Refreshed and refocused, Tigers’ Casey Mize working to build on solid rookie year

Detroit News

Detroit — He did it. He actually did it.

Casey Mize, as routine-driven (routine-obsessed, some might say) as any athlete you will ever meet, allowed himself to break away from his daily regimen of weightlifting, cardio, physical therapy and throwing. Mize, after a successful 30-start, 150.1-inning rookie season, gave himself three weeks to rest, relax and decompress.

“That was a little longer than normal,” he said almost sheepishly Thursday night from his new offseason home in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He took a trip to Cabo San Lucas with fellow Tigers pitchers Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning and their wives/ fiancées. At the time of the trip, only Mize was married. Skubal has since married his fiancée and Manning’s girlfriend is now his fiancée.

The magic of Cabo.

Mize and his wife Tali also took a trip together to Costa Rica and then spent the holidays with family in Alabama and Georgia.

But as he assessed his season Thursday night and talked about his points of emphasis entering 2022, Mize was already four weeks locked into his offseason program.

“The positive thing from last year was making it through a full season healthy,” he said. “That reassures the offseason work. Now I know this can work. It’s not like I have to reconstruct that. And that’s a great thing.”

Logistically, though, his offseason routine is a little messier this year. With Major League Baseball in a lockout, Mize can’t use the facilities at TigerTown —  in Lakeland  which he was doing right up until it was shuttered.

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Last offseason, when he lived in Nashville, he was able to train at a full-service facility owned and operated by his agents (The Bledsoe Agency). Now, in St. Petersburg, he has one facility for physical therapy, another for his workouts and another for his throwing program.

“It’s nice to be able to do everything in one place, but I have a good setup,” Mize said. “I’m getting good work in.”

On the cusp

We watched Mize come of age in 2021.

After a rocky, seven-start debut in 2020, he barely made the Opening Day roster out of spring training. It was like watching a colt talking his first wobbly steps. But after getting hit around in his first five starts in April, pitching coach Chris Fetter got him to start his delivery from the middle of the rubber, not on the first-base side like he had been. He encouraged him to trust his four-seam fastball and slider.

And then Mize took off.

The Tigers were 13-12 in Mize’s last 25 starts (the last five limited to three or four innings). He posted a 3.42 ERA with opponents hitting just .227 against him.

“Casey is a really good example of someone we need to have patience with as he develops and evolves into who he is,” manager AJ Hinch said after Mize’s final start last September. “A lot of really good pitchers in this league were not identified perfectly after their first full season, or their first half season or their first couple of seasons.

“They develop over time. They learn their craft. They become experts and you see them settle in and become who they are.”

Mize is on the cusp of hitting full stride and he seems to have a bead on what it will take to turn him loose.

“I need to get my splitter back going to where I’m more comfortable with it,” he said. “The slider stepped up huge for me last year in the absence of the splitter. But getting those two pitches to work in combo could really take me to another level.”

The split-fingered fastball was Mize’s money pitch at Auburn. It paved his way to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. But it’s been a fickle pitch for him at the big-league level.

“It’s more of a mental thing than anything,” he said. “I’ve got to get the trust back in that pitch, get it back sharp like I know it can be.”

As much as anything mechanical, Mize thinks he was too impatient with the splitter last season. If he’d yank a couple early in the game, he’d too quickly abandon it.

“Obviously, I’m looking for consistency with the spin, release, action and things like that,” he said. “You do that with consistent arm action. But for me, it’s just a volume thing. I have to get back to playing catch with it and throwing it a ton in the bullpen.

“It’s more of a volume thing that’s going to make it be a more comfortable pitch for me.”

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Here’s why having the quality splitter back in his tool kit could be vital. For all the low batting averages and soft contact he induced, Mize didn’t generate much chase (25%), swing and miss (22.5%) or strikeouts (19.3%).

Also, left-handed hitters hit 17 of the 24 homers Mize allowed.

An effective splitter, paired with his slider and much-improved four-seamer, would be an antidote for all of that.

Don’t go chasing K’s

But of course, it’s not as simple as that.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Mize said. “I don’t want to go into a game just focused on strikeouts. That’s not a great mentality for me to have. I’ve tried to keep a mindset of, it’s a race to two strikes and then just try to beat guys.”

Lower strikeout and whiff rates don’t necessarily indicate an inability to finish hitters off. Opponents hit .188 against Mize in two-strike counts, with a 40% strikeout rate (118 punch-outs in 294 plate appearances).

“I probably threw so many 0-2 inside fastballs to right-handed hitters,” Mize said. “Just because I didn’t care. Like, I’m not going to throw three sliders in a row just to try and punch him out. I’m OK with you grounding out on an 0-2, inside fastball. That’s all right.”

That said, Mize knows a well-timed strikeout can turn an inning and a game around.

“I know my mindset can lead to a ton of strikeouts,” he said. “I know there are moments in a game when I need to strike out the guy and I need to improve in that area. I do have to get to where I can turn that mindset on. Like, ‘Hey, I need to strike this guy out,’ and then be able to go get that done.

“But when I look at it from a longevity standpoint and what I want to be as a starting pitcher, that’s not my No. 1 priority.”

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Chasing strikeouts, as Hinch has often said, is a bad idea. But if Mize can reintegrate the splitter, the chase, whiff and strikeout rates would likely improve without any kind of mindset change.

“I’d like to increase the strikeout rate and decrease the walk rate,” he said. “I didn’t walk guys at an alarming rate, but. …”

He was reminded that his 6.7 walk rate was pretty good.

“Yeah, it was good but I’m not known for a good walk rate,” he said. “I want to be known for a great walk rate.”

There’s a window into his competitive soul, right there.

“Honestly, I don’t get hung up on stats,” Mize said. “But I want to put my team in a position to win every time I go out there. So, if I can improve on those things, you are going to see some vast improvement.”

That will be something to see.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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