“I knew this was coming,” Lucas Giolito told CHGO on Tuesday. “The first time I saw his stuff, I was like, ‘OK, this guy will win a Cy Young eventually.’ And it could be this year.”
For Dylan Cease, it very well could be.
With a month and a half of baseball left to play before ballots are due, Tuesday’s much ballyhooed matchup between Cease and Justin Verlander was not the end all, be all in the AL Cy Young race.
Actually, it’s hard to say any movement was made in that horse race. Cease was out after five innings, thanks to a ballooned pitch count. Verlander was typically dominant, for the most part, but watched a meager lead evaporate when Gavin Sheets tied the game with a two-run double in the seventh inning, Verlander’s last. Neither ended up the biggest difference maker in another comeback victory for the White Sox, who prevailed over the Astros for a second straight night, winning 4-3.
But while all eyes were on the present and what Cease might be able to accomplish at year’s end – it’s been almost three decades since a White Sox pitcher won the Cy Young – it was interesting to look at Verlander and wonder what might be coming years from now for the South Side right-hander.
Verlander is in the midst of a marvelous comeback season, returned to the Astros’ rotation following Tommy John surgery and turning in what could end up the best pitching season in the AL as a 39-year-old. Already with a couple Cy Young Awards and an MVP under his belt – not to mention nine trips to the All-Star Game and a World Series ring – Verlander is a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer. This season is merely the cherry on top of a ridiculously good sundae.
Justin Verlander? Again? Justin Verlander. Again.
Cease is on only his first remarkably good season, and looking ahead is not how he got here. But could he be in for a Verlander-type ride? It’s silly to ask, perhaps, considering Verlander’s already achieved immortal status in this game. But the way those closest to Cease talk about him, it makes you believe it’s a relatively reasonable question.
“Dylan does all the steps to prepare himself to have a very long career,” Ethan Katz told CHGO on Tuesday. “He’s constantly asking questions, wanting to get better. So I think there’s a lot of longevity ahead of him. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that need to happen. … But he definitely has a very bright future as he continues his career.”
“He’s proven this year that there is no ceiling. And that’s what he’s coming to realize, that he doesn’t have a ceiling,” Liam Hendriks told CHGO on Tuesday. “That’s something that every pitcher, player, manager goes through, where they put ceilings on themselves, and he’s realizing that he doesn’t have a ceiling. If he thinks he can do it, just go ahead and do it. … I think he’s realizing there’s no limits on his potential and what he can bring to the table, and the more he learns, the better he’s going to get.”
That’s something that kept popping up in my conversations with these guys, that Cease can keep getting better. It might be crazy to think about, considering Cease just finished a stretch of 14 consecutive starts where he allowed one or zero earned runs, a stretch that went down as one of the best in modern baseball history. His slider is the best pitch in baseball, so good it has inspired a work of poetry.
Better? He can be better than this?
“It’s an ongoing development for him still,” Katz said. “I still see a lot of steps that still need to happen. But it’s happening fast, and it’s a joy to watch. … It’s never a finished product in my mind ever, but he’s molding himself into a very elite starter in the big leagues, which is something that takes time. … He’s still got a lot more work to do – and I don’t want to say what that is, to give too much away – but he’s definitely still growing.”
“I think the sky’s the limit for him. I think you can arguably say, with the year that he’s having and him still being young and trending upwards, that he could have a career as good as anybody in this game has had,” Michael Kopech told CHGO on Tuesday. “I do think he can and I do think he will win a Cy Young, and I hope that’s this year for him. … I think the sky’s the limit. The guy’s going to have an incredible career.”
The day before he took on the future Hall of Famer, Cease talked about how he used to watch Verlander on TV when he was a kid. Heck, Cease was just 11 years old when Verlander made his first All-Star Game in 2007. This was a fun matchup for Cease not because it was a measuring stick against one of the game’s best but because it was him taking on one of his pitching idols.
“Back in the day, he would start out at 92 (miles an hour) and finish at 101,” Cease said. “I remember watching him a lot as a kid and seeing that. Just the fact that I’m here now and he’s still doing it, it’s pretty rare.”
