Mize’s struggles pave way for future success

Detroit Tigers

A couple years ago, Casey Mize was on Twitter, looking at his former pitching coach’s bio.

Between Steve Smith’s job title and a Bible verse lies a quote that struck a cord with Mize.

“Always about winning. Never only about winning.”

“I think I use that mindset,” the 23-year-old hurler said. “The ultimate goal is always to win; everything I do in baseball is to try to win. But is that the only thing I’ve ever focused on? No.”

In his baseball career, Mize has had a lot of wins. He’s been named to All-American, All-conference, All-tournament and All-Star teams; he’s earned pitcher of the week honors at multiple levels. His splitter was considered the field’s best pitch heading into the 2018 Draft where he eventually went No. 1 overall. Mize himself has 28 wins across college and pro ball, though perhaps what is more meaningful is that his teams are 46-32 when he pitches.

For many, 2020 meant more losses than wins. Mize was not immune to that, and more than just going 0-3 on the mound. After dreaming of his Major League debut for what feels like his whole life, Mize stepped on the field for Detroit on Aug. 19 without his family in the stands.

“I was expecting fans in the stands and not wearing a mask and not protocols and all that stuff,” he said. “So definitely not what I expected when I was a 12-year-old kid hoping to be a big leaguer.”

Mize was excited, but nervous. And he wanted to make sure the latter didn’t get in the way of enjoying the moment he worked so hard for.

The box score says the Tigers lost and Mize was tagged with three runs without getting out of the fifth. But it also says he struck out seven without issuing a walk, something no Detroit starter had ever done in a Major League debut.

After the game, Mize told reporters it was the most fun he had ever had while playing baseball.

“That definitely still holds true,” he reflects, almost seven months later. “It was just an amazing experience for me that I’ll never forget.”

As the season went on, the results were about the same each time. Mize would allow two or three runs each outing, but never got the innings needed to qualify for a quality start. The result was a 6.99 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 13 walks in 28 1/3 innings across seven starts.

Major League sluggers were hitting Mize in a way he hadn’t been hit before. The Auburn product allowed seven home runs in 123 Minor League innings. He also allowed seven home runs in those 28 1/3 Major League frames.

“I thought the big leaguers were doing a really good job with him with two strikes taking his splitter away,” Smith said. “There definitely wasn’t as much swing and miss. And then as I’ve continued to watch him, it looks to me like he’s gone more to his fastball to finish. His fastball is not straightening more. He’s got a lot more, a lot more movement and sink on it.”

Mize said he thrives on fans and hearing the crowd, so “maybe” that was part of the problem, but he added he doesn’t want that to be an excuse since every other pitcher and batter were dealing with the same, quiet ballparks.

After each start, Mize tried to stay positive, making sure to learn from each outing, taking extensive notes on the batters and the counts. And then it was right back to preparing for the next start.

“It’s just frustrating. You know, sometimes in this game we go through failure and it is what it is, you just got to do the best and move forward,” he said. “And I think I did a good job of that. Still showed up to the park every day and put some really quality work in and I had a good attitude about it, kept moving forward. So I’m proud of the way I handled that adversity.”

While it might be easy to look at a first overall pick, who reached the Majors two years after being drafted from a power-conference school as moving through his career with ease, Mize has had his bumps in the road.

Between losses, Mize would think back to his freshman year of college. The Alabama native bounced between the rotation and the bullpen for Auburn, going 2-5 with a 3.52 ERA in 69 innings. After being named the No. 4 high school player in the state, the results at the collegiate level were not what he expected.

That’s when Mize learned how to build a routine and to gain confidence in his work. There’s strength in truly knowing he’s prepared, beyond just that he knows he has the arsenal.

“He’s always prepared. And good or bad, he believes in his work; he believes in his process,” said Brett Wright, Mize’s catcher in college. “He just tries to master his craft before the game. And he just goes out there in game and just competes and trusts his stuff.”

As Mize sees it, he only gets to pitch every five days, so why not make the most of that time between starts to prepare to the best of his abilities, to work toward that ‘W.’

The mantra that has stayed with Mize was actually created by Smith, himself following what he describes as a tumultuous relationship with Baylor that ended in his firing. The coach was surprised and moved to learn Mize used his mantra as his own guide.

