Stat line aside, AJ Hinch sees progress from Casey Mize in Tigers’ spring loss

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — You think you know a guy, right. Teammates in college. Faced each other in countless fall-ball and intrasquad games. You know what his tendencies are at the plate.

Or so Casey Mize thought Friday when he flipped a first-pitch curveball to his friend and former Auburn teammate Josh Palacios leading off the fourth inning of the Tigers’ 8-1 spring loss to the Blue Jays.

“Before I go out, I was talking to (pitching coach Chris) Fetter and I’m like, ‘Hey, he’s an aggressive guy. He’s always been aggressive against me. I’m going to throw him a first-pitch breaking ball,’” Mize said. “Man, (Palacios) is going to be texting me after the game about that, for sure.”

The ball left Palacios’ bat with an exit velocity of 108 mph and sailed 428 feet into the Margaritaville Patio beyond the right-field fence.

“My plan didn’t work, but I did execute it,” Mize said with a grin. “Frustrating.”

If you just read his stat line from Friday you’d think the day was a disaster for Mize — five runs, two home runs, eight hits in 3⅔ innings. But that’s not the full story.

“I did tell him on the mound (when he pulled him in the fourth) that I didn’t think the results matched the stuff today,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I thought his stuff was really good. It was a positive step forward.”

A solo home run by Alejandro Kirk was the only damage against Mize in the first two innings, as he was filling up the strike zone with five different pitches, including a two-seamer that sat at 96.5 mph with movement through the strike zone.

“I’m going to look at it from two different standpoints,” said Mize, who got four of his five strikeouts in the first two innings. “I’m going to take the positives and be happy with the work I put in and the progression I’m making. And I’m going to look at the negative stuff and try to flip the script there.

“But I definitely pounded the strike zone more today and the two-seamer, I did a really good job throwing that glove side in on lefties. That was an awesome pitch for me.”

He got four whiffs on 15 swings and 11 called strikes with the two-seamer.

“But I just gave up too many hits,” he said. “The ball started creeping up in the zone in the third and fourth inning, instead of staying true through the zone like it was earlier.”

He showed some mettle in the third inning, getting out of a bases-loaded, no-out mess with just one run scoring on a sacrifice fly to left. He ended the inning getting Kirk to hit into a 4-3 double-play.

“That was huge,” he said. “We don’t want to be in that situation as a pitcher, but if we’re going to be, now is the time. I was really proud of the way I worked out of it.”

Because of his draft status (first overall pick in 2018) and his age (24 in May), the general expectation is for Mize to be close to a finished product. That is both unfair and false. As he continues to show every start, the pitches, the talent and the moxie are all there. But the reality is, he made seven big-league starts lasts season without ever throwing a pitch at the Triple-A level.

This is still very much a work in progress, albeit a high-level, high-profile one.

“It ended up being a bad day in the box score for him, but I was actually encouraged by how he came out of the gate in the first inning and ultimately with some of the stuff he was showing,” Hinch said.

One other lesson he learned Friday: Trust your catcher. Twice Mize shook off signs from veteran Wilson Ramos. Twice he paid the price.

“I planned a couple of pitches on my own that did not work out too good,” he said. “I’ve got to trust him more. I had two outs in the fourth and against the lefty (Forrest) Wall. Wilson called for a curve and shook to a two-seamer, and he hit it off the left-center field wall.

“I need to trust him. He’s been around a long time.”

Fulmer out of the ‘pen?

Hinch on Sunday will use Michael Fulmer, who is still transitioning back after Tommy John surgery, out of the bullpen, while giving the start to prospect Matt Manning who has already been optioned to Triple-A Toledo.

Is it a way to get him going or could it be a harbinger for Fulmer’s role, at least to start the season? Maybe a bit of both, Hinch said.

“You do the same thing over and over again expecting the same results, that’s the definition of insanity,” Hinch said. “Maybe for us to get him kick-started and maybe take a little bit of the burden of being the starting pitcher that day off him…We want to give him a different look and it also gives us a chance to give Manning a start.”

Soto the magnificent

Tigers left reliever Gregory Soto has made it known he aspires to be the Tigers’ closer, and his performance in the seventh inning did not hurt his case. Not one bit.

In a clean, 13-pitch, 8-strike inning, his two-seam fastball averaged 99.5 mph and hit 100.9 mph. It was overpowering.

“His efficiency was really good, too,” Hinch said. “He was really in control of his inning. He’s been pretty good. When he can get strike one and get the hitters on the defensive, he’s really incredible. He beats people in the strike zone and when he gets ahead, he beats people out of the strike zone.”

Around the horn

Hinch batted JaCoby Jones in the leadoff spot so he could get some extra at-bats against a left-handed pitcher (Robbie Ray). Jones responded with a single and a long, 406-foot homer onto the berm in left field.

…The rest of the Tigers managed just two hits, with 14 strikeouts. The Tigers offense has gone worrisomely quiet over the last week to 10 days of camp. “More so the taking strikes, it looks like we’re in between pitches,” Hinch said. “Our situational hitting has been less than perfect and we’re getting beat late in counts. I don’t know if it’s a red alarm yet, but it’s something we need to address.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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