Casey Mize struggles with command continue. Should Detroit Tigers be concerned this early?

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers right-hander Casey Mize deserved a break for his performance in the 2020 season.

It was Mize’s first year in the majors, after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, and his poor command — 13 walks in 28⅓ innings, with a 6.99 ERA — left an inefficient blemish on his early MLB resume. Still, he only got seven outings to showcase his stuff, and his track record defines him as a command-first pitcher.

He vowed in late January to improve: “Personally, I think you’re going to see what I know is the old me. Just pounding the strike zone and overwhelming hitters with strikes. Having leverage on my side is the goal.”

PRE-SPRING: Why Tigers’ Casey Mize knows exactly what he needs to improve

So far, Mize hasn’t lived up to his promise. The 23-year-old has walked six batters in four innings (two games) this spring. He cruised through the third inning Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays but walked the bases loaded in the fourth. He escaped the jam with a nasty slider for a strikeout.

These early struggles, especially after what happened last year, force a resounding question.

Is it time to worry about Mize?

The short answer: No.

“We all have seen a ton of baseball,” Mize said Sunday. “You realize when a guy has lost it, you know, ‘Wow, that at-bat wasn’t even competitive. He really walked that guy.’ And then there’s some like, ‘Man, just a dragged out at-bat. He’s right around the zone, but he’s not in it.’ Just about every one of these walks has been about, ‘He’s all around the zone, just missing.’

“It’s not like I’m losing all of my command. Maybe just a mental adjustment. I know I can beat him in the zone, so let’s just pound that thing. Most of the walks are really close, which is frustrating.”

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The long answer

A lot is going right for Mize this spring.

His fastball clocked 97 mph Sunday, a byproduct of his “adrenaline” coming out of the bullpen. Last season, his heater averaged 93.7 mph. However, he acknowledges it’s unlikely his four-seamer will consistently reach the upper 90s during the season.

“Stuff will not be a problem for him,” manager AJ Hinch said Sunday. “He was the first pick in the country for a reason. He’s really good. He’s got stuff. He’ll be in the strike zone. It’s no cause for alarm. It’s just some things for him to work on.”

Also, Mize hasn’t allowed any hits or runs — with four strikeouts — through his four innings.

[ Mize thought his ‘stuff was really good’ in first spring game ]

This means he has improved his sequencing and tunneling with pitching coach Chris Fetter. Last season, in those 28⅓ innings, he allowed 29 hits, 25 runs (22 earned) and seven home runs. This time around, Mize clearly has a better idea of how to keep his opponents guessing.

“My body’s feeling really good, and the ball is coming out really well,” Mize said. “I liked how my stuff looked, just got to be in the zone a little bit more.”

Here’s another reason not to worry: Mize is typically quick to reach two strikes. Against Teoscar Hernandez, Cavan Biggio and Randal Grichuk in the third inning, he got ahead in the count by recording two strikes on the first two pitches to each of them.

As a result, he sent them down in order for a perfect frame.

In the fourth inning, Mize got behind, 3-0, to Alejandro Kirk (walk), 2-1 to Jonathan Davis (walk) and 2-1 to Marcus Semien (walk). Yet on all three of those walks, he battled back to put them in two-strike counts, just before missing the strike zone toward the end of the at-bats.

“I just got to end the at-bat a lot quicker than I am,” Mize said. “Seems like two strikes, then the count gets to 2-2 really quick. I’m just getting all the walks out of the way right now, and then I’ll start throwing in the zone when it matters.”

Hinch knows this, too.

“He’s trying a little bit too hard, to be honest,” Hinch said. “There’s an ease that comes with maturity on the mound, and he’s barley missing, which is still a miss, but he’s got some stuff to work on. That’s why we’re here.”

Mize had 109 strikeouts to nine walks as a sophomore at Auburn, followed by 156 strikeouts to 16 walks as a junior in 2018. During his two-year minor-league career, he earned 120 strikeouts compared to 26 walks across 123 innings.

“The track record, I mean, you guys know, I throw strikes,” Mize said. “I’m trying to do a lot right now, which is negatively affecting my strike throwing ability. I know I can beat them in the zone, so whenever I get to two strikes is when I’m trying to expand the zone a little too often. I just need to really pound the zone and stay in it more often, then I should be good to go.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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