Casey Mize and a host of young Tigers pitchers started strong this spring

Bless You Boys

Now that all the Tigers starting pitchers have gotten their first outing in, and some their second, let’s circle back to see what Statcast can tell us about the quality of stuff we’re seeing. In the first part of this pair of articles, the main takeaway was that the Tigers pitchers had come to camp in game shape and velocity was up almost across the board from last year. Jack Flaherty, Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske, and several other pitchers showed out on the radar gun as Grapefruit League play got underway last weekend, while Tarik Skubal and top prospect Jackson Jobe was topping 99 mph in short bursts.

Pitchers airing it out in short outings early in spring camp isn’t unusual, but it was certainly worth noting that so many guys were topping out between 97-99 mph. Beyond velocity, there were also plenty of interesting improvement in pitch shapes, from Beau Brieske throwing his slider harder with more break, to a host of guys adding induced vertical break on their riding fourseam fastballs.

The Tigers have a pretty good pitching staff right now. They lack a second high end starter to pair with Tarik Skubal atop the rotation, but they have a very solid, deep group of starting pitchers beyond him, and one of best groups of upper level pitching prospects in the minor leagues pushing to make their debuts in 2024. And more and more, we see the results of the Tigers work to improve in pitching development. From the leadership of pitching coach Chris Fetter and the addition of Gabe Ribas as director of pitching development, to building up a biomechanics and sports science department over the past three years, the club’s investments seem to be paying off.

It’s certainly easier to believe that young pitchers will continue to improve rather than flaming out at the major league level. We saw more signs of it over the last three games. Young arms like Keider Montero, Brant Hurter, and Wilmer Flores have continued to impress early in camp.

The position player group needs more help, but if the club can just have something of an average year in terms of pitcher injuries, the Twins and whoever else wants the AL Central are going to have their hands full with the Tigers. They have good odds of getting better as the season goes on and the next wave of young talent gets more experience.

For now, all we can do is take the pitching staff’s temperature by looking through their Statcast data and stuff metrics.

Casey Mize

After nearly two years in the wilderness, the Tigers 2018 first overall pick finally returned to action on Tuesday in split squad action against the Toronto Blue Jays. We’d heard rumor that he was in really good shape coming into camp, and that was confirmed with some impressive numbers in his first outing.

After 20 months on the shelf with UCL reconstruction and back surgery, Mize has a lot to prove. He’ll turn 27 in two months, and will be a free agent in three years. So while he deserves some time to get in a groove and recapture his command, Mize still has to earn a long-term spot in the rotation again.

Things got off to a really good start. Sure, the Blue Jays strung together a couple of hits right off the bat and scored twice, but all that is irrelevant right now. The work Mize has put in to come back better than ever is going to pay some dividends. Not only was he throwing hard, touching 97 mph repeatedly, but he’s added four inches of extension toward the plate, and was posting far and away the best induced vertical break (IVB) marks of his career. His best fastball peaked at 21.3 inches of IVB and that is elite territory. Physically and in terms of mechanics, he looks to have made some strides during his time away, and now it’s hard not to get a little excited about him.

With much improved ride on the fourseamer and better extension, the splitter should benefit as well. Mize’s slider has been a workhorse for him but not a great swing and miss offering in the past, but everything is better when the fourseamer is that much better. With more of a north-south approach in general between the fourseamer and the splitter, Mize’s solid curveball also deserves some attention, as it may be more effective as well if he can tune it up a little more. But his big weakness has been the fastball, and so this is a pretty major development for him.

Mize didn’t have great command his first time out, but command has been his calling card since his college days. We’re not too concerned about that beyond the fact that it sometimes takes pitchers a long time to get to their previous levels of command. What Mize does have going for him is a physical base and track record of good command, as well as his long recovery timeline. He wasn’t too far from making a return to action late last summer, and reportedly was cleared pretty early on for a normal offseason.

If this is sustainable Casey Mize 2.0, the Tigers are going to be thrilled.

Jason Foley and Kenta Maeda

We don’t have too much on Jason Foley. The dependable sinkerballers collected a pair of strikeouts, allowing just a ground ball single in his first inning of work. He also hit 100 mph along the way. Foley’s task is to continue to develop his slider a little more. It improved last year, and if he’s more consistent with it this season he’s going to be one of the better relievers in the game. Foley was 15th best in 2023 per FanGraphs, racking up 1.5 fWAR. At very least he’s well on track for another excellent year where he just doesn’t give up walks or home runs and is extremely hard to score on.

One of the Tigers more important free agent acquisitions this offseason made his debut on Friday. Right-hander Kenta Maeda’s fastball averaged just 89.3 mph, but Maeda and manager AJ Hinch were unphased, with Maeda telling reporters that he rarely throws hard in the offseason and prefers to just build up in camp. As an older pitcher with a lot of mileage that’s hard to argue with and he normally averages only around 91 mph and is just one of those rarer pitchers nowadays who don’t depend on velocity for success. Otherwise his stuff looked basically unchanged other than uncharacteristically poor fastball command.

