‘I know it’s necessary’: Tigers’ Casey Mize braces for inevitable innings restrictions

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s going to be a sad day when the Tigers start governing Casey Mize’s workload, because whether his outing is good, bad or in between, it’s never boring. It’s must-see baseball.

But make no mistake, the governor is coming. Mize has already doubled the number of starts and tripled the number of innings he threw last season. Sometime early next month, either before or just after the All-Star break, he and Tarik Skubal will be put on some kind of restricted workload.

“I want to pitch and I want to eat innings,” Mize said after going five innings in the Tigers’ 5-3 win in Anaheim on Sunday. “That’s something I take pride in, getting as many outs as possible and limiting runs. That’s what my goals are every day. But I know that’s coming.”

Manager AJ Hinch hasn’t announced any set plan yet, only to acknowledge that the workloads would be restricted. It’s likely both Mize and Skubal will stay on their every-fifth-day program, but with an innings limit in each start. Rookie Matt Manning could be part of a tandem start with one or the other.

It’s going to be challenging, though, since the top two starters in the rotation — Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull — aren’t expected to return off the injured list until after the All-Star break.

“It’s going to be frustrating, but I trust the people at the top who are making these decisions,” Mize said. “I know it’s necessary for this year. You’re seeing all the injuries that are going on around the league and it’s definitely alarming.

“I’m going to trust the people who are making these decisions and do what they ask of me.”

More: Tigers’ AJ Hinch envisions potential risks as MLB crackdown on sticky baseballs looms

Mize, meanwhile, continues to show more polish and maturity with each start. He’s allowed three runs or fewer in 10 consecutive starts, averaging six innings per outing. On Sunday, his three battles with Shohei Ohtani alone were worth the price of admission.

He won a nine-pitch battle in the first inning, striking him out with an elevated four-seam fastball at the top of the strike zone. Ohtani had fouled away four straight pitches before Mize beat him.

Ohtani came to bat with runners at the corners and no outs in the third inning — a real crisis point for Mize. He threw him three straight fastballs — 92, 93 and 94 mph — striking him out on three pitches. He then got out of the inning getting Taylor Ward to hit into a 5-4-3 double-play.

Then came the fifth inning. Miguel Cabrera’s two-run single put the Tigers ahead 3-1 in the top of the fifth and Ohtani came up with a man on and one out. Mize got ahead in the count 1-2. He’d shown him two splitters, a slider and another two-strike elevated heater.

Ohtani was right on the 1-2 fastball and fouled it back. Mize came back with a slider down in the zone and Ohtani got the barrel on it and hoisted it over the center-field wall to tie the game.

“If you look at it, it wasn’t a bad pitch,” Mize said. “I was trying to bury it. If we bury it there we have a pretty good chance of him swinging over it.”

Ohtani’s swing on the previous fastball influenced Mize and catcher Jake Rogers’ decision to go to the slider.

“I didn’t want to go back to the fastball up,” Mize said. “I beat him on it three or four times prior to that point, but the pitch before the homer was a fastball elevated that he put a pretty good swing on. I didn’t want to go to the well one too many times.

“I felt like he was looking for it, so Rogers called a slider and I was all for it. I feel like if I buried it, the at-bat ends differently.”

The decision to go slider raised another question. What’s going on with the splitter? That situation seemed to scream for a well-executed splitter, which once upon a time was Mize’s money pitch. Recently, though, he’s had a love-hate relationship with it.

“I’ve been leaning on the slider a lot,” Mize said. “It’s been good for me. I know they had two homers off it today (Jared Walsh hit the other), but it’s been good and I’m feeling really comfortable with it. So that’s taking me away from the splitter usage.

“It’s just kind of what I’m feeling right now.”

The slider has been effective, no doubt. Opponents are hitting just .181 against it with a 32.2% swing-and-miss rate. The splitter, on the other hand, has been an enigma. It can look devastating and hittable in the same at-bat.

“I’ve had a feel for it and I haven’t had a feel for it,” he said. “It’s just kind of been back and forth.”

Case in point: In his start last week in Kansas City, he got Whit Merrifield to take one of the ugliest swings of his career flailing at a darting splitter. A couple pitches later in the same at-bat, he slapped a hanging splitter into center field for a hit, keying a two-run inning.

His splitter usage is down 3%. Opponents are hitting .267 and slugging .422 off it. The whiff rate is down (from 28% last year to 21% this year) and he is putting away fewer hitters with it (from 17% last year to 6% this year).

“I’m battling with it a little bit,” Mize said. “I’m going to keep at it. It’s a big part of my arsenal to be able to flip it in there. I hope I can get it going the way I want to. But the slider has been saving me.”

Still, it’s saying something that he’s posted a 2.4 WAR and produced nine quality starts out of 14, and limited hitters to a modest slash-line —.228/.304/.399 — without one of his best pitches.

“I’ve seen him dismissing misfires more easily as he gets deeper into the season,” Hinch said. “Which is a very mature approach and shows lessons learned. His body of work is one thing, his approach is excellent and obviously he’s been able to make adjustments quicker.

“That’s development at this level. … I see him as a developing pitcher who continues to get better. He sets a high bar for himself every time he gets on the mound.”

The Tigers will certainly err on the side of overprotection when it comes to Mize’s workload. That’s the smart thing to do with a player this valuable and important to the club’s future. But, man, three innings every five days won’t be enough to satisfy our growing fascination with his budding artistry.

Twitter@cmccosky

Cardinals at Tigers

►Series: Two games at Comerica Park

►First pitch: Tuesday — 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday — 1:10 p.m.

►TV/radio: Tuesday-Wednesday — BSD, 97.1.

►Probables: Tuesday — RHP Johan Oviedo (0-2, 4.58) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (4-7, 4.36); Wednesday — RHP John Gant (4-5, 3.50) vs. RHP Matt Manning (0-1, 3.60).

SCOUTING REPORT

►Oviedo, Cardinals: The 23-year-old Cuban is coming off seven innings of shutout ball against the Marlins. He features a heavy 95-mph fastball and a slider that’s induced a 38% whiff rate. He will throw more curveballs and change-ups to left-handed hitters, both have high swing-and-miss rates.

►Skubal, Tigers: He’s 4-1 in his last six starts, with a 3.00 ERA and limiting opponents to a .240 average. He’s punched out 50 in his last 33 innings. The only lingering problem area is the home run ball. He’s given up 16 in 66 innings.

— Chris McCosky

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