Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Everything you need to know about Casey Mize and Tommy John

Detroit Free Press

So, how’s your elbow feeling?

Of all the things that the past few MLB seasons have forced Detroit Tigers fans to become experts in — U.S. labor law, Cap Anson’s shoddily recorded playing career, the stunning effectiveness of sliders again shortstops with big contracts — the most frustrating one might be ulnar collateral ligament replacement, aka, “Tommy John surgery.”

The procedure, first performed in 1974 on then-Dodgers lefty Tommy John by Dr. Frank Jobe (who’s no relation to the Tigers’ top pick in 2021, Jackson Jobe), involves swapping the elbow’s UCL out for a tendon from somewhere else.

There were about a dozen TJ surgeries combined in the decade after John’s recovery — he pitched until 1989, when he was 46; last year alone, there were 126 performed on players in MLB organizations.

JEFF SEIDEL: Juxtaposition of Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000 hits and Tigers team that musters just 2

This year, we’re already at 36, which, unfortunately, doesn’t count the soon-to-be-newest member of the TJ club: 2018 No. 1 overall pick (and someday Tigers ace) Casey Mize, who, as the Freep’s Evan Petzold reports, will get the procedure despite not having an actual tear in his UCL, merely a lack of tightness.

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The frequency of TJ surgery isn’t necessarily an epidemic brought on by overreliance on split-finger fastballs or sliders, but mostly a reliable treatment of damage done by the very unnatural act of throwing a baseball fast enough to get a speeding ticket on every road in the country, with a 12-18 month recovery time.

Yes, that means Mize will miss all of 2022, and probably most of 2023. The current poster boy for TJ surgery, Justin Verlander, was injured in July 2020, got the surgery in late September 2020 and was ready for Opening Day 2022; he has a 1.94 ERA with 78 strikeouts and 15 walks over 78⅔ innings this season. His fastball, which averaged 94.9 mph in 2020, is at 94.8 mph this season.

Perhaps the only reassuring part of the not-entirely-unexpected Mize news is that the Tigers aren’t short on examples of every stage of the recovery process, with Michael Fulmer going under the knife in March 2019 — you can catch up on the process’s 48-year history here from back when Fulmer went down — followed by Joey Wentz (March 2020), Alex Faedo (December 2020), Spencer Turnbull (July 2021) and even catcher Jake Rogers (September 2021).

And then there’s the EIGHT other Tigers on the 40-man roster with TJ surgery well before they joined the Tigers: pitchers Wily Peralta (2007), Andrew Chafin (2009), Will Vest (2016), Tarik Skubal (2016), Michael Pineda (2017) and Jason Foley (2017), plus position players Kody Clemens (2016) and Derek Hill (2016).

Again, this isn’t a Tigers-centric issue; on the same day as Mize’s diagnosis, 2021 AL All-Star reliever Andrew Kittredge also got a TJ diagnosis. The 36 players already operated on this year come from 19 organizations.

The loss of Mize for the next 18 months also provides a little perspective on Sunday’s rough start by Skubal, who surrendered four runs on seven hits and two walks over four innings. “I was exhausted coming off of it. But you know it (can be) good to have that type of adversity on the mound, you learn a lot about yourself,” Skubal said to the Free Press last week.

Adversity on the mound beats adversity in the doctor’s office any day.

Mike check, Part I

The most reassuring Tommy John success story, at least from the Tigers’ perspective, took the Comerica Park mound in the eighth inning Saturday; Michael Fulmer struck out two Blue Jays in his inning of work for his seventh straight appearance without allowing an earned run. After Fulmer’s elbow went under the knife in spring 2019, and he spent the rest of that summer rehabbing, and the shortened 2020 season essentially doing his rehab every five days in three inning stints for the Tigers. And now? Well, as Our Man Garcia reports here, Fulmer is taking pride in the “Failed Starter” T-shirt Chafin gifted him. And no wonder: Saturday’s outing lowered Fulmer’s ERA this season to 2.45, with 24 strikeouts and a 1.000 WHIP in 22 innings this season.

Mike check, Part II

In more recent — and less surgical — injury news, right-handed starter Michael Pineda is progressing in his rehab from the broken middle finger he suffered last month. He has checked off two pitches — his fastball and changeup — but still needs some work on his slider as Our Man Petzold reports. Click here to find out what the Tigers’ timetable for his return is.

Back to work for Meadows

Another Tiger made his return last week: Austin Meadows, who exited the injured list Tuesday after missing three weeks recovering from vertigo symptoms. Of course, Meadows may be feeling better, but his bat appears to have caught whatever’s ailing the rest of the Tigers’ lumber: He’s 2-for-17 with a double and two walks over five games. Still, he’s happy to be back in the bigs, as Our Man Petzold reports here: “I got plenty of time. … I feel like I could feel worse.”

