Youth and Strikeout Rate Boost WAR Projections for Dylan Cease

Dylan Cease is the best pitcher in a Chicago Cubs system yearning to develop big-league starters. The athletic righty slipped to the sixth round of the 2014 draft not because of questionable talent, but because of his then-forthcoming Tommy John surgery. If Cease hadn’t been ailing, he likely would have been atop every team’s draft list. Finally healthy and unleashed, the precocious prospect is striking out Midwest League (Low-A) batters at a higher rate than every one of his counterparts.

Age is the single greatest predictor of MLB success. Younger players at higher levels, who are likely there due to their because of their unique talent, naturally produce more value at the big-league level. Chris Mitchell’s KATOH model, which projects WAR over a player’s first six MLB seasons, shows a average increase in 1.3 WAR for each year younger a player is than the average for his level (see chart below).

Strikeouts are important as well, but consider that age predicts to five times greater WAR. Combining the two together, then, substantially increases the odds of a player becoming a successful starter.

Despite being just about a year younger than his average opponents, the 21-year-old Cease is blowing away Midwest League competition. While league-average K/9 hovers around 8.0, Cease’s K/9 is a league-best 12.9, roughly 50 percent higher than the league average (glowing, red dot in below graph). Based on age and K’s alone, the flame-throwing righty has some pretty lofty projections.

For a look at Cease in action, here’s a clip of a recent start in which he struck out six batters over five innings of work.

If there’s a buzzkill in all this talk of Cease’s projections, it’s the high walk rate. Indeed, his 4.53 BB/9 is suggests the need for further refinement. However, KATOH points out that BB% at Cease’s level is not robustly predictive of future success. And remember that we’re talking about a young man who missed a year following TJS and who was treated with kid gloves in his first season back. He could very well hone his command as he continues to mature as a pitcher.

With his impressive set of starts so far in 2017, we should expect to see Cease climb the KATOH leaderboards and scouts’ prospect lists just as surely as he’ll be moving up through the Cubs organization. This is the pitching prospect you’ve been asking for.

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