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Devil’s advocate: Dylan Cease’s 14-game stretch is being overhyped

Dylan Cease and his awesome mustache

Dylan Cease and his awesome mustache
Photo: AP

00000111000111. In binary, that means “LJ” according to the free translator I just Googled, so take that translation with a grain of salt. In baseball, that string of numbers means “OMG”, because that’s exactly how many earned runs White Sox ace Dylan Cease has given up in each of his last fourteen starts.

In that stretch, Cease is 8-3 with a 0.66 ERA, 11.3 K/9, .171 BAA, and 1.05 WHIP. Also, despite all the success, he’s only pitched 82 innings during this stretch, or just under six innings per start. Originally, I was going to write an article detailing exactly how Cease managed to maintain this level of dominance over the last two and a half months. However, it has slowly devolved into trying to figure out how Cease has managed these figures, because the more I looked at them, the less they made sense.

“Wait! So you’re telling me he’s lost not once, not twice, but three times despite giving up one or fewer earned runs in fourteen straight starts?”

“How bad is his control if he’s holding opposing hitters to a .171 batting average, yet is still allowing 1.05 walks plus hits per inning?”

“I know 14 games is the longest streak since 1913 for pitchers allowing one or fewer earned runs, but it doesn’t feel that great.”

If those unsettling thoughts are roaming through your head right now. They are all valid, and I’m here to make sure you know that they’re also incredibly accurate.

Since 1913, there’s only ever been one other pitcher to allow six or fewer earned runs over the course of 14 starts. However, it’s never been replicated in a single season. Former Cubs pitcher and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta technically did it three times across 23 starts spanning from July 30, 2015, to May 3, 2016. I’m just going to look at his best 14-game stretch in that span. In that span, Arrieta went 13-0 across 104 innings pitched with a 0.52 ERA, a 0.615 WHIP, 103 strikeouts, eight total runs allowed, and only three home runs allowed.

Every single statistic I just mentioned is better than what Cease has done during his streak, except strikeouts. Cease struck out more batters in fewer innings, but in everything else, Arrieta reigns supreme. The most alarming differences between the two are total runs allowed and WHIP. While Arrieta allowed only eight total runs over the course of his best stretch, Cease has surrendered 16, meaning that 10 of those runs have been unearned.

“That’s not his fault!” you might be thinking to yourself. “He can’t control what his defense does!” and you’re correct. He can’t. That’s why unearned runs are a statistic. However, that’s where Cease’s WHIP comes in. See, during this 14-game stretch, Cease has walked 36 batters, twice as many as Arrieta did in 22 fewer innings than Arrieta pitched.

Cease’s lack of control consistently puts runners on base. In fact, Cease has allowed at least one baserunner in 53 of the 82 innings he’s pitched in this stretch. That’s not total baserunners. That’s just the number of times he’s allowed any baserunners in an inning. Is that number higher than you thought it would be? Probably, and that’s where Cease’s magical stretch falls apart statistically.

While he can’t control how poorly his defense plays — they’ve committed 11 errors during this stretch — that doesn’t mean those runs are entirely on the defense. An error doesn’t mean a run has to be scored, as evidenced by Cease’s July 17 start against the Twins. The White Sox committed two errors. Still, the Twins couldn’t score. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cease’s June 9 start against the Dodgers.

In the fifth inning of that game, White Sox third baseman Jake Burger committed an error that could’ve ended the inning. Instead, the bases were loaded with just one out. Cease struck out the next batter. The inning should definitely be over at this point, so any runs Cease surrenders from now until the end of the inning would be unearned.

Cease proceeded to give up three straight hits (two for extra bases), then walk two batters, then throw a wild pitch, then finally finish the inning. Three batters that weren’t on base at the time of the error came around to score. Cease couldn’t record a single out for five straight batsmen, yet all those runs were unearned. That’s obviously not all on him, but I’d argue that it’s more on him than the goose egg under the earned runs column makes it seem.

Since 1913, there have been 65 14-game stretches where a pitcher started all 14 games and had an ERA under 1. Cease’s 16 total runs allowed is the 12th-most and the most since Dave Stieb did so between parts of the 1982 and 1983 season. Cease also has the fewest innings pitched, the lowest combined Game Score (66, according to Baseball-Reference), and is the only pitcher on the list to have a WHIP over 1.0 during their streak.

I’m not saying that Cease’s streak hasn’t been impressive. It’s been remarkable, and Cease is establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. However, the lack of earned runs allowed has cloaked the reality of Cease’s situation. Yes, Cease has flashed an immaculate array of pitches, and ever since he tweaked his slider, it’s been one of the best pitches in MLB, but he’s also got some serious control issues that constantly force him to pitch out of the stretch and put him in dangerous situations all too often.

Cease has a 0.66 ERA in his last 14 starts. There’s no denying the awesomeness of that figure. He also has a 2.76 FIP and an expected FIP of 3.28. When your defense commits an error that allows the inning to continue and scores two runners from first and second, that sucks. You can’t blame the pitcher for that, but why were there runners standing on first and second, to begin with? If you’ve put yourself in a position to be let down should your teammates make a mistake or your opponents get lucky, then you haven’t put yourself in a very good position. Cease is great, but let’s not pretend that he’s the next coming of deGrom, please.

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