Detroit Tigers’ Casey Mize sets ‘foundation’ for ace status with rookie year he’s proud of

Detroit Free Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Six months ago, Casey Mize wasn’t sure if he would make the Detroit Tigers‘ 2021 Opening Day roster.

He had a 6.99 ERA over 28⅓ innings in seven starts last season, after getting called up in August for his anticipated MLB debut. His command troubles continued in spring training, until a show-stopping performance in late March helped earn him a spot on the big-league roster out of camp.

Since then, the former No. 1 overall pick has pitched like the Tigers’ ace of the future.

“I can be a prideful human, just like a lot of people in this game can be,” Mize said Wednesday, fresh off his final start of the season in the Tigers’ 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to go 30 starts and pitch 150 innings. … We were able to map this out with the short starts and get me to the finish line. We made it, so mission accomplished there.

“The performance, I’m honestly proud of. If you said, ‘Hey, you’re going to make 30 starts, go 150 innings and have a 3.70 ERA,’ I think that’s a win all the way around. … From an overall standpoint, I think it was pretty solid. A lot to build on and also a lot to be happy about.”

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Manager AJ Hinch knows what an ace looks like as well as anyone.

He managed Justin Verlander, Gerrit ColeZack Greinke and Dallas Keuchel as the Houston Astros made deep postseason runs, including a 2017 World Series championship. Even former Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn’t shy away from explaining the “bulldog mentality” that connects Mize and Verlander.

When Hinch arrives at the ballpark to get a workout in before his day as a manager begins, Mize is typically already there. The 24-year-old is the first player inside the clubhouse, whether he is starting or sitting in the dugout to watch his teammates. It’s in these moments Hinch and Mize share both light-hearted and earnest conversations.

Mize operates this way because he wants to be the best.

“The thing that separates them (Verlander, Cole and Greinke) is how they stick to their program between starts and stick to their preparation on how they break down teams,” Hinch said. “Casey has the foundation for that. I think he’s learning how to use it. (Pitching coach Chris Fetter) has done an incredible job of keeping him intellectually curious but also fundamentally sound on how to go about it and not letting him stray too far either direction of numbers or mechanics.

“We’ve come out of it with a pretty good season. I think Casey has something to build with coming off this experience.”

Back in 2009, Verlander added a “(expletive) you attitude” to his routine, as he explained to the Free Press in June while recounting his 2011 MVP season and expressing interest in a reunion with the Tigers. He had a disappointing 2008, followed by a rough start to his fourth full season in the majors. One morning, Verlander woke up with an edge. He has carried that mindset with him for the rest of his career.

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Mize showed signs of a similar characteristic in his final start of the 2021 season, against the Twins at Target Field. The right-hander began with a heavy dose of sliders but was knocked around for three singles and a three-run home run before a mound visit from Fetter sparked his first out of the game.

He retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced in his four innings, thanks to a plethora of “F-you fastballs” that came from being “pissed off” about the situation. By reaching the fourth, which hadn’t happened in September because of strict workload restrictions, Mize surpassed 150 innings — 150⅓, to be exact — in his 30th start.

In attaining those milestones, Mize accomplished a pair of season-long goals and took a step toward his career aspirations. He wants to be the face of the franchise, a respected workhorse and an American League Cy Young candidate.

“I do want to be the guy that leads our team in innings every year and makes every start,” Mize said. “I put in quality, consistent work over time and work really hard. I do all that stuff so I can make my start when it’s my turn to pitch.

“There was some talk about losing a start here or there, but I didn’t like that. I would rather have the shortened starts and make all my starts because that’s why I work hard and that’s why I prepare. When it’s my turn to pitch, I’m going to pitch. I value that a lot.”

‘I’m pumped’

One year ago, Mize departed from the mound at Target Field in Minneapolis with two outs in the fifth inning. He made his final start of the 2020 season against the Twins on Sept. 23.

After allowing six runs over 4⅔ innings and finishing with a 6.99 ERA, Mize discussed his lacking execution, command and sequencing, three areas of improvement this time around. He also talked about how he knew he belonged in the big leagues, as tough as that might have been for outsiders to believe at the time.

In 2021, Mize proved himself correct.

