Dylan Cease’s Recent Start Shows He’s Gaining Strength in Return from Ankle Injury

It has been a strange year for Dylan Cease, the Cubs’ most highly-touted pitching prospect. Armed with an upper 90’s fastball and a mid-70’s curve, Cease wasted no time annihilating most of the Midwest League in April. Over five starts, he pitched 23.2 innings with a 1.90 ERA while striking out 37. Opponents hit a measly .177 against him. The only weakness was that he issued 15 walks.

For his efforts, Cease earned Midwest League Pitcher of the Week after he no-hit Great Lakes for 6 innings and was named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month.

Come May, however, things were not quite as rosy. Cease’s first start was his normal five-inning affair as he struck out 6 and allowed one run on three hits. His second start saw him struggle through only 3.2 IP with 89 pitches. He struck out seven, but gave up six hits. On May 18, his season changed quickly when he rolled his ankle covering third base. He tried to pitch again but was removed from the game after only 1.2 IP and 36 pitches. Cease would not return to the mound for almost a month.

That kind of time on the shelf can be hard for any pitcher, but it’s really impactful at these lower levels when development is so key. It’s almost like starting spring training over. And that is how the Cubs have handled Cease in his return. In a coincidental twist, he threw 36 pitches in 1.2 IP when he came back on June 11. Five days later, he went 2.0 innings and threw just 28 pitches. The Cubs probably could have stretched him out a bit more, but there may have been other factors in terms of the weather or even preset pitch or innings limits.

He got in a single inning of work in the Midwest League All-Star game on June 20, but you can’t really tell much from that.

A rain delay prior to the South Bend Cubs’ Sunday contest put Cease’s most recent start in jeopardy, but he was right there on the mound when they got underway. Sure enough, he looked, well, like Dylan Cease. As a strikeout pitcher, he sometimes has a tendency to throw a lot of pitches in an inning, especially early. That was the case Sunday, but the fastball sat 94-96 as Cease struck out two, one of them looking, and walked one. After 22 pitches in that opening frame, though, he would not come close to that in an inning the rest of the day.

Pretty much a two-pitch pitcher at this point, Cease’s fastball looked much better in innings 2-4. He was efficient and was able to command it better than in the 1st. The curve coming in at 74 is extremely hard for opposing hitters to handle, so when Cease can get ahead of hitters with the fastball, as he did in the latter three innings, he has a 1.74 ERA. When he falls behind, however, his ERA jumps to 6.23.

Hitting his spots with the heater Sunday, Cease went 10, 12 pitches, and eight pitches to finish his day. He walked two, but struck out five and didn’t allow a hit. He also picked a runner off at second and touched 97 in the 4th inning.

That’s the kind of performance Cease needs to be able to duplicate to excel at subsequent levels. If he can be efficient, strike guys out, and go deep into games, look out. I tend to think that 100 innings pitched at this level is a good solid number to build up additional arm strength and provide an accurate view of development. Cease is at 42.1 IP right now with about 12-13 starts left, so picking up five or six innings each time out would easily get him to triple digits.

Though it was was only four innings, this most recent start showed that he is slowly being built back up to be let loose in July. It also reaffirmed the promise of that arm.

Cease’s next start will likely be Friday, June 30 against Lansing.

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