Jim Leyland, Justin Verlander and a blueprint for Tigers calling up Casey Mize

Detroit Free Press

Jim Leyland approached Dave Dombrowski in spring training in 2006 with a request. Though based on their relationship, it was more a respectful demand from the Detroit Tigers’ first-year manager.

He needed Justin Verlander.

“I want to take Verlander and (Joel) Zumaya,” Leyland told Dombrowski, then the Tigers’ general manager.

“You don’t know what they’re gonna do,” Dombrowski said.

“No, but I know what has been going up (to the big leagues) for the last few years, and I know what they’re gonna do,” Leyland said, alluding to the 2005 team that had 91 losses.

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The Tigers hadn’t made the postseason since 1987, and Dombrowski had a prized possession in Verlander, the No. 2 pick from the 2004 draft. Realizing Leyland was right, he granted the request, putting Verlander in the starting rotation to begin the 2006 season.

“Ultimately, a roster decision of who gets on the club goes with the general manager,” Dombrowski told the Free Press on Saturday, “but I worked very closely with the manager, and we were on the same page in that regard.

“I thought (Verlander) would help us win at that time. Yeah, everybody was tired of losing.”

Fourteen years later, the Tigers are in a similar situation, except worse. Not only did they have the most losses (114) in baseball last season, they’re now operating with three starters in a stunted 60-game season, after Ivan Nova went on the injured list Saturday.

Which means, the Tigers once again need starting pitching help. Or in other words, they need Casey Mize, the No. 1 pick from the 2018 draft. And Mize could benefit from the same treatment the Tigers gave Verlander early in his career.

“When he gets his shot, is he going to come up there and tear it up? Nobody knows” Leyland told the Free Press on Saturday. “Do I think he’ll tear it up? No. Do I think he’ll do really, really good? Yes, I do. I think he’s really good.”

Like Verlander in 2006, Mize has shown he’s capable of being one of the Tigers’ best five starting pitchers right now. 

He put together a 2.55 ERA, 0.942 WHIP, 106 strikeouts and 23 walks in 109⅓ innings across 21 starts in the minors last season. He tossed a 98-pitch no-hitter in his Double-A Erie debut. He struck out Miguel Cabrera on three “filthy” pitches this July in summer camp and did enough to make manager Ron Gardenhire say, “I’d like to have him right now,” on July 14. 

[ Why didn’t Tigers call up Casey Mize? A deeper look at the factors at play ]

And yet, for all the similarities between Mize and Verlander at the dawn of their careers  — Mize is 23, the same age Verlander was in 2006 — there remains one distinct difference: the general manager that’s holding the Tigers’ prized prospect back this time. 

“When it’s his time, I’m sure Al Avila will let you guys know,” Gardenhire said Saturday.

Mize has been working out with the Tigers’ reserve squad in Toledo since summer camp broke in late July. He has looked good. And yet, after the Tigers shut him down early last season as a precaution, Avila has taken a conservative approach with bringing up the expected cornerstone of the franchise’s rotation in the years to come.   

“Our main thing with Casey, and really a lot of our young pitchers, is we want to get them more time to build up pitch count, build up innings, work on their repertoire and not just throw them in the fire in a shortened season,” Avila said on MLB Network Radio on Friday.

And yet at this point, with the Tigers working with a depleted rotation of lefty Matthew Boyd and righties Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer, it’s fair to wonder whether they can afford to wait any longer.

“I had all the faith in the world in Dave, and Dave trusted my judgement,” Leyland said. “I’d tell him I’d like to have this guy, and for the most part, he always gave me the guy if I wanted him.”

[ Detroit Tigers must call up top prospect Casey Mize right now. What are they waiting for? ]

‘It prepared him for 2006’

As a 22-year-old in 2005, Verlander made 20 starts between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, with a 1.29 ERA, 0.902 WHIP, 136 strikeouts and 26 walks in 118⅔ innings.

The numbers are nearly the same as what Mize produced at 22 years old in 2019, but without the no-hitter. Still, it’s easy to forget that even Verlander — an American League MVP and two-time Cy Young winner — struggled when he got to the big leagues for two spot starts in July 2005.

Verlander made his MLB debut July 4 against the Cleveland Indians. Dombrowski told him it was going to be a one-time start, no matter how well he pitched. That outing was only a brushstroke of a meticulous portrait the organization was painting.

[ Justin Verlander wins World Series with Detroit still close to his heart ]

“We thought the experience would be good for him that point,” Dombrowski said. “We also were in a position where we thought he could pitch well, but we also realized Justin, at that point, was more of a thrower. He was learning how to pitch, so we thought the experience of coming up gave him a good chance to learn some things.”

He exited after 5⅓ innings, allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks. Despite Dombrowski pleading for him to “pitch, not throw” in his debut, Verlander relied too much on his fastball, and the Indians made him pay. Still, he got another chance July 23 against the Minnesota Twins and went six innings, giving up five runs on eight hits and two walks.

From the time Verlander was drafted, he was under the impression he could get away with throwing 100 mph fastballs. He possessed a fastball, curveball and changeup, but he rarely used the changeup in the minor leagues.

