’s not ideal to have to cover that many innings with the pen, but they have the arms to make it work.

karkovice squad

Cease’s current skill set definitely bumps him down the ladder for an impact playoff role. I do wonder if just having him throw loads more sliders could be a short-term band-aid, tho.

What’s remarkable is that in Spring Training it looked like he fixed the mechanical issue with his torso rotation and arm lag that mess up his release. That fix just hasn’t been in evidence since the season started. It has to be incredibly frustrating to have made that progress and lost it.

I think we do have to talk about his future, tho. He showed an improvement once so maybe that means he can do it again? But what, if anything, doess it say that Pitch Lab couldn’t get him back on track? Even allowing for pandemic weirdness, part of the premise of those tools is being able to make in-season progress.

Greg Nix

I think he needs to go hang out at Driveline this offseason.

texag10

He’s already upped his slider usage 10% over last season and if this season is the result of a mechanical change, maybe he should change back. At least he could strike people out last season…

karkovice squad

I’m thinking more like 40% sliders–Corbin territory. His fastball is either flat–and therefore hittable even at 98+ –or uncontrollable. He obviously has no feel for the curve which is why he’s not throwing it much. The change probably won’t play up until the fastball is sorted. But he can probably build off that slider.

Mechanics-wise, no, he’s throwing with last year’s mechanics now and that’s the problem.

texag10

So my concern with upping the slider usage is the pitch has been kind of average this year. It was good last year and but its not as good this year and I wonder if its because of the increased usage or just the overall funk hanging over Cease.

*This all assumes I understand the fangraphs pitch value statistics correctly.

Eagle Bones

Wouldn’t average be an improvement? Also I dont think those metrics account for batted ball luck.

karkovice squad

I tend to ignore the 1-number to rule them all pitch value metrics now that we have better component data. But EB is right that throwing something with average outcomes would be a big improvement.

He’s getting an elite whiff rate on it even if he doesn’t have the Ks to show for it. Other than the curve, which he’s barely throwing, it’s the pitch hitters are doing the least damage on.

At this point, ‘throw more of your better pitches, fewer of your worse pitches’ seems like sound advice until he can do a more thorough overhaul on what’s broken.

metasox

The White Sox have Gio Gonzalez and a herd of effective relievers that can pitch through a potential Game Four, and in a game of that leverage, it’d be best for them to put their best foot forward from the outset.

So what is the expected pitching setup?
In a 5 game: Giolito, Keuchel, Dunning, a bunch of guys, Giolito on short rest ?
And then what does a following 7 game series look like with one off day in between series?

joewho112

In a seven-game series, wouldn’t you start Giolito in game 3 on short rest so he is an option for game 7? Dallas/Dunning/Giolito/Bullpen/Dallas/Dunning/Giolito

joewho112

If the alternative is trusting Gonzalez & Co to do it, you have to take Giolito, don’t you?

metasox

Dunning on short rest even once strikes me as concerning – both the possible results and his coming back from TJ. I can see it with a veteran who knows how to manage his game, not sure about a rookie

lifelongjd

I just don’t understand what role Cooper plays with the lack of development on some of these above average arms. It seems like Giolito, Lopez, Rodon, and now Cease all have stagnated once reaching the majors. Cease has elite stuff that isn’t consistent due to mechanics. That’s what a pitching coach is there for. To reinforce technique and to point out inconsistencies.

HallofFrank

If you think Giolito “stagnated” once reaching the majors, we must have different definitions of stagnate.

lifelongjd

Despite his prospect status, Giolito was the worst pitcher in MLB 2 years ago and had to go outside the organization to fix his mechanics. Rodon has never pitched to his talent and draft level, even when healthy. There have been many success stories from the bullpen for sure, but even then there are instances of higher level draft picks having control issues (Burdi, Johnson). I get injuries have sidetracked a lot of our prospects, but it’s frustrating to watch guys with high talent struggle with getting the ball over the plate consistently.

metasox

especially frustrating when it looks like Cleveland can just pull starters out of its rear

HallofFrank

If you don’t want to give Cooper credit for Giolito, that’s one thing, but he certainly hasn’t “stagnated since reaching the majors.”

There are reasons to be critical of Cooper, but you’ve put some austere requirements on him. Rodon is almost always either hurt or returning from injury, but he’s had moments. He looked really good last year: a 3.62 FIP with 46 K to 17 BB in 34 IP is pretty much peak Rodon, he just couldn’t stay healthy.

Cease has elite stuff, but he’s also *always* had control problems. It would be great if it were as simple as “Coop’ll fix ’em,” but it’s not. If fixing pitchers like Cease was easy, each team would have 3 or 4 Cy Young candidates.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Rodon’s issue has been injuries, and Cease hasn’t even thrown a full major league season yet. You’re also ignoring all of the successes with the young bullpen arms.