Keider Montero and Wilmer Flores

This pair of young right-handers have been personal favorites the past two seasons. Both were completely unheralded when the Tigers acquired them, and the previous front office again deserves credit for finding a lot of talent off the beaten trail, even if it took a new regime to develop those players.

Montero was just a decently talented 16-year-old, unranked anywhere and not a standout physical specimen, when the Tigers signed him out of Valencia, in north central Venezuela, back in 2016. He first got our attention during his run in rookie ball for the old short season New York-Penn League, playing for the Connecticut Tigers in 2019. Montero showed 3000 rpm breaking balls, low to mid-90’s velocity and aggressive strike throwing.

His progress stalled a little in 2020-2021, but things finally came together last season and he jumped from High-A to Triple-A by late August. Command issues and perhaps lack of pedigree have really held his stock down despite the obvious potential in his stuff and his durability and improving velocity the past two years. Long-time BYB readers know I’m an original Montero bandwagon conductor, and the data we got this week only helped our argument.

On Friday, Montero closed out the Tigers win over the Phillies with two innings of work, allowing one run that came around as a result of his own throwing error on a pickoff. He also racked up four strikeouts, two called and two swinging, against seven batters faced. The 23-year-old still has work to do in commanding the whole set of pitches, but as the data shows, it is a really good set of pitches. He and the Tigers pitching development group have put in a lot of work to tune things up and it shows.

Montero had four above average pitches going for him by Stuff+ metrics on Friday, and averaged 95.9 mph with his fourseamer. The right-hander has struggled at times to command his high spin curveball-slider combo, but either can be a weapon for him, so he’s almost had the breaking ball. In 2023, a new split change grip unlocked a pretty good changeup for him. The data on Friday agreed, giving more confirmation to the idea that Montero is pretty well loaded with weapons if he can just refine his fastball command a little further.

Wilmer Flores, younger brother of the long-time San Francisco Giants infielder of the same name, and despite standing 6’4” and throwing in the high-90’s, went undrafted in the shortened 2020 draft. The Tigers signed him for a paltry 20K signing bonus that summer. A breakout 2022 campaign saw him just overpowering A-ball and then AA hitters with a big fastball and flashing a really good curveball and cutter that got more consistent as the season progressed. However, in 2023 he dealt with some forearm issues, his velocity really fell off to more 92-94 mph and while his performance was still reasonably good, he just wasn’t the same pitcher.

Flores camp to camp looking in even better shape than in prior seasons, and he and the Tigers so far appear to have his 2023 issues behind him. The big right-hander has changed his set position and simplified his delivery to drive more on line to the plate. He’s always had pretty good extension, and while we don’t have any data on that yet this spring, he looks like he’s added even more. He hit 99 mph while striking out three against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday.

It’s just a simpler, more efficient and direct delivery, and as a result he isn’t over-rotating off target and he’s staying behind the ball better. Combined with the work on his body, so far this is producing a really big fastball with extension and good IVB. However, while Flores has a solid slider, it’s his power curve that really gives him a strong second weapon, and he’s still struggling to command that consistently.

Flores just turned 23 and will be debuting at the Triple-A level, so there’s plenty of time, but he is on the 40-man roster now. The Tigers added him for a reason. Expect him to get plenty of time this season to take the next step as a starter, but if the club needs help in the bullpen this summer, a healthy, high-powered Flores in the bullpen could look like an attractive alternative.

Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz

Finally we get to the grizzled veterans. Right-hander Alex Faedo is 28 years old, and lefty Joey Wentz still only 26, but they’ve each been with the Tigers organization a long time and have yet to carve out a major league role. Both are running out of time, with Wentz out of options, and Faedo will one remaining perhaps having the longer leash of the two. If the Tigers don’t take him north in the bullpen, they could keep Faedo to stretch out as a depth starter in Toledo, though that rotation looks pretty crowded with talented young pitchers right now. It’s probably past time to make him a full-time reliever and see if he can help them, but Faedo worked on a new changeup grip after years of struggling with blisters with his old one, and that sounds like he’s still planning on starting.

Faedo followed Kenta Maeda with two scoreless innings on Friday. He struck out three, allowing just a single. Faedo averaged 93.8 mph, about a mile an hour faster than in 2023, and touched 94.9 mph. Still, it’s a below average fastball because of the pedestrian movement and his lack of extension. The key for Faedo remains the slider and he was racking up whiffs with it as usual in his outing. Perhaps there’s something left.

Of course, a lefty has priority for different reasons, and the Tigers are probably going to give Wentz one more extended chance to produce in the bullpen on the Opening Day roster if he can put together a good camp.

Wentz got hit around a bit on Friday after putting up a strong first outing. The whiffs weren’t there mainly because the command wasn’t as good, and that’s kind of been the story for him. He’s moved back to more of an over the top arm slot, like he had when the Tigers traded for him back in 2019, and the fastball looks somewhat improved, and with good velocity so far. But Wentz has always had good enