Mize eager to compete for rotation spot

Detroit Tigers

The wall in Casey Mize’s man cave at his Nashville, Tenn.-area home includes a trio of framed jerseys from his career — one from his days at Auburn, another from Team USA and the No. 1 jersey the Tigers gave him when he signed as the first overall pick of

The wall in Casey Mize’s man cave at his Nashville, Tenn.-area home includes a trio of framed jerseys from his career — one from his days at Auburn, another from Team USA and the No. 1 jersey the Tigers gave him when he signed as the first overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft. They were looming over his shoulder, drenched by the midday sun through the window, as he talked with reporters on a Friday afternoon video conference as part of the Tigers’ virtual media week.

Absent from the collection was the No. 12 jersey Mize wore last year during his first Major League stint with Detroit. With an 0-3 record and a 6.99 ERA in seven starts with no fans in the stands, there wasn’t a whole lot to savor for the 23-year-old right-hander, but the mementos are reminders of his journey from an undrafted player out of high school to the No. 11 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s just-released Top 100 list.

Mize has room on the wall for more jerseys. He also has a strong belief that his best moments are ahead of him.

“I’m so glad to be a part of this organization, and especially now at the big league level, surrounded by great people all the time in a storied franchise,” Mize said. “I want so much for the Detroit Tigers, and it really motivates me to see some awesome moments in history, and I just want that for us in the future. So those are just small reminders that I get when I see that jersey. It’s something I’m looking forward to, and hoping to bring pride to Detroit and its fans.”

Amazingly, Mize is getting ready for his third Major League camp. He joined the big leaguers in 2019 to get a look at how they prepare for a season. His stint last year was meant for the Tigers, from manager Ron Gardenhire to owner Christopher Ilitch, to get a look at him before he continued his development.

Mize loves Spring Training and the learning environment and laboratory setting it provides. But when he arrives at Tigertown in a few weeks, he won’t be there just to learn. For the first time in his career, he’s fighting for a big league rotation spot.

“It definitely has a different feel,” Mize said.

Mize also has data to work with from his stint in Detroit to help him along:

Splitter
Mize’s splitter — the pitch that helped build his dominant record at Auburn — had more break and overall movement than its Major League comparison, plus a ridiculously low spin rate of 1,260 rpm, but it wasn’t as effective as it should’ve been. Opponents hit .313 off the pitch with a .469 slugging percentage and a .348 wOBA, according to Statcast.

“First start, I was super pleased with it,” Mize said. “And then honestly, throughout the season, I threw some really good ones and yanked a few and sailed a few and a bunch got hit. So a lot of people are wondering, ‘This is supposed to be amazing pitch, what’s up with it?’ Well, the thing is, the metrics didn’t change very much on the pitch. A lot that changed is when I was throwing it, what counts, the locations, things like that. If I’m throwing a 3-2, 3-1 splitter in the zone, somebody that might be looking for that is going to be able to drive it. It all depends on counts and locations, and unfortunately I was in a lot of hitter-friendly counts.”

Leverage counts
Opponents hit Mize for a .252 average and an .832 OPS last year, but a .478 slugging percentage. But there was a big difference in average after a first-pitch strike (.200) and first-pitch ball (.271), and a similar difference in pitcher-friendly counts (.143) compared with hitter-friendly (.385).

“Personally, I think you’re going to see what I know as the old me, just pounding the strike zone and overwhelming hitters with strikes,” Mize said. “Just having leverage on my side is really the goal, so I think I’m going to improve a ton in that area.”

Fastball command
Mize had surprisingly good results with his four-seam fastball, from a .143 average allowed (3-for-21) to a swing-and-miss rate around 28 percent, virtually the same as his splitter. He has talked with new pitching coach Chris Fetter and others in the organization about what made it work, and how he can use it to better set up his splitter.

“The common thing that everybody agreed on is the four-seam played pretty well, especially up in the zone,” Mize said. “A lot of times, that’s something that I did in the past that I just did late in counts, so maybe I throw that in a little bit earlier and utilize that pitch a little bit more instead of trying to really locate the four-seamer down and have it leak up in the middle part of the plate. That’s where the hitters were doing a lot of damage.”

Fetter’s arrival already is already paying dividends for Mize, who joined the Tigers’ system with an advanced comfort level for metrics and technology.

“He’s got a ton of knowledge,” Mize said. “He’s somebody that I’m looking forward to learning more from. We’ve already started that narrative. He obviously knows a lot about technology and data, but he goes beyond that as well. We’ve been able to find common ground.”

As for how many innings Mize will get to pitch this year coming off last year’s 60-game season, that’s still up for debate.

“I’ve prepared as if it was just a normal year,” Mize said. “I’ll go as many [innings] as they let me. I’m going to make that pretty known. I already have. So we’ll see what they decide. I told them my thoughts on the matter.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

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