A young pitcher with great promise. A first full season in the major leagues that didn't go according to plan. An offseason working with Ethan Katz.
Dylan Cease will be quite happy if the parallels with teammate Lucas Giolito don't end there.
Cease is fresh off what he admitted was a frustrating and disappointing 2020 campaign, one that ended with what he wasn't highlighted for the world to see.
It was rookie Dane Dunning, not Cease, that got the start for the White Sox in the decisive third game of their AL Wild Card Series. Dunning didn't stick around long in that game (and has since been traded), but he was still viewed as a more reliable choice than Cease, who despite a big ERA drop from his own rookie season a year earlier — a 4.01 mark in 2020 compared to the 5.79 number he finished 2019 with — struggled with walks, home runs and repeated jams throughout the season.
"It’s definitely disappointing," Cease told Our Chuck Garfien on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast. "I can’t be angry or upset with anyone but myself in that situation. Dane pitched really well (during the regular season), so I understood it.
"If I want to be that guy, I have to perform better, at the end of the day. It was very disappointing.
“Just in general, the year wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to go. But something like that, it makes you assess. It makes you go, 'Hey, we’ve got to work on this, we’ve got to fix this, and we have to make it better or it’s not going to work out.' With where I’m at, I know I have to be better.
"But hopefully it’s just part of the process and I can look back and say, 'I struggled for that amount of time, but it kind of showed me what I needed to work on and I was able to implement drills and work with Ethan on it.' I’m hoping to look back on it and be able to just laugh."
Katz is the new pitching coach on the South Side, perhaps the most notable claim to White Sox-specific fame on his strong resume that he helped Giolito turn things around. Katz was Giolito's pitching coach at Harvard-Westlake High School in Southern California, and years after helping turn Giolito into a first-round draft pick, he helped Giolito — who had the worst numbers of any starting pitcher in baseball in 2018, his first full season in the bigs — into an All Star and no-hitter-thrower.
Now that he's employed by the White Sox, Katz's new assignment is clear: working the same magic with Cease.
"Gio’s definitely talked about (Katz), mentioned how he helped transform him," Cease said. "He’s very calm, reassuring, is always looking for my input. He’s always got something for me. He’s as much as I could ask for, and I’m excited to work with him.
"He’s a great communicator. I think one of the big things with him is he definitely listens. I feel like he’s taking my input and helping me work in the right direction and kind of mold what I’m saying. Good communicator, good listener, great pitching coach."
According to both the coach and the pitcher, that work is underway.
The stakes are obvious: Even after adding Lance Lynn to form a potent 1-2-3 pitching punch with Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, the White Sox are going to need a championship-caliber rotation if they're going to meet their championship-level expectations in 2021. Cease and fellow talented-but-unproven youngster Michael Kopech will likely be the difference between having an elite starting staff and still requiring more on the starting-pitching front.
The fixes, of course, are less obvious, or at least more difficult to implement. If it was easy, Cease wouldn't have struggled the way he did throughout 2020. According to Cease, he's working on his mechanics, working on his delivery, working on removing some of the cut from his fastball, working with the same "core velocity belt" that Katz got Giolito to use. In this pandemic-afflicted world, Cease is sending videos of his work to Katz multiple times a week.
It doesn't take a baseball Einstein to know that Cease's biggest issue is finding the strike zone after he walked 34 batters last season, the second highest walk total in the majors. But that's the next step. Right now, it's still in the beginning. You've got to crawl before you can walk, you know.
Or rather, in this specific instance, before you walk less.
"For me, right now, it’s purely just my focus on mechanical work and preparing my body for the season," Cease said. "But as I continue to throw more and get off the mound and start fine tuning things, it kind of turns more to getting ready to compete.
"But right now it’s still the building-block phase. I’m focusing on what I have to do to make myself execute better.
"If I execute pitches, I’m that guy."
"That guy" would be a nice addition for the White Sox. And he could be the difference between the team meeting its lofty goals and not.