Feature Photo: Dylan Cease, RHP, Cubs
The first thing you will note about Dylan Cease (RHP, Cubs) is the sturdy, athletic frame. He has reported at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds of lean muscle to this year’s camp. There are great expectations for him this year as he is now in his third season removed from Tommy John surgery, and he Cubs are said to be ready to take the proverbial kid gloves off and let Cease turn it loose.
We all know about Cease’s physical strengths by now, most notably the mid- to upper-90s fastball that has touched 100 mph multiple times. Shaking hands with Cease, he’ll smile and look you right in the eye. You’ll immediately feel the natural hand strength in his grip.
It’s the kind of hand strength that also allows him to create great spin on the baseball. If there is a pitch that rivals his fastball at times, it is the knee-buckling curveball that a Cubs’ official has compared to that of former Mets great Dwight Gooden.
With those two assets, you would think that Cease would be satisfied already with how far he’s come as a 21-year-old who’s had his pro development delayed by injury and rehabilitation. He has improved his mechanics significantly since his high school days. I talked to a veteran scout who had rated his mechanics a ‘two’ on his one-to-five scale (five being the best) as an amateur. When he saw him again last summer, he upgraded that rating to a ‘four’, saying he felt confident Cease will now be better able to take on a starter’s load and stay healthy.
Cease generates his velocity without max effort, and it has helped him improve his control, even if the command is still coming around. The Cubs are hoping that is just a matter of more repetition. Repeating his delivery and being consistent with his mechanics will be a key as much as anything going forward.
But the more you learn about the Georgia native and his physical talents, the more you begin the mental process behind it all.
Cease reported to camp early, and one of the first things I heard out here on him was the ice tub story. John Baker, the Cubs’ mental skills coordinator, told me he was proud of Cease that day for his mental endurance under very extreme physical conditions. He was the only player to last five minutes in the ice-cold water that day. I happened to run into Cease personally the next day and asked him about it and his response was, “I can’t wait to try it for 10 minutes today. Once you get the first two or three minutes, it gets easier.” For many of us, we may have been jumping out about as quickly as we got in. For Cease, it was about pushing through those first moments and coming out the better for it. It’s something he certainly knows something about, as someone who has already had to push through the initial discomfort of rehabbing from T.J surgery following his 2014 ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury.
The obstacle is the path, as Baker likes to say. And Cease has shown he can overcome obstacles, from the unfortunate timing of his UCL injury to those chilling first few minutes in the tub. Cease is looking to do whatever makes him better from both a mental and physical standpoint.
Baker calls him a kid with a ‘growth mindset’, adding that “he is hungry to learn, compete and improve. He is willing to push himself physically.”
“I believe he will be a great pitcher, but more importantly, he is a fantastic human being. From a mental skills perspective, I don’t worry so much about who has talent, or ability, or even hype. I worry about character, and Dylan has that in spades.”
Moreover, Cease – the sixth-round selection by the Cubs in the 2014 MLB Draft – seems to understand that the mental game is as important to success as his sheer arm strength. It is not all about sheer physicality for him. He is not watching his radar gun readings, at least not on his fastball. The one time I have seen him ask about his velocity was when he was working on his curveball last year. In that particular case, he wanted to make sure it was less than 80 mph, a speed at which the pitch has the most effective depth and break for him.
This year, it’s the changeup he wants to develop, and while it is not expected to be the kind of pitch that his first two offerings are, it doesn’t need to be. It is more of a classic change-of-pace offering that lacks great movement, but he is learning to sell it well with deceptive arm speed. That, along with good command of the pitch, will be enough to make it an effective third pitch for him.
Case in point: In his first start of the season, an intrasquad game on the Cubs’ minor league backfields, Cease was establishing his fastball early. In his second inning work he hit 98 mph several times, and immediately showed that he could throw it for strikes. Then came a 97 mph fastball up and in that backed the left-handed hitter off the plate. The next pitch? An 84 mph changeup that grazed the lower-outside corner of the strike zone. The hitter could only watch, hoping Cease would miss and he’d get another chance – but no such luck. It was a combination of sequence, location, and speed differential that would have frozen many a major league hitter as well. That was what major league pitch sequencing looks like.
Of course, that was just a glimpse of his talent, and Cease himself will tell you that he is still trying to develop a consistent feel for the changeup, but he also told me that it’s a pitch he’s looking forward to mastering because it will play his other pitches up. That he understands that the pitch is not so much a stand-alone weapon as much as it is a piece of a larger repertoire speaks to his maturation as a pitcher. He is beginning to see the big picture, and that can be as important to him remaining a starter as the changeup itself.
Time will tell with Cease. There is still some uncertainty and risk in the profile because of his injury history, and because he simply hasn’t pitched a lot of pro innings to-date. He has also yet to pitch in full season ball.
That is all expected to change this season when Cease is expected to start at Class A South Bend and test his stuff against more experienced hitters. It’s also probably going to be pretty cold weather when the season opens in the Midwest League, but we know that Cease can handle that too.
The obstacle is the path. And with some of those early obstacles now cleared, Cease looks like he may be ready to finally take off in 2017.