Down on the farm, I-75-style

Meadows’ rehab stint in Toledo overlapped with a few banged-up Tigers prospects pushing for a call-up; Our Man Petzold has the scoop in their own words:

AKIL BADDOO: “I want to come down here and be that Baddoo, that spark that I had last year.”

RILEY GREENE: “I’m feeling good, but I’m not feeling like I want to feel.”

RYAN KREIDLER: “You never get hurt when you’re playing bad. It’s life.”

Down on the farm, I-96-style

And then there’s the Tigers prospects starting to build their resumes with High-A West Michigan, where The Freep’s Jeff Seidel checked in earlier this week:

COLT KEITH, the Tigers’ 2020 fifth-round pick: “I never seen anybody hit the ball harder than he does.”

TY MADDEN, the No. 32 overall pick in 2021: “I’m getting better each week. And I think it’s heading in the right direction.”

Happy birthday, Justin, Drew and James!

A trio of 2014 Tigers — though they weren’t ever on the roster at the same time — flip the calendar on another year today, as catcher James McCann turns 32, Drew Smyly turns 33 and Justin Miller turns 35. (Miller and Smyly were on the ’14 roster together in the spring, with Miller sent down to Triple-A in late May and Smyly traded to Tampa Bay in July. McCann then made his MLB debut in September. Go figure.) Earlier this season, Miller pitched in independent ball (after bouncing around the NL for a few seasons), but he was released in early May. Meanwhile, McCann is hitting .196 as the Mets’ backup catcher with another two years left on the $40.6 million deal he signed before the 2021 season. As for Smyly — who had TJ surgery in 2017 — he had a 3.80 ERA with the Cubs this year in nine starts before going on the 15-day injured list on May 31.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Mike Fiers (37 on Wednesday), Tony Clark (50 on Wednesday), Lance Parrish (66 on Wednesday), Ron LeFlore (74 on Thursday), Andrew Chafin (32 on Friday).

Return to Hitsville

That’s literally only in the strictest sense: the Tigers had hits, plural — two of them — on Sunday. (It’s the sixth time in 59 games they’ve been held to two hits or less — oof.) But the ceremony before the game delivered a pleasant flashback to their April 23 victory in which Miguel Cabrera picked up his 3,000th hit and the Tigers scored 13 runs. (On 20 hits!) Our Man Seidel was there for it all — check out his dispatch here for a reminder of better times, the importance of family on and off the field and, of course, how hard it is to pile up 3,000 hits.

3 to watch

This week isn’t all injuries and prospects… but yeah, it’s a lot of injuries and prospects…

BEAU BRIESKE: He’s not hurt! And he picked up his first MLB win, after shutting down AL East beasts New York and Toronto back-to-back.

EDUARDO RODRIGUEZ: He starred in Toledo this week, but the Tigers won’t be rushing him back.

VICTOR REYES: The outfielder had three hits in his return from his second quad strain of the year.

Mark your calendar

After last week’s five-game slate, it’s a full dance card at Comerica Park this week, with three games against the Chicago White Sox from today-Wednesday and four games against the Texas Rangers from Thursday-Sunday. The Rangers’ visit will be especially interesting (or damning, if you’re not a fan of MLB free agency), as approximately $85.5 million of middle infielders (in this year’s salaries alone) will occupy Comerica Park. That’s $33 million for Texas SS Corey Seager, $25 million for Texas 2B Marcus Semien — who have combined for 1.4 WAR — plus $7.5 million for Tigers 2B Jonathan Schoop and $20 million for Tigers SS Javier Báez — who, uh, have not. (We kinda covered this last week.) Still, at least Báez hasn’t struck out since Friday, and he set a personal record Saturday, as Our Man Petzold covered here. Baby steps.

As for the following week, the Tigers meet up with the second MLB player to get Tommy John surgery — Brent Strom, now Arizona’s pitching coach — when they visit the Diamondbacks on June 24-26.

TL;DR

Do you remember the Tigers’ most recent home run? After eight straight games without one, we’ll admit, we had to look it up: Daz Cameron’s two-run blast in the eighth inning on June 2. Since then, the Tigers have hit .186/.222/.253, with 32 singles, 13 doubles and two triples in 266 plate appearances combined. For comparison’s sake, 197 major leaguers have homered over that span, including Byron Buxton with six and Pete Alonso, Bryce Harper — who is limited to DHing for the Phillies due to a UCL tear of his own — and Aaron Judge with five each.

And while the Tigers’ homerless streak is the franchise’s longest since its eight-gamer from  May 10-21, 1972, it’s only tied for the longest in the majors this season; the St. Louis Cardinals went eight games without a dinger from April 21-28. (They’ve hit 46 in 43 games since while jumping into the NL Central lead, just in case you’re still looking for reasons to hope for a Tigers turnaround.)

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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