Jim Leyland went to visit Detroit Tigers right-hander Casey Mize on Friday, just five days before his MLB debut. At the time, he had no idea when the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft would get his call to the big leagues.
Neither did manager Ron Gardenhire. It was on general manager Al Avila’s schedule.
“These guys had a pretty good plan with this thing the whole time,” Gardenhire said Monday. “As a manager in the big leagues, you got enough to deal with. … You don’t think about it until they say, ‘We’re going to bring these guys up.’ Now you start thinking about it.”
Leyland watched Mize pitch at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, where the reserve squad competes in intrasquad games. He only tossed two innings because of rain in the area, but Leyland — the Tigers manager from 2006-13 — remained steadfast in just how stellar the prospect could become.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s good,” Leyland told the Free Press on Saturday. “He’s good.”
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Leyland, now a special assistant to Avila, then compared Mize to likely Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.
Fifteen years separate their debuts, but the right-handers feature plenty of similarities. They were each the Tigers’ top pick in a draft — Verlander at No. 2 overall in 2004 and Mize at No. 1 two years ago. They both dominated the minor leagues as 22-year-olds. One needed spot starts in 2005 to prepare; the other gets to pitch in a 60-game season. And the Tigers needed Verlander to help the organization snap out of a 19-year postseason drought. This time, they need Mize to help pull them out of a rebuild.
But Leyland, 75, looked beyond the obvious.
“I think their competitiveness,” Leyland said. “Both were very proud and competed to the hilt. They both loved the challenge and accepted the challenge. They both had that bulldog mentality that ‘I’m not coming out of a game and I’m gonna go pitch nine innings.’ That doesn’t happen very often.
“That similarity in competitive nature is definitely there.”
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Avila made his decision to call up Mize on Monday, more than a month after Gardenhire said, “I’d like to have him right now,” before the Opening Day roster was announced.
This comes as the Tigers only have three starting pitchers remaining — lefty Matthew Boyd and righties Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer — after right-hander Ivan Nova went to the 10-day injured list Saturday. Boyd has a league-worst 9.74 ERA, and Fulmer is on a pitch limit as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
It became time for Mize.
“We have the greatest need right now, but more importantly, we felt that both pitchers (Mize and lefty Tarik Skubal) are ready to pitch at this time,” Avila said Monday. “As far as their progress, Jim Leyland, who was just at Comerica Park for the weekend, was also in Toledo watching these guys pitch.
“And (he) also made the recommendation.”
There was a buzz, even without social media, about Verlander for his July 4, 2005, debut against the Indians. He pitched on the road, which is exactly what Mize will do Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox — albeit without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The organization, as well as the fan base, was “tired of losing,” then-general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Free Press, adding there was a “totally different feeling” with Verlander on the rise.
The Tigers’ rebirth began with the signing of Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez in 2004, as well as bringing up 20-year-old Jeremy Bonderman in 2003. Adding Verlander, right fielder Magglio Ordonez, center fielder Curtis Granderson and reliever Joel Zumaya on a full-time basis for the 2006 season gave them an added boost.
However, Verlander’s dominance as AL Rookie of the Year likely was aided by his two spot starts in 2005.
“Those are tremendous difference-makers with young people, so having those guys on your club, it brings energy,” Dombrowski said. “When your fans see it’s real, then it also contributes. I mean, it helps with that, but I would never bring up a player just to try to create that (energy) because you wouldn’t want to hurt a player if he wasn’t ready.”
There might not be anybody who understands this better than Pittsburgh Pirates assistant hitting coach Mike Rabelo, who grew up in the minor leagues with Verlander and mentored Mize as Double-A Erie’s manager in 2019.
Rabelo, a former catcher, reflected on Verlander’s first Double-A appearance in 2005. While he wasn’t Verlander’s battery mate (it was Max St. Pierre), he watched in awe June 21 as Verlander carved up the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
The big righty fired seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts, allowing just one hit and one walk.
“First nine guys, he punched out seven or something ridiculous,” Rabelo said. “It was very, very clear that, one: this dude wasn’t going to be here very long at the Double-A level. Two: I don’t think he needs to go to Triple-A and, three: he’s gonna be a star.”
And though Rabelo says he can’t remember what he ate for dinner yesterday, he won’t ever forget the masterpiece Verlander displayed, one day after joining the SeaWolves.
“I’ve never seen a guy be able to do what he was doing at that age (22 years old),” Rabelo said. “He started throwing 100 mph, and he’s pitching backward. He’s throwing 2-0 changeups, you know, commanding. Right now, that’s a premium, and he was doing that 15 years ago.”
But Rabelo has seen someone similar..
On April 29, 2019, the first Double-A appearance of Mize’s career, he tossed a 98-pitch no-hitter with seven strikeouts and one walk against the Altoona Curve. Again, Rabelo watched in awe — this time as the ballclub’s manager.
“When you have the premier starting pitchers, there’s just something about them, man,” Rabelo said. “They just tear through the minor leagues and they never seem challenged. The whole deal is that when Casey or Justin pitches, those guys stop losing streaks and start a winning streak.
“That’s exactly what you have with Justin and, hopefully, for years to come with Casey.”
Verlander and Mize are the same in their prospect projections — two workhorses that should anchor the rotation for several seasons, and maybe even pitch the organization out of its hardships. The bar was set high by Verlander with two World Series appearances (2006, 2012), and it’s now Mize’s turn.
“They’re hoping that this guy’s going to be a cornerstone for years to come,” Rabelo said. “With this rebuild, those guys are getting close — all of them. And they want Casey, along with Matt (Manning) and Tarik leading the charge.”
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Despite all of this, remember that Mize is not Verlander. Sure, they have clear parallels, but there are differences — most notably the pitch repertoire.
Where Verlander used a fastball, curveball and changeup in his early 20s, he only relied on his 100 mph fastball and lacked changeup command against MLB hitters until 2006. Mize seems more advanced with plus-command of his fastball, a renowned mid-80s splitter and a complementary slider, even though he doesn’t throw his fastball as hard, at 94-95 mph.
“It’s funny,” Rabelo said. “We called him the professor last year because he dives deep into the analytics. He really takes pride in his craft and enjoys it. … I don’t think anybody’s gonna question whether he’s ready or not.”
Also, Verlander didn’t have injuries in college and early in his minor-league career. Meanwhile, Mize had a “severe high ankle sprain” in high school, an ongoing arm issue at Auburn and minor inflammation in his right throwing shoulder which shut him down in 2019.
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Before Verlander got a full season of work in 2006, Dombrowski and Leyland couldn’t accurately predict what he would become. But once they saw him on a consistent basis, they recognized he could be great.
Leyland feels the same about Mize.
“We were fortunate enough to get him,” Leyland said. “He was No. 1 on everybody’s list. He’s got that kind of stuff. He’s got great makeup. He’s a very fierce competitor.
“When he gets his shot, is he going to come up there and tear it up? Nobody knows. 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.”
With Wednesday’s start in Chicago, Leyland will begin to find out if his assessment, and his comparison to Verlander, is correct.
“I can control my focus, and I can do a lot of scenario planning,” Mize said Tuesday about his mentality. “If this happens, how am I going to respond mentally? How am I going to respond physically, whether that’s good or bad? I just really try to plan ahead for things that can happen.
“Nothing is really foreign to me at the moment.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.