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CHICAGO — Dylan Cease provided a very real and honest perspective when asked about his 2020 season. Real and honest, but with great hope for the immediate future.
“I consider it to be bad,” Cease said. “I competed so there’s that. But yeah, I wasn’t happy with it. … Last season was pretty disappointing for me, but I’m not going into 2021 with a negative attitude by any means. I’m looking forward to it.”
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Cease, who slotted in third or fourth after Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, finished 5-4 with a 4.01 ERA over 12 starts and 58 1/3 innings in 2020. It was the 24-year-old’s second season in the Majors, but he has yet to make a full season’s worth of starts, with just 26 combined.
So, there’s nothing but development ahead for the right-hander whose 97.5 mph average four-seamer velocity ranked him fifth highest in 2020, per Statcast. Cease already has begun work with new pitching coach Ethan Katz, starting with a 40-minute talk during the first week Katz was hired.
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They believe a great deal of Cease’s struggles were related to his lower half.
“Just pretty much not utilizing it correctly,” Cease said. “If you are not using your lower half correctly, everything else is going to be off.”
“We’ve all seen the flashes of what his stuff is capable of doing when it’s all aligned,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “And quite frankly, I’m excited to see him after a period of time working with Ethan Katz and seeing where that leads us.”
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Before the 2020 season even started, it seemed the White Sox would go as far as the starting pitching behind the reliable 1-2 punch of Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel would allow them to.
And that’s exactly how things played out, the White Sox ousted from the playoffs in three games without a third starting-pitching option to depend on.
The front office has already done significant work to solve that problem ahead of a 2021 campaign with World Series aspirations, trading for Lance Lynn, about as dependable a veteran arm as you’ll find in the game. But again, the difference between a strong top three and a championship-caliber rotation will rest on what the arms behind those three can deliver.
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That’s where new pitching coach Ethan Katz comes in. His main objective in his first year as a major league pitching coach? Taking some of the White Sox young arms from unproven to guys new manager Tony La Russa can confidently call on for starts in the postseason.
Though Katz has multiple pupils, including Michael Kopech and Reynaldo López, perhaps no one will be under a bigger microscope in 2021 than Dylan Cease.
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Cease shouldn’t be expected to be a finished product at this point. He doesn’t even have a full season’s worth of big league starts on his resume, with just 26 of them over the past two years. But Cease’s 2020 campaign was marked by struggles. He kept his ERA down — finishing with a 4.01 mark that was a vast improvement from the 5.79 number he finished with in 2019 — but spent the entire year getting into too many jams, issuing too many walks and giving up too many home runs.
Those are the problems Katz needs to solve if the White Sox big three in the rotation is going to turn into a big four.
Well, Katz and Cease have already started working toward accomplishing just that.
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“He’s working extremely diligently right now. Our communication right now, we’re going back and forth almost every day or every other day. He’s working, he’s putting in the work to put himself in that position. … I think he’s very close,” Katz told Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I have a lot of things, but I also know I don’t want to (be) like, ‘Bam, here’s everything,’ and I lose him. So we’re kind of working on that delivery right now as the main focus to be able to propel his stuff and be consistent, and that right now is our main focus.
“As he continues to get better and better and he feels good about it, we’ll add on another layer and another layer and another layer, and it’s just going to keep going and going.
“When we see a product where everyone’s going to be like, ‘That’s the guy we’ve been looking for,’ I don’t have an answer. But I’m going to strive to make that happen right away.”
If Katz can do that, if Cease can match his tantalizing stuff with consistent on-field success, then the White Sox rotation would take another huge step toward being championship caliber, making the team’s World Series hopes for 2021 all the more realistic.
• What’s next for White Sox? Hahn: ‘We’ll see’
Doing drills with the core velocity belt, a tool adeptly employed by Giolito, is just one of the changes that Cease and Katz have discussed.
“Ethan is very analytical and up to date with all the new technology,” said Cease, who also praised the work done with Don Cooper, the previous White Sox pitching coach since 2002. “He’s got a lot of ideas and he’s got a track record. Those two things right there make it very exciting.
“He sent me video. As soon as I get core velocity, I’ll be FaceTiming him. There’s a pretty good chance I’m going to go out to him at some point this offseason so he can be a little more hands on and I can work with him in person.”
Fastball command became Cease’s biggest issue in 2020, as he ranked second in the Majors with 34 walks against 44 strikeouts, and he had an especially rough finish to the season by allowing 14 earned runs on 19 hits and 16 walks over 22 1/3 innings in five September starts. Cease had a particularly strange outing on Sept. 20 in Cincinnati, in that he didn’t allow a hit and struck out five over three-plus innings and 80 pitches, but he also walked seven, hit a batter and yielded three earned runs in a 7-3 loss.
It was the sort of finish erasing Cease from the possibility of a Game 3 start in the American League Wild Card Series in Oakland.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t know where the ball is going, it’s not a great feeling,” Cease said. “So, in those moments, I’m just competing and trying to focus and do the best I can.
“You have to be realistic. I can’t have a start like those and just be happy and pleased with it. I know I have to execute my pitches and I have to find a way to do that. I try to take that objective view of it. Just really try to figure out what I have to do to improve. I’m excited to work with Ethan and figure out some solutions.”
The acquisition of Lance Lynn takes pressure off young starters such as Cease, Michael Kopech and even Reynaldo López. Cease certainly has the stuff to excel, but he’ll be working to find the execution to optimize his mound work.
“The kid’s got a great arsenal,” Hahn said. “If we were so inclined to put him out there, he’d be a very popular trade target because the industry sees very similar to what we see. We look forward to him developing as a White Sox here over the coming months and years.”
“This offseason is really important for me. Like I said, I’m not super thrilled with last year’s performance so I plan on putting in work,” Cease said. “Really, it comes down to just executing and being able to throw my pitches for strikes. I’ve got the pitches. I’ve got the stuff. Now, it’s just molding it and using it.”