LAKELAND, Fla. — Miguel Cabrera, Javier Baez, Jonathan Schoop and Isaac Paredes took turns in the batter’s box, as the Detroit Tigers administered live batting practice Monday on the TigerTown backfields.
“That was fine with me,” pitcher Casey Mize said.
Mize, a fearless competitor, wouldn’t want it any other way. He faced those four hitters throughout the session on the first day of spring training workouts.
The 24-year-old, entering his second full MLB season, had already thrown multiple live BPs at KineticPro Performance in Tampa, but now that the lockout is over, he has returned to the Tigers’ facility and is once again working with pitching coach Chris Fetter.
“We had already talked about a plan before the (MLB) lockout, but it was good to be able to say, ‘I worked on this and I liked it,'” Mize said. “It’s definitely good to see everybody and catch up and talk about offseason work and plans moving forward.”
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Mize threw his four-seam fastball, slider, split-finger and curveball.
“The curveball is something I’m trying to work in there some more,” Mize said. “I think it’s a good pitch for me, so the usage needs to increase. First inning, we threw a lot of sliders — but I know that’s going to be there for me. Second inning, we worked on a lot more curveballs and splitters.”
Last season, Mize used 29.1% four-seamers, 28% sliders, 22.9% sinkers, 13.2% splitters and 6.8% curveballs. Moving forward, he plans to throw “a few” sinkers to right-handers, but he won’t use the pitch against lefties.
Mize had a 3.71 ERA, 41 walks and 118 strikeouts in a team-leading 150⅓ innings and 30 starts as a rookie.
“If he does his job — he did pretty damn well last year — that should be good enough when you’re trying to win,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “Obviously, we want to tweak a little bit of usage and not have the mid-game fade that he had from time to time. But coming off last season, we have a ton of confidence in Casey being an elite pitcher.”
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The main goal for Mize, though, is to showcase more of his splitter. It’s the best pitch in his arsenal and was the driving force in his evolution at Auburn, where he developed into the No. 1 overall pick in 2018.
But in 2021, Mize’s splitter practically disappeared.
“I would just throw a couple in the game that I didn’t like early on and completely abandon it, which is something I’d never done in the past,” Mize said. “I told myself, ‘Keep throwing this pitch because it’s so good for you.’ I did that a few games in a row, where I threw a couple in the first two innings that I didn’t like, and then I didn’t throw it.
“You’re not going to be able to have consistent feel if you’re not doing it enough. The decrease in volume led to the decrease in feel. I need to increase the volume, and that feel will come back.”
The usage of Mize’s splitter steadily decreased last season, according to Statcast data: He threw 90 splitters in April, 57 in May, 65 in June, 43 in July, 35 in August and 22 in September. By the end of the year, just 312 of his 2,357 pitches were splitters.
And this pitch was supposed to be his best secondary offering.
“It’s mindset stuff, honestly,” Mize said. “It’s crazy how if you just think something while you’re doing it, it’ll change the outcome of the pitch. It’s really as simple as that. The adjustments we make at this level are really minuscule that make huge differences.”
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During Monday’s live BP, Baez hit Mize’s splitter for a single. Mize also racked up a handful of swings and misses, a product of his offseason improvements in Tampa.
“I spent a lot of time on it, and it’s coming out good,” Mize said. “I’m getting more on top of the ball, and it’s not really sailing as much. If I get under it a little bit, like the one I threw to Javy that he hit today, it’s got more fade to it. The more I get on top of the ball, it’s got true depth like it’s supposed to.”
Prospect to watch
A minor-league pitcher joined Mize in the clash against Cabrera, Baez, Schoop and Paredes. Right-hander Beau Brieske, who impressed the Tigers in minor-league minicamp, received a non-roster invitation to MLB spring training.
The Tigers didn’t hesitate to test the 23-year-old.
“I like his confidence,” Hinch said. “I like his stuff. I know he emerged last year. I’ve closely watched his demeanor and his confidence. I think he thinks he belongs. … I can see why the organization has been high on him and started mentioning his name last summer when he got to Double-A.”
Brieske logged a 3.12 ERA with 23 walks and 116 strikeouts across 106⅔ innings in 21 starts last season in the minors. For Double-A Erie, the 6-foot-3 righty posted a 2.66 ERA with eight walks and 40 strikeouts in 44 innings.
Hinch said Brieske will pitch in an early spring training game.
‘He’s so good’
The Tigers put together an interesting group of hitters for one of the live batting practices — one that would make Tigers fans salivate for the future.
It included Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Akil Baddoo and Harold Castro. At times, Greene, Torkelson and Baddoo were standing together, shoulder to shoulder, behind a protective fence, chit-chatting.
That trio could be playing together for a long time.
Baddoo had one of the first at bats against Garrett Hill, a right hander, and the former Rule 5 draft pick crushed one of the first pitches he saw, one hoping the fence.
“He’s so good!” Torkelson said to Greene.
Baddoo walked back to the protective fence.
“Just like that!” Torkelson said in admiration. “A laser!”
A moment later, Torkelson hit a line drive, then high-fived Greene and fist-bumped Baddoo.
‘I’m about three things’
The Tigers unveiled a shrunken down version of spring training Monday.
Because of the 28-day delay, the Tigers have taken what normally happens over about a 10-day period and condensed it into four days.
“A ton of energy, a ton of enthusiasm, a ton of preparedness,” Hinch said. “I want to thank them.
“The people that have been around me for a season know I’m about three things: I love preparation. I love to have fun. I love to win. Those three things, if we can build towards all of that on these backfields, there’s going to be a ton of camaraderie.”
The players did a little bit of everything. Live BP. Bunting drills. Pitchers-hitting-fielding practice. Infield work. Outfield work. You name it.
Normally, it would be several days into spring training before pitchers would throw to batters.
But it happened on the first day because they have so little time to prepare. The Tigers will play the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday afternoon at Joker Marchant Stadium.
At the end of the practice, it looked like they were holding summer school out on a field. They set up folding chairs on the grass for an outfielders meeting, and the coaches addressed the class.
“We are ahead of a lot of situations that I’ve heard about and known about, just based on the player buy-in and the coach interaction,” Hinch said. “We feel like we’re in a good place at this point. We have a ton of areas to get better. The fact that we don’t have to establish that should give us a head start to fixing some of our flaws.”
The big boys
After watching minor-league minicamp for several weeks, seeing the big boys hit was eye opening.
The ball comes off the bat differently with most of the major leaguers.
Robbie Grossman hammered a home run, and it looked easy.
Dingler makes move
Dillon Dingler, a catcher, moved his stuff from the minor league camp to the major league clubhouse.
The 23-year-old prospect had several impressive hits Monday.
“Yeah, it felt really good,” he said.
Right-hander Matt Manning and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, two members of the Tigers’ starting rotation, completed bullpens. Left-hander Tyler Alexander, penciled in as the fifth starter, joined them.
Rodriguez threw the most pitches.
“Fett’s program is going to be individualized,” Hinch said. “We have to take the players at their word as to what they’ve done and what they can handle. These guys, especially a guy like him, know what it takes to get ready. He also knows what he’s done.”