“Leaving that start last year, I knew I was much better than what I showed,” Mize said. “But I knew I had a lot of work to do. I’m in a similar spot right now. I still feel like there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of improvements to be made. In one regard, it’s a very similar feeling. But also, it is good to look back. I’m glad the work that I did last year translated to a lot of success this year. I’m pumped about that.”

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Mize finished with a 3.71 ERA, 1.137 WHIP, 41 walks and 118 strikeouts over 150⅓ innings (in 30 starts), working with 2.5 walks and 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings. (For comparison, Verlander finished his AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2006 with a 3.63 ERA, 1.328 WHIP, 60 walks and 124 strikeouts over 186 innings in 30 starts. He logged 2.9 walks and 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings.)

“Casey is a really good example that we can use as someone we need to have patience with as he evolves and develops into who he is,” Hinch said. “If you look back at a lot of good pitchers in this league, they were not identified perfectly after their first full season. They develop over time, learn their craft and become experts.”

One of Mize’s biggest growths was learning when to throw his pitches to specific hitters, aiding his pursuit of first-pitch strikes to get ahead in counts. This season, he threw first-pitch strikes at a 62.3% clip, much better than his 55.6% in 2020. He put his pitches in the strike zone 50.3% of the time, another boost from his 46.4% in 2020.

Mize turned to elevated fastballs to change the hitters’ eye level and attack weaknesses. He deceased the usage of his splitter, which wasn’t nearly as dominant as it was upon his departure from Auburn for the 2018 draft. As a result of that change, he amped up the usage of his slider.

The slider became his top pitch this year.

“The homework that’s been put in by Chris is awesome,” Mize said about Fetter’s guidance. “He doesn’t overload us with information or adjustments, but he puts in the work and decides to interject a line or two here and there, just small stuff that can really change the complexion of an outing or a season.

“He moved me to the other side of the rubber (pitcher’s mound) this year, and I took off after that. Small things like that have really benefited me. I’m super thankful for both those guys (Hinch and Fetter), and I’m looking forward to many years together.”

The next step: Strikeouts

Mize made key coming-of-age starts this season, ignited by seven scoreless innings April 12 against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. He then rattled off a 1.74 ERA over 31 innings across his five starts in May. On May 28, Mize matched Cole — the established New York Yankees’ ace — in a 3-2 win at Comerica Park. He didn’t have as many of these outings later in the season, only because the Tigers put him on shortened starts in early July and again in September to protect his health.

Mize aims to carry the Tigers through the postseason, possibly as soon as 2022. Asked how he can get there, he evaluated his five pitches. He threw 685 four-seam fastballs (29.1%), 660 sliders (28%), 540 two-seam fastballs (22.9%), 312 splitters (13.2%) and 160 curveballs (6.8%).

“The curveball usage needs to go up,” Mize said. “That was a goal of mine this year where I don’t think I executed as well as I would have liked. … I chose the slider over the curveball a lot. The slider was a great pitch for me, but the curveball needs to improve.

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“As I was drafted and coming through the minor leagues, the splitter was my main pitch. I never really got as much feel for that as I would have liked because I didn’t go to it as much. It’s a tough balance where you want to work on something, but you’re trying to win the game. Maybe I would throw a couple at the beginning of the game that weren’t too good, and I would move it to the side and go to some other stuff. The curveball usage needs to go up. The splitter usage needs to go up. Fastball command is something I’m always going to chase.”

By fulfilling these offseason goals, Mize believes he will dominate with two strikes. He finished with a 22.6% swing-and-miss rate and a 19.3% strikeout rate, underwhelming results for a pitcher with his arsenal. Refining his once-nasty splitter and mixing in more curveballs, in theory, should revert him to the crafty strikeout maestro he was earlier in life.

“Casey can punch anybody out in the league,” Hinch said, “so I’m not worried about that coming out of this season as being a problem.”

Mize set his season-high at seven strikeouts in two of his 30 starts, adding five games with six strikeouts. He places his value in eating innings and limiting runs, because the team with the most runs always wins. Yes, his way of thinking is that simple.

Still, he acknowledges the need for strikeouts in 2022.

“Strikeouts are really, really important,” Mize said. “They definitely are. Is it the No. 1 thing that I value? No. But I know it helps our team win, and what I value is us winning the game. … I know how important they are to a pitcher and to this game. I know I need to improve in that area, and I fully believe that I can. I’ve been a strikeout pitcher in the past, and I think that’s coming.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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