Eagle Bones

While Coop can’t be blamed for all of the struggles of Sox pitchers, it does seem fair to question his role at this point. He’s done great things for this organization, but his statements and the actions of his own pitchers seem to indicate that he’s not exactly striving to keep up with the latest advances in pitcher development (and that’s probably putting it kindly). People love to dump on Renteria, but honestly these kinds of issues with Cooper might a bigger problem going forward than anything Ricky does.

Right Size Wrong Shape

The most recent comments I’ve heard from Coop seem to indicate that he is receptive to and already using new tools and information. I’m not claiming the Sox are advanced as other teams, but it’s not like he’s got them out there doing the towel drill every day.

They didn’t even have the pitcher development program they have now, such as it is, when Rodon was coming up. But he also reportedly didn’t buy into what they were doing at the time and didn’t have much of an off-season program of his own, either.

Some of that you can put on him. And maybe that’s a scouting failure. Lots of teams are moving uncoachable players down their boards now.

That also strikes me as a coaching and communication failure. Maybe they couldn’t have prevented the injuries. However, independent of the injuries, evaluators had already downgraded his value after promotion from where it was when he was drafted. That was a big reason why the Sox were at the bottom of Driveline’s player development analysis.

mikeyb

Cease is pitching how he pitches in the minors, it’s just that hitters here aren’t stupid enough to swing at pitches out of the zone by a mile. He never had control of his pitches at any level, and it didn’t really seem like he was progressing with his command, despite the seemingly positive results in the minors. I don’t blame Coop for this one.

knoxfire30

EE and Mazara in todays starting lineup…. blah

As Cirensica

They are in probably so Renteria have more material to make difficult decisions. They own their own destiny, but I worry that Engel is not getting enough action pre-playoff. He clearly should be the RF.

As Cirensica

Great analysis Patrick. I wouldn’t count on Rodon for anything this year. He hasn’t been able to even get the rust off. If Rodon is healthy, I still would prefer Gio Gonzalez.

From your list of pitchers available for the last two spot:

Cease, Steve Cishek, Reynaldo Lopez, Ross Detwiler, and (recovery-willing) Carlos Rodon

I will pick Cease, then Detwiler, then Cishek, then Lopez, then Rodon.

GrinnellSteve

You’re overlooking the obvious answer: Hit lots of dingers. Then the pitching concerns will sort themselves out.

As Cirensica

I can live with that.

texag10

I feel like dingers are a double edged sword. More dingers is good but all that time rounding the bases means more time for our pitchers to cool their heels in the dugout. We need speedy dingers is what we need.

joewho112

Here’s hoping that postseason adrenaline is enough to awaken Robert and Moncada and set the lineup to beast mode.

MarketMaker

Yeah, sadly I think Cease is unlikely to be a positive contributor this postseason. I am fairly bullish on him next year though. I think he has pretty solvable issues, but it’ll likely take him the offseason to make changes. Definitely wasn’t expecting him to have so much trouble generating whiffs this year.

Eagle Bones

Unless there’s an injury (distinct possibility) or he comes out of the gates a completely different pitcher, I kind of feel like he’s probably in the pen by mid-May or so next year with Kopech taking his spot.

texag10

I wonder if there’s a chance he could be dealt in the offseason for a real right fielder. Spend big on pitching so you have Gio/Dallas/FA/Dunning/Kopech(or anyone really) and then I’m sure there is a team out there that believes they can harnass Cease.

Eagle Bones

Or they could just sign Springer and keep him, but yeah a trade is probably more likely.

Amar

Leave him off the postseason roster. Keep him hungry, he’ll figure things out during the offseason.

ParisSox

Why wouldn’t they use an opener in game 4? Foster or Detwiler then Gio or Cease or whatever?

Amar

Why not Lopez / Gio?

Eagle Bones

Because Lopez is bad?

Amar

It’s hard to keep track, but if Lopez is included, who else does that leave off the postseason roster?

lil jimmy

Pair up Gio and Lopez, and Rodon, and Cease. Rodon is coming off the DL on Friday. He threw two simulated innings yesterday. Start the Lefties, switch to the Righties. The bullpen stays fresh. The Starters know five innings aren’t needed.

Josh Nelson

I think the White Sox should roll with my plan of not losing a postseason game this season and only have to worry about who starts Game 4 in the ALCS and World Series.

shaggy65

Cease is the 4th playoff starter and none of the other options are even close. Rodon isn’t healthy, Detwiler and Lopez aren’t good. Gio Gonzalez has almost all the same problems as Cease but without any of the upside. We’ll need all the high-leverage arms in the bullpen as it is—I don’t see 4 or 5 extra innings available for a highly competitive bullpen day.

Does Dylan have some major flaws in his game right now? Absolutely. But he has the talent to compete and while he’s been walking a tightrope he’s mostly been getting results. Some gumption and some AAAA players might get you through a few regular season games, but talent is what wins in the playoffs. Even if they’re a little rough around the edges, I’ll ride or die with my most talented players in the postseason every time.

Eagle Bones

Gio is at least striking guys out. Cease isn’t even doing that. For this season, it’s gotta be Gio over Cease.