PHOENIX – If there’s been one constant throughout Dylan Cease’s time in the White Sox’ organization, it’s people predicting big things for him.
“I feel like if we get him to where we see him going,” Yasmani Grandal said of Cease back in the spring of 2021, “this guy could be a Cy Young finalist. He could possibly be a Cy Young winner. He’s got the tools to do it, there’s no doubt on that.”
Fast forward two years, and Cease has indeed become a Cy Young finalist. He finished runner-up to Justin Verlander last year after a spectacular campaign that elevated him to the status of not only the ace of the South Side staff but one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“When I said it,” Grandal followed up Sunday, “you (media) guys kind of laughed it off.”
The lesson? Never doubt Grandal, I guess.
But the White Sox catcher has a new challenge for the young right-handed pitcher this year.
“Anybody can have one good year. That’s just plain and simple,” he said. “He’s got to be able to do it over again, over and over and over again. Over and over, that’s the only way you’re going to build a career for yourself.
“In order to make sure that everybody knows that it wasn’t a one-year fluke type of thing, he’s got to repeat it again. I’m looking forward to that. Obviously, he’s learned a lot, he’s come a long way. You all know what I think of him and what I think he can do. I’m excited for him.”
Doing it again is tough enough, but can Cease top 2022? That seems to be the consensus around White Sox camp, and Cease himself is focused on exactly that, somehow being better than the 2.20 ERA and 227 strikeouts that vaulted him to second place in the Cy Young vote.
It’s not that there’s no room to improve, and Cease’s baseball-leading walk total of 78 is an obvious target area. It’s just that Cease was so dominant throughout last season, whether the near no-hitter he tossed against the Twins or the consistent run prevention that ended with a jaw-dropping streak of 14 straight outings with one or zero earned runs allowed.
Really? Better than that?
“There’s still a ton of growth, in my mind, with him,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said Saturday. “(In) ‘21 he took a big step. In ‘22 he took another huge step. He’s a very talented kid, and we are going to look to keep on progressing and keep on challenging with new information and new things to keep having him grow as a pitcher. He takes a lot of stuff and retains it and is able to apply quickly. That makes it a lot easier on the coaching side.”
“I expect a lot of myself and just want to keep growing and maintain it,” Cease said last week. “I’m definitely not just riding last year into this year and saying I don’t have to try or anything. I feel even more motivated to try and be as good if not better than I was last year.”
Opposing hitters, take note.
So how does Cease go from near Cy Young winner to even better than that? Well, cutting down on those aforementioned walks is a focus this spring. But it’s easy to say you want to walk fewer batters. It’s another thing to go out and do it. How’s he going to eliminate the free passes, a category he’s led the AL in twice in the last three seasons?
“I think a big thing is just having that next level of focus with what I’m doing,” Cease told CHGO on Sunday. “As simple as it sounds, keep my eye on the target the entire time. Little things like that, where over the course of 162 games, there can be times when maybe the focus isn’t as great as it could be.
“With Major League Baseball, there’s a lot going on, so for me, it’s just having that next level of focus and commitment to doing it. I know I can do it, so it’s just doing it more consistently.”
I got a crash course in how tough it is to focus during baseball action in the middle of this very interview. As Cease was saying that answer, we heard the “heads up” indicating a foul ball flying over from batting practice. And considering one drilled me in the foot earlier in the day, I momentarily took my focus off my interview subject.
A silly example, perhaps, but a real-life one nonetheless of how you can still need a reminder to focus on something you’ve done a million times.
If Cease can zen out on the mound and drill down on putting his nasty stuff where he wants it to go, those walks will come down and the pitcher who was among the game’s finest in 2022 will pull off something really special: somehow being better than he was a year ago.