He thought he didn’t need it.

Dombrowski’s goal was to prove him wrong, which is exactly what those spot starts accomplished.

“We thought it was very helpful for him to be ready,” Dombrowski said. “And, now, the one thing about Justin, and he’s a rarity, so talented, is that he continued to add pitches to his repertoire throughout the years. He had to be forced to throw (his changeup) because he was so good otherwise. Those are the things you realize when you get that exposure to the big leagues.”


‘You knew you had solid gold’

Dombrowski replaced manager Alan Trammell with Leyland before the 2006 season. And entering spring training, he kept an open mind about Verlander after hearing he had “great stuff and (a) big arm” from his MLB colleagues.

“He stood out like a sore thumb,” Leyland said.

[ Nerves, sweat and a phone call: How Casey Mize became Tigers’ top pick ]

And while it’s true Leyland didn’t expect Verlander to lead the Tigers to the 2006 World Series as the AL Rookie of the Year, he knew he wanted him on the Opening Day roster after just a few days of spring training — with Dombrowski’s blessing.

It proved to be an easy conversation. Verlander’s play had given Dombrowski no choice but to grant Leyland’s wish. He had dominated in the minor leagues and spring training, so if he would’ve stayed back, it would have created an uproar. 

“You force yourself on by pitching so well at the minor-league level,” Dombrowski said. “You’re basically in a position to say, ‘Well, I’m not sure what else he’s gonna learn down there, so it’s time to bring him up.’ That’s one way you force yourself on.”

Leyland made sure not to overwork the franchise’s cornerstone, but “pitchers are made to pitch, and I’ve always believed in that,” Leyland said. By the midway point of the season, he realized Verlander had the stuff of a potential Hall of Famer.

But he still took care of him.

“If I could see he was laboring a little bit, I might get him out of there a little bit earlier than normal,” Leyland said. “You were gonna protect him because you knew you had solid gold. I mean, this guy was different. These guys don’t come around very often.

“We knew pretty early that we had something special here, and if we could keep him healthy, he was going to be a successful pitcher for a long time.”

Mize craves what JV had

Verlander needed that experience in 2005 to emerge as a superstar in 2006. Likewise, Mize could benefit from advancing to the big leagues now.

And there might not be a better time to make it happen. 

Entering Sunday, Tigers starting pitchers (other than Turnbull) have given up a whopping 68 runs in 51⅓ innings. Boyd, who entered this season as the staff’s steady veteran, has a league-worst 10.24 ERA in four starts.

Ironically, Boyd might be the one with the most faith in Mize.

“He’s a guy that I know will help our ballclub win, whatever kind of aspect he does come in, and whenever that is or form that comes in,” Boyd said Aug. 4. “But he’s gonna help us win ballgames. That’s really exciting to know there’s a guy down there that can do that.”

In many ways, Mize’s pitch repertoire is more advanced than Verlander’s was at the same age. Mize doesn’t throw as hard (his fastball hovers around 94-95 mph), but he has an array of plus-pitches he has mastered to keep hitters off balance, including a nasty mid-80s splitter and slider — both with exemplary command.

Mize threw two innings Friday in Toledo, Leyland said, which means he could be available for a call-up as soon as Wednesday, which is when the Tigers have one of two rotation spots up for grabs.

“We’ve written this thing out about five different times and five different ways,” Gardenhire said. “We’ll get it all straightened out. There’s a lot of decisions to make.”

The final decision, however, will be made by Avila, who replaced Dombrowski in 2015, inheriting a roster that had to be rebuilt after years of overspending and the loss of All-Star talent, including Verlander in 2017.

Like Dombrowski with Verlander, Avila sees Mize as the Tigers’ future ace, saying July 20: “Our expectations are high that he’s going to be one of our workhorses.” And while service time was a concern of the Tigers’ entering the season, it no longer is. Instead, Avila has talked about building up Mize’s pitch count and innings and “not just throw (our top prospects) in the fire in a shortened season.”

And yet unlike Dombrowski, who believed the Tigers could contend in 2006, Avila doesn’t seem quite as sure about this year’s club. Or rather, the need to bring Mize up to help this year’s club.

[ Once projected to Detroit Tigers at No. 1, Royals’ Brady Singer now faces them ]

“You have finances that you deal with as you project forward,” Dombrowski said. “There’s so much that’s involved in those types of things, and every organization has to make those decisions for themselves. But you’re more apt, in a situation like that, if you think you can win and have a chance to win, one game can make a difference if you’re going to be in the playoffs or not.

“We just thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in a spot where we are going for it, and this guy is going to help us in.’ And we put him on our roster.”

The Tigers aren’t World Series contenders in 2020, but in a 60-game season and expanded 16-team postseason, there’s a legitimate playoff contender (they’re 9-9 entering Sunday). Most importantly, if you ask Mize, he will tell you he wants spot starts similar to what Verlander had in 2005.

And like Verlander, Mize is ready for the playoffs in 2021.

“I would love to go compete against big-league hitters and try to get as much experience as I can this season,” Mize said July 6 in summer camp. “To prepare to make a run in 2021.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content. 

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