Detroit Tigers’ load management with Casey Mize may not be fun now, but may pay off later

Detroit Free Press

Casey Mize was dealing. Then he was fuming.

Well, at least not outwardly fuming, but he’s a competitor, and he wanted to keep pitching, and when he walked to the Detroit Tigers dugout after blanking the Texas Rangers the first four innings Monday night at Comerica Park, he tried his best to avoid his manager.

AJ Hinch understood. He wouldn’t want Mize reacting any other way.

But Mize is on a pitch count. And the Tigers have a plan. And, on Monday night, it worked perfectly as Mize looked great and they won their fourth game in a row.

Welcome to the load management portion of the season, where the science of biomechanics will be dictating the starting rotation. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.

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This doesn’t mean the buzz building around the team can’t stay, too.

There was a time in baseball when pitchers couldn’t throw overhand. The rule makers were worried about velocity more than biomechanics. Still, back in those days — the mid 1800s — a drop-off-the-shelf curveball would’ve looked like sorcery and a late-moving, 100-mph fastball would’ve felt like the devil’s work.

In other words, it would’ve seemed unnatural. As far as the human body is concerned, the act of overhand pitching may still be.

Think of the violence required in the release, or the torque required in the wind up. With each throw, a pitcher’s joints must withstand the kind of force most of us will never feel in our lifetime.

Few things in sport offer the visceral giddy up of the thwap when a fastball meets a catcher’s glove. At the big-league level, it can be heard even over the din of revelers watching from the seats.

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But that glorious, powerful sound comes with a cost: rotator cuff tears, labrum pulls, tendon ruptures, bone dislocations. The more you pitch, the more susceptible to injury a pitcher becomes.

The stress of pitching is cumulative, and exponential when a pitcher is young. This is especially true for teenage pitchers. But even for pitcher’s Mize’s age — he is 24 — the balance is in the workload.

Thus: load management, which took hold in the game a decade ago, but ramped up only a few years back. To those schooled in old, yanking a pitcher after four shutout innings feels antagonistic to the idea of competition … and to the idea of toughness.

Heck, it does for Mize in some ways, too. There’s a reason he tried to avoid Hinch on the walk back to the dugout after the fourth inning.

“I definitely wanted to go out there for more,” he said.

Of course, he did. And of course, you wanted him to go back out there, too.

But Hinch and his staff and the team’s front office aren’t wavering. They are playing the long game, if you’ll forgive the expression.

It doesn’t matter that Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are out with injury. It doesn’t matter that Jose Urena hurt his groin last Saturday and is out now, too.

“We’re going to be very proactive on how we’re going to handle our young pitching,” Hinch said earlier this month. “We addressed this with Casey a while ago. None of us really wanted this day to come because he’s been on such a role, but we have to be smart with what we’re doing with his workload.”

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Hinch could’ve said the same thing Monday night. He didn’t need to. Mize knew what was coming. You knew what was coming.

Still, he understood why Mize tried to avoid him after the fourth, hoping he could get back out for another inning.

“Of course, he wanted to stay in and continue to pitch,” said Hinch. “Of course, he was trying to avoid me.”

Mize reiterated that he was “on board” with the plan. He knows what’s at stake in the long run. Just as Tarik Skubal knows, who begins his load management outings shortly.

The evidence for shortened outings and limited pitch counts is overwhelming, even if there isn’t a black-and-white plan for everyone to follow. The science of biomechanics is still evolving. What may be suitable for one pitcher may not be for another.

About the only thing everyone agrees on is that it takes time for a pitcher to build arm strength. How that is achieved varies.

The Tigers could’ve opted to let Mize — who threw just 28⅓ innings in his major league debut last season, which was shortened by the pandemic and 109⅓ in his first full season in the minors — throw unrestricted outings but limit the number of outings. But Hinch and his staff and Mize thought it would be better to keep the routine of throwing every five starts and restrict the pitch count.

After Monday night, Mize has pitched 99⅓ over 18 starts.

The psychology behind this strategy make sense. And while it may be tough for fans to watch outings like Monday’s, when Mize is dealing only to have him pulled four innings in, this approach provides more psychological stability.

“Our belief is that keeping him in his normal routine is better for his long-term health and short-term health,” Hinch said in early July. “There’s no perfect way. I don’t think any of us really know exactly what the perfect scenario is. Whether it’s moving a guy to the bullpen, skipping a start or keeping Casey on his regular routine, we’re going to attack it individually. It’s not a one-size-fits-all program.”

So far, Mize isn’t skipping starts. Monday night’s performance — four innings, 54 pitches, 34 strikes, one hit, no walks, two strikeouts — suggests the plan is working.

Mize said he isn’t approaching these shortened outings any differently. That his game plan is his game plan.

“Trying to throw a lot of strikes, (get) weak contact,” he said.

Subconsciously, perhaps he’s trying to be even more efficient than normal so that he might squeeze in an extra inning or a couple extra batters. Though even letting that creep into his psyche too much could alter his rhythm.

Part of what makes Mize so good — and still so promising — is his mind. He talks a lot about studying, about not overthinking, about staying in the moment and relying on preparation along with his talent.

As he did when he faced the Rangers’ Joey Gallo twice Monday night. The outfielder blasted two home runs off Mize in Texas two weeks ago. On the return date, Mize returned the favor, getting him out in both at-bats.

“Obviously, I didn’t want that to happen again,” Mize said of facing Gallo. But “I didn’t overthink it or anything.”

Just as the Tigers aren’t overthinking their plan with Mize and the rest of their young pitchers. They have a plan. It’s about the future. They’re sticking to it.

It may not be much fun in certain moments, but it could lead to lots of fun in due time.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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