How one tweak from Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter helped Casey Mize dominate

Detroit Free Press

Casey Mize‘s fastball command was crummy.

As he put it: “Really bad, just couldn’t find that.”

He sauntered back to the dugout wondering how — after two walks, one single and one hit-by-pitch through two innings — he could make it through the opposing lineup a second or third time without succumbing to the nucleus of the Houston Astros: Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa.

In the dugout, Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter pulled Mize and catcher Grayson Greiner aside.

“In your warmup pitches, throw with more intent,” Fetter told Mize after the second inning. “Really try to lock in the fastball command in the warmup pitches. You’re going to need it.”

Mize normally uses his warmups to steadily ramp up his right arm.

“Like, you’re moving really quickly,” Fetter continued. “A little herky-jerky and opening up a little too soon. So, try to fix those and throw with more intent.”

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The 23-year-old and former No. 1 overall draft pick — facing one of baseball’s toughest lineups in his ninth career start — became unstoppable, thanks to Fetter.

From the third through the seventh, Mize gave up just three hits. He made it look so easy en route to seven shutout innings and five strikeouts in a 6-2 win Monday at Minute Maid Park, snapping a four-game losing streak for his ballclub. He gave up four hits and two walks.

“His career is just getting started,” Greiner said.

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize (12) delivers a pitch during the third inning against the Houston Astros April 12, 2021 at Minute Maid Park.

To start the third inning, Mize fearlessly attacked Brantley. Two called strikes — a fastball and a splitter — toward the middle of the zone.

After two foul balls, Mize froze him with a 96 mph fastball up and in for strike three.

“From that point on, he was just dynamite,” Greiner said.

“My fastball command was locked in,” Mize said. “That little fix really allowed me to locate the fastball more and use that more. Because I definitely didn’t have it for the first two innings.”

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Mize needed nine pitches to complete the third inning, 12 in the fourth, six in the fifth, 10 in the sixth and 15 in the seventh. He used 89 total pitches, recording 62 strikes. He got six swings-and-misses and 19 called strikes.

His pitch mix was exquisite: 28 four-seam fastballs, 26 splitters, 21 sliders, eight curveballs and six two-seam fastballs. Last year he fired 146 two-seamers, 138 four-seamers, 107 cutters (now considered a slider), 97 splitters and 55 curveballs.

“The pitch usage tonight is what I need to be at,” Mize said. “I felt really comfortable, felt like I could command everything. That’s hats off to Grayson. He did a really good job of game-planning and mixing pitches.”

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Greiner gave Mize the lead in the second inning, too. He crushed a two-run homer off six-time All-Star Zack Greinke. The Tigers took a 2-0 lead.

Then, Renato Nunez, added to the 40-man roster Sunday, and Akil Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick, hit back-to-back home runs in the third inning. Baddoo’s homer traveled 450 feet to center field. He hit the ball to place called the Budweiser Bar, a popular ballpark attraction.

Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who managed the Astros from 2015-19, said players rarely hit it to the bar.

“With that sound coming off the bat, that’s a special talent that can do that,” Hinch said. “He followed it up with a big sac fly (for a 5-0 lead in the fifth). Great intent, great execution on the at-bat.”

Mize added: “Akil being Akil. Just hitting the ball.”

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize (12) and catcher Grayson Greiner (17) talk on the mound during the first inning against the Houston Astros April 12, 2021 at Minute Maid Park.

Thankful for the run support, Mize still had work to do. Martin Maldonado, Altuve and Brantley were coming up for the bottom of the fifth inning. And if he struggled, he would’ve had to face Bregman with at least one runner on base.

The result: Three groundouts, six pitches.

When Bregman finally came to the plate for the third time, Mize knew he had him fooled before his sixth-inning at-bat began. Mize credits Greiner for the plan, and Greiner credits Mize for the execution.

“We set up Bregman,” Mize said. “He hadn’t really seen a fastball in, so we missed off the plate with a fastball in and then threw a slider right off that. We get weak contact.”

Mize picked up five strikeouts, but he found a different niche than the swing-and-miss approach. He got 11 ground-ball outs compared to three fly-ball outs. His splitter and fastball, which averaged 95 mph and maxed out at 97.6 mph, were elite, but he didn’t feel the need to chase strikeouts.

“He wasn’t afraid of contact,” Hinch said. “He got guys out in different ways tonight all within the same game, so very mature performance and certainly one we’d like to build on.”

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Mize became the first Tigers rookie to throw seven or more shutout innings since Michael Fulmer’s complete game shutout in August 2016 against the Texas Rangers.

For as good as Mize looked, he is still rebounding from last year’s troublesome debut campaign. The Tigers are confident as he grows wiser with every appearance.

He commanded all his pitches Monday, especially his revered splitter, against a team that went to the World Series twice in the last four seasons.

Mize’s career is just getting started.

And this might be the night people remember as the beginning.

“Ace,” Nunez said.

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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