The ace pitcher who's the King of Swords

January 6th, 2024

Statcast just debuted a brand new stat -- swords -- which uses bat tracking data to classify the awkward half-swings that result from a particularly nasty pitch ... like the hitter is chopping at the ball with a sword. 

A "sword" is the type of baseball phenomenon that we've never been able to officially measure until now, thanks to the Hawk-Eye technology that now powers Statcast. But you know a sword when you see it. It's the type of swing that looks like this:

You can read all about swords here. But we know what you're wondering: Who's the best in the big leagues at getting those ugly swings? So here's an appreciation of the pitcher at the top of the Statcast swords leaderboard.

is the King of the Sword.

The White Sox ace -- who just so happens to be one of the hottest names on the trade market this offseason -- generated more "swords" than any pitcher in the Majors in 2023. Cease got even more sword swings (55) than Spencer Strider (52), who led MLB with 281 strikeouts.

Cease had plenty of K's, too -- 214 of them, eighth-most in the big leagues -- and plenty of those K's were punctuated by swords.

You can see by the names around Cease that a high number of swords is the mark of a dominant strikeout artist. The reigning NL Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, is up there. So is former winner Corbin Burnes. And nearly every pitcher in the top 10 is an ace.

But Cease tops them all. And when you look at his stuff, it's no wonder why he's a master of inducing the sword.

Most of Cease's swords come on his slider. That makes sense -- for a power pitcher with a high-velocity four-seam/slider combo, the slider is the pitch that can make a hitter look the most foolish. A hard slider like Cease's, which comes in at 86-87 mph, looks a lot like his fastball until it's too late for the hitter to stop his swing.

It's that moment of misrecognition, where the hitter thinks he's swinging at Cease's 95-plus mph four-seamer only to realize the pitch is a slider after he's crossed the point of no return, that causes a sword.

"I think the hitter's reading a heater, and if my slider's good, and it's coming out of the hand good, it's gonna look like a heater down the middle, essentially," Cease said this week in an interview with Rob Friedman, aka Pitching Ninja, who popularized the term "sword" on social media and worked with MLB's Statcast team to turn swords into a stat.

"So I think they're seeing the heater, they're being aggressive -- all the stud hitters are aggressive, they're trying to drive the ball -- and if [the slider is] well-executed, it's gonna look like it's down the middle and it's just gonna end up at their ankles. It's kind of just that [point in the swing where] it's too late."

Cease forces those hopeless swings from the best hitters in the world. In 2023, he got swords against Mike Trout, Ronald Acuña Jr., Yordan Alvarez, Fernando Tatis Jr., Nolan Arenado, José Ramírez, Rafael Devers, Adolis García, Christian Yelich, Jorge Soler, Bobby Witt Jr. and more.

Let's take a look at five of Cease's best swords from the 2023 season -- five swords against five-star hitters from around the Majors.

1) Sept. 29 vs. Fernando Tatis Jr.

In this matchup from Cease's final start of the season, Tatis just had no idea what was coming. The sword pitch, a slider for the strikeout, was just the final note of an at-bat where Cease forced an incredible five check-swings from the Padres star. Tatis just barely held up on three of them, one he fouled off by dumb luck … and the last one sent him back to the dugout.

"The Tatis ones, definitely I remember," Cease said. "How would I describe it. … It's one of those things where it's kind of a confidence booster -- if they're chasing out of the zone like that and obviously not reading it, then it really opens up everything, because they're caught in-between.

"So if you go 97 away, they're probably gonna foul it off or swing and miss, and then you throw a nasty slider, it's very difficult [to lay off]. So that was a specific at-bat where he just wasn't reading it."

2) July 7 vs. Nolan Arenado

Another beauty of a sword for a strikeout. Cease closed out this at-bat vs. the Cardinals star with three straight sliders. The fastball that Arenado was looking for never came. 

Cease vs. Arenado in this game was the perfect example of the back-and-forth showdowns between a great pitcher and great hitter. Arenado also homered off Cease in the game; but Cease got the filthy sword K.

"In the moment, really, it's just a battle. As much as they can look bad on one pitch, the next one they can take you deep," Cease said. "I'm not going in the dugout [after a sword] and being like, 'Hey, did you guys see that? I had eight of those.' Maybe after the game. But definitely not during the game."

3) May 13 vs. Yordan Alvarez

Cease gets swords on his other pitches, too, not just his slider. Here's one that came on a fastball that completely tied up one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. A 96 mph heater up and in is tough to handle, especially when you throw a rising fastball like Cease does.

Thanks to Cease's high spin rate -- his four-seamer averaged 2,519 rpm last season -- his fastball gets about three inches more "rise" than an average fastball. That forces swings and misses … or, in this case, swords … because the hitter thinks the pitch will be lower than it is and starts his swing in the wrong place.

"When [my four-seamer is] going right, I get really good ride, so it can look like it's down the middle, but end up being at the neck," Cease said. "It's hard for me to say [what the hitters are thinking], because obviously I'm not in the box seeing it. But I probably threw a couple of sliders, so they've got the slider in their mind, because they know that's my biggest swing-and-miss pitch, and then when it's a firm fastball in a good spot, it's difficult [to lay off] as well."

4) July 27 vs. José Ramírez

Ramírez doesn't swing and miss often -- he whiffed on barely 15% of his swings last season, ranking in the 94th percentile of MLB hitters. But Cease got him on two swords in one game against the Guardians last July.

This one was the more dramatic of the two swords. Ramírez had no hope of stopping his swing once he'd started, and he looked none too pleased with himself after ending up a sword victim.

5) Aug. 13 vs. Christian Yelich

This was one of Cease's most aesthetically pleasing swords of the year -- a perfect slider in the lefty dead zone down and in, with Yelich's bat passing in slow motion far over the top of the pitch, nowhere close to the ball.

A few pitches later, Cease struck out Yelich on a nearly identical slider to the same spot, and it was another check-swing for the K. Yelich still couldn't lay off after his sword.

But who could blame him? Cease just does that to people. He's the Sword King for a reason.