“I wasn’t his coach, I was more of his wall to bounce things off,” Smith said.

The former Minor League pitcher joined the Auburn coaching staff the fall of 2017, Mize’s sophomore year. While the right-hander was shut down during intrasquad action after playing in the summer, Smith called pitches for everyone on the staff. Over time, he noticed Mize watching him call games and told the pitcher not to worry about whether he’d call his games too.

“I said, ‘You had over 100 strikeouts last year and six walks,’” Smith told him. “I said, ‘The only decision I’m going to have to make when you pitch is whether I’m going to stand or sit.’”

The relationship worked out well for both until the NCAA Tournament. Smith noticed Mize struggling in the SEC Tournament, going to his fastball more than usual. So the night before playing Army, Mize asked Smith to call his game for him.

Smith was worried about the young pitcher losing confidence in himself, but also understood as a former player, sometimes you need one less thing to think about, so he agreed.

Through the first five frames, Mize allowed just one hit, meanwhile, his offense had already put up 10 runs.

“He said to me, ‘Are you having fun?’ Can you imagine a player looking at his coach and saying, ‘Coach, are you having fun?’” Smith recalled. “And I looked at him and I just laughed because most times you’re the one asking the player that, right? And he’s asked me. I looked at him, I said, ‘You know, Case, it is kind of like playing a video game.”

Along with his time at Auburn, Mize looks back at his struggles in the Minors, though again, there weren’t many. He thinks about his High-A debut in 2018, just two months removed from college. The first game was strong — three innings, no runs — but then he allowed six runs over the next 8 2/3 frames (three games).

In 2019, his campaign with Double-A Erie will most be remembered for the no-hitter in his debut. But that stint also featured his first visit to the injured list. And when he returned from the right shoulder injury, he “scuffled pretty heavily there.”

“I definitely was looking on my past experiences from failure and how I was able to turn that into success,” Mize said. “And I’m currently using that as what I’m trying to do for this season.”

“Baseball has a way of just reminding you pretty quickly on what you got to stay on top of,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is just count leverage. Just need the count on my side, in my favor, because batting averages against go way down and strikeout percentage goes up, walk rate goes [down] and all that whenever I can get the strike zone early and often.”

Smith, who is now the head coach at Tennessee Tech, continues to follow Mize, both on the field and off. One of the things that sticks out to Smith is how Mize so often talks about having fun in his postgame interviews.

“Casey, he’s a man of faith,” the coach said. “His life’s not wrapped up in, in just wins and losses. There’s more to it to him than that.”

Mize married his college sweetheart, Tali, in November 2019. He’s built friendships with his Auburn teammates and fellow prospects in the Tigers farm system.

When the spotlight shined brightest on Mize, with scouts at every game leading up to the Draft, he was out there helping his teammates. Wright was impressed by the way his battery mate didn’t seem to think about his own Draft slot, he was helping his teammates do the best they could for their own professional prospects.

“He’s your true number one overall pick, personality-wise, family-wise. At the time he was dating Tali, but now he’s like, perfect husband, been the perfect ballplayer, good example for everybody,” Wright said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He just does everything right, super professional. And he just is a really good guy. And the Tigers are really fortunate to have a guy like him.”

Mize spent the offseason with his wife and new cat, Drago. Their travel was cut down for obvious reasons, but they still made the most of it. The 6-foot-3 hurler worked out at his representative’s facility, the Bledsoe Agency.

But even with the pandemic restrictions, Mize said it was the perfect reset from 2020, adding that spending time with his wife is his favorite thing in the world.

Mize and Wright continue to stay in touch, with the former attending his old teammate’s wedding last November. And just a few weeks ago, they discussed Mize’s upcoming season.

“I told him, ‘You better get that Cy Young,’” Wright recalls. “He said, ‘It’s my time.’”

But for now, as Spring Training gets rolling, Mize said he’s not thinking about awards or stats. He’s looking at his short-term goals: getting a good night’s sleep and doing whatever preparation is necessary to give his team a good chance to win in his next start.

“I want to be a good teammate, and enjoy my time and just have good experiences and give back,” he said. “But in the back of your mind, winning is really what makes this game go ‘round and what makes us players tick.

“And so, it’s very important, and it’s definitely one of the biggest things that drives me on a daily basis is the desire to win.”

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