Risk-reward? Tigers won’t discourage Casey Mize from using split-fingered fastball

Detroit News

Cleveland – Forgive Casey Mize if he doesn’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. He’s been throwing a split-fingered fastball since he was a kid, playing catch with his father in the driveway, trying to regain the feel for the change-up that had eluded him suddenly.

His dad suggested he spread the ring and index finger on his grip. Voila. The rest is history. Well-documented history, as a matter of fact. 

So, to be answering questions about it so many years later, after it helped him dominate hitters at Auburn and made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft – well, it’s kind of like, where’ve you been?

But Mize gets it. The splitter is a new phenomenon to Tigers fans, who witnessed its devastation in his big-league debut against the White Sox, punching out four hitters with it. That hasn’t been seen around here for a couple of decades, not since Jack Morris was charting his path to the Hall of Fame with the pitch.

“I talked to Jack a couple of times about it,” said Mize, who will make his Comerica Park debut Monday against the Cubs. “When I got called up to Double-A and I got a call from him. He talked about taking care of my body. It’s taxing for everybody to go out and do what we do, but I guess it’s especially taxing if you throw a splitter.”

That’s the overriding concern. The Tigers have invested heavily in Mize and it’s been determined by medical studies that throwing the splitter puts unusual stress on the shoulder and forearm. That’s why the pitch has faded from the landscape in recent years. It’s why Mize is the only pitcher in the Tigers’ organization who throws it.

More: Wojo: Tigers’ Casey Mize stirs up promising reasons to believe he belongs

Mize said he’s never been discouraged from throwing the pitch by anyone in the Tigers’ organization.

“Everybody has been on board with it,” he said. “They’ve allowed me to stick to it and I’m really appreciative of that. It’s been a really good pitch for me. It’s a weapon and I’d like to hold on to it for as long as I can.”

Pitching coach Rick Anderson intends to let him do just that.

“It’s a pitch he had all through college and he was successful,” he said. “He’s been healthy, so you kind of have to run with that. … It’s not something we really want to teach here, but it’s something he had coming in and it’s been successful.”

Morris pitched 18 seasons in the big leagues, 3,824 innings – so, there is at least one argument to counter the risk appraisal on splitter usage.

“It’s all about taking care of your arm and I feel I’ve done a good job with that for a long time,” Mize said. “That was introduced to me at Auburn. I do take care of my body well and attack arm-care stuff – shoulder care and forearm care. The whole body, really.

“It’s true, you really have to take care of your body with this, and I am committed to doing that.”

His more pressing issue between starts was getting his cutter back in form. Even though the White Sox didn’t do much damage against it (one hit), he left too many spinning in the middle of the plate for his own comfort.

“I felt like it was backing up on me a lot,” he said. “We needed to get on top of that and really hone that in. That’s a pitch I need to throw a bunch.”

More: How did Casey Mize’s debut stack up against other 1-1 pitchers?

The cutter (which is really a modified slider. In fact, Statcast reads it as a slider) has the highest spin rate of any of Mize’s pitches. It’s typically an effective neutralizer against left-handed hitters, a pitch he can work up and in, which helps set up the splitter, which he works at the bottom of the zone.

“Throwing it up and in to lefties is a quality pitch, and maybe back-door to righties every now and then,” he said. “Then just reduce the spin drastically with a splitter and it falls under the barrel. It can be a great combination.”

Even though it will be Mize’s first start at Comerica, manager Ron Gardenhire no longer worries much about Mize handling the moment.

“Just give him the ball,” Gardenhire said. “It’s what we’ve all been waiting for, it’s what we all want to see. It’ll be fun. I’m sure it’s another big moment for him, starting at Comerica Park, but we’ll just let him go.”

Nobody needs to worry about Mize’s battle-level, that is for sure.

“I’ve always been a super competitive guy,” he said. “I hate to lose. It’s something I learned from Coach (Butch) Thompson at Auburn. A quote he would always say to our pitchers – ‘Somebody wins every pitch.’ My mentality is to go out and win every pitch.

“I take that seriously and personal.”

Twitter @cmccosky

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