Rarer still is already sharing some of the qualities Verlander has mastered in his career. It’s one thing to match the numbers. It’s another thing to show the same kind of greatness.
“The biggest thing this year is not only is he able to get ahead early in counts, but he’s able to limit the damage, which is one thing that’s very hard to teach, especially with starting pitchers, especially with younger guys,” Hendriks said. “It’s very hard to teach that mindset of, ‘OK, guys are on, this is where I buckle down.’
“Verlander is one of the best I’ve ever seen at that. I still remember an outing in 2012 or 2013. He gave up a leadoff double in the fourth inning, and I don’t think he threw a pitch below 98 for the rest of the at-bats. He just had another gear. And I think Dylan’s finding that other gear, with being able to go out there and be like, ‘OK, I’m in a little bit of trouble now, but bang, bang.’”
Cease has dominated plenty this season, but he showed he’s still growing by not getting out of one trouble spot Tuesday night. After issuing back-to-back walks to start the third inning – he’s got 58 of those on the season, a total that leads the majors – he gave up a pair of two-out doubles to switch a 1-0 White Sox lead into a 2-1 deficit. He served up a home run to José Altuve before making an earlier-than-desired exit, before the White Sox staged a second consecutive energizing, late-inning comeback.
“I was disappointed,” Cease said after the game. “It wasn’t my sharpest outing. But it was close enough to keep us in it, and then everyone else picked me up. Getting the win definitely helps.”
Even after a tough night, Cease’s ERA is still right around 2.00. If the Cy Young race had standings, he wouldn’t be any lower than second.
But as hard a worker as his teammates described him as – Hendriks said Cease “lives, eats and breathes” baseball when he’s at the ballpark – the best attribute he possesses to help him put Tuesday behind him might be his ability to step away from the game.
But here’s a new one:
“Now he’s talking about farming a lot,” Giolito said. “He’s into soil, so he’s been telling us about that. … I can’t confidently say I’ve met anyone that’s into soil like Dylan is.”
And then there’s the poem.
“Brilliant,” Kopech said.
“Creative,” Katz said.
“Unexpected,” Hendriks said.
As was made known in the “very sexy mustache” video, the poem supposedly came to Cease while he was listening to piano music in the shower. Katz said he heard it the day it was written. Giolito said it spread through the clubhouse like wildfire after Cease shared it with a couple teammates, and soon he was performing a dramatic reading for everyone on the bus during a road trip.
“That was a fun day when he came into the clubhouse and said, ‘Hey, I wrote a poem about my slider,’” Giolito said. “We’re already laughing. Then he actually read the poem. It was a funny day.”
“Very fitting for Dylan, if you know his personality,” Kopech said. “He brings a different perspective to the game, in a good way. He’s never going to be your big rah-rah guy. He’s pretty even-keeled, doesn’t show a lot of emotion. But he’s very insightful. He has something to say, but it’s always something that’s making you think outside the box. It’s a lot of fun to have him around.”
Hendriks, too, has been spotlighted for his non-baseball interests, and he’s explained his affinity for constructing LEGO sets as a way to clear his mind of all the work stuff and refocus himself. He said Cease is getting the same kinds of benefits from all his outside-the-lines activities.
“I think that’s also helped what he’s been able to do on the field, as well. He gets away from the game, which is a necessary thing for everyone to do,” Hendriks said. “You can inundate yourself with information, you can inundate yourself with all this sort of stuff, but if you get out there and have some different hobbies, get away from the game when you can, it makes it a lot more enjoyable when you get to come to the field.”
Even if Tuesday’s pitching matchup didn’t end up a duel for the ages, the South Side still got to see the two best pitchers in the AL throw off the same mound. Those fans didn’t need a reminder of Verlander’s excellence and longevity, of course. He spent enough time as a division rival.
But perhaps in their old foil, they got a preview of what their current star hurler could be doing years from now.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Cease said Monday, asked if he’ll be pitching until he’s nearly 40. “It’s hard to fathom. But I guess (Verlander) and (Max) Scherzer are kind of showing that if you take care of yourself, there’s no reason why your (velocity) or anything has to dip.
“Guys like that are making it easier to picture for sure.”