I once heard a story about conditioned behavior in animals and insects that stuck with me ever since. Fleas are capable of leaping dozens of times their own height, but if you raise them in tiny glass cases, they’ll eventually stop jumping so high and you can start a traveling flea circus. In much the same way, an elephant could easily break the chain tethering it to its spot under the big top, but it learned as a baby that it was unable to do so.
Though we’d like to believe we humans are smart enough to avoid such learned behavior, it’s obvious we’re not all that different from our fellow multicellular organisms in that regard. Which is why there’s a bit of fear in the case of a serious injury to an athlete that they won’t be able to return to the same high level of performance. Having undergone a knee reconstruction, I can attest to the mental hurdles being harder to clear than the physical ones.
And that’s just for a guy trying to play intramural basketball and floor hockey, so I can’t even imagine being a pitcher whose triple-digit-firing moneymaker had to be put back together. I guess it’s a good thing no one bothered to tell Dylan Cease about fleas and elephants.
Cease injured his right elbow in 2014, during his senior year of high school, and fell to the sixth round of the draft as a result. The Cubs were willing to gamble on the return of that elite velocity and the ever-increasing efficacy of Tommy John surgery, even if meant treating the young prospect with kid gloves for a couple years.
“The surgery changed me,” Cease told MiLB.com’s Curt Rallo. “For one, physically, it taught me to take care of my body and my arm better. I was able to work out that year off and learn a lot about my mechanics. As a person, any time you go through anything difficult, you’re going to learn from it. I think the experience definitely helped me grow up.
“I didn’t want to be in a rehab situation, but it gave me an opportunity to take a year and develop without having the pressure of playing. I developed the mental part of the game. That was one area where I thought I could definitely get better. The rehab experience gave me the opportunity to learn a lot, and now I’m applying it.”
In his return from elbow reconstruction in 2015, Cease pitched only 24 live innings over 11 appearances (eight starts) in the Arizona Rookie League. Last year saw him throw only 44.2 innings over 12 starts at short-season Eugene. The stats from those two campaigns almost don’t even matter, as the only real focus is on regaining a feel for pitching and building strength and experience as deliberately as possible.
This year, however, the limitations appear to have been removed almost entirely. The Cubs are still going to closely monitor their top pitching prospect — one of the very few impact arms in the system, period — and will avoid really testing his limits at this point, but he’s back on a more standard developmental path.
“I don’t put too much stock into [expectations],” Cease said. “I’m in low A right now, and I’m a lot of levels away, and we have a ton of good pitching. I’m taking it day-by-day and trying not to get carried away with stuff.
“I think the main thing for me is just to get experience. You don’t want to change or tinker every game. I’m at the point where I’m happy with my mechanics. I’m not making adjustments. It’s just getting that feel, and that’s something that comes with time. I can’t rush that. It’s slowly but surely getting there.”
Cease has already logged 28.2 innings through six starts with South Bend this season, more than in 2015 and a full inning more per game than last season. And even though I said the stats didn’t really matter, those gaudy strikeout totals are hard to miss. Cease has struck out 43 batters already, 10 more than the combined total of hits and walks he’s allowed. If there is a concern at all, though, it’s with those walks.
With 17 free passes issued, Cease is walking 5.02 batters per 9 innings pitched. Only three MLB starters have numbers that high, and only 20 more are even at 4.0 or higher. Of course, no big league starters can match Cease’s 13.50 K/9 and only 15 of them are even posting a number greater than 10.0 at this point. So while a K/BB ratio of 2.5:1 isn’t terrible, neither is it ideal. And lest you think I’m getting it twisted, I know full well that we can’t expect these numbers to persist.
And that could be the real troublesome part for Cease. Hitters in the Midwest League aren’t nearly as discerning at those further up the organizational ladder, which means he’s really going to need to tighten things up moving forward.
Then again, elite velocity plays at any level. If Cease can continue to harness the power of his right arm while reining in the control issues, he’s going to be on the fast track to Chicago. He will continue to work on things in South Bend for a while, after which a promotion to Myrtle Beach could be in order late in the season. The organization has shown a desire to have their prospects play in the postseason, though, which could dictate where Cease’s season ends.
Assuming he maintains health and a high level of performance, neither of which is a given, 2018 could be a very interesting season. It’s very possible Cease could begin the year at AA Tennessee, which is generally the level at which you find the best raw stuff among pitching prospects. If he’s able to command that heater and more consistently locate his power curve, while also developing his changeup, it’s not beyond reason to think he could see Chicago by the end of the season.
That’s a pretty aggressive trajectory, no doubt, but it’s very achievable if Cease can exhibit even a little more control. Can you imagine having this kid in the capable hands of Chris Bosio? Oh my, that’s all kinds of exciting.