Heading into South Bend’s home opener vs. West Michigan, I was looking forward to seeing Dylan Cease pitch for the South Bend Cubs. I wanted to see how much he improved since last September, when he was a member of the Northwest League champion Eugene Emeralds.
Although Cease is known for throwing up to 100 miles an hour, he is also a prospect that the Cubs have handled with kid gloves since he was drafted in 2014. At the Cubs convention this year, Jason McLeod said that the Cubs would be taking the “reins” off of Cease and that there would be no limitations to his pitching.
As I sat down to watch him last night, I looked for a few things.
1. His changeup: Is the delivery fluid and without any hiccups? Of the three pitches he throws, his changeup needs the most work. Sometimes, he has a strange tick in his delivery that tips the pitch.
2. His two-strike approach: At the beginning of last year, he tried to get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. After missing two weeks with a forearm strain, he was more efficient in attacking hitters in the zone with two strikes. This resulted in longer outings and higher K/9 ratio.
3. His stamina: how deep into the game can he go?
At first pitch, it was 65 degrees out, a far cry for South Bend from Thursday’s game, which was snowed out. Cease took the mound and did not disappoint in his first inning of work. He threw 14 pitches, nine for strikes. His fastball hummed along at 94-96, and he popped off a few curves (71-72 mph), mostly with a 12 to 7 bend. The changeup was non-existent in the first. He did not seem to be wasting too many pitches. His fastball seemed to have a lot of movement. And, when he missed the plate, it was usually away. He gave up a bunt single, but struck out two and got a pop put to right. As for his strategy, he tended to go right after hitters. He actually had much better command of his curve than his fastball that inning.
Cease did not allow a run in the second inning, but he threw 24 pitches. He was not laboring physically. Rather, he could not hit his spots with the fastball—all of which he was throwing outside. His mechanics looked fluid, and he was throwing with ease. His fastball settled in at 96 most of the inning, and he did get a 99 mph reading on one fastball that delighted the crowd. He did throw a few fastballs down, but not many. “Away, away, and away” was the mantra of the day.
In the top of the third, West Michigan leadoff hitter, Cam Gibson, flicked his wrists from the left side and went the other way for a home run. It would be the only run that Cease would give up, but he would walk two in the inning. Cease used up 22 more pitches in the third to end up with 61 after the frame. He was still living and dying on the outside corner/half. He did throw some changeups in the low 80s, but they would end up in the dirt.
When Cease came out for the fourth, I thought it would be his last inning, and it was. It was easily his best, too. In fact, he was extremely aggressive and struck out three hitters with jus a fastball-curve combo. It took him 17 pitches to do so.
For the night, Cease’s line on the surface looked mostly good. Four IP, eight Ks, one ER, three BBs, and he allowed just three hits. He had two excellent innings and two subpar innings in which he threw a lot of pitches (47). He struggled with fastball command and rarely pitched inside on the hands with his fastball. Instead, he threw the curve, mostly, as a devastating weapon.
Referring back to the three main things to examine, it was evident that the change is still a major work in progress to throw and get across the plate. His strategy, on the other hand, was that he went after most hitters in the first and fourth. Both innings were efficient (30 pitches combined) compared to the second and third when he struggled to command his fastball. His stamina looked great, as I think he looked his best in the fourth as he struck out three with just 16 pitches.
There’s a lot to like about Cease right now: he’s got athleticism, fluidity, and velocity. Conversely, he is clearly still learning to pitch at the pro level. To date, he now has only 72 IP as a pro. He should double that experience by the end of June. His learning curve should run parallel to his experience. Throwing the changeup for a strike more efficiency are the areas he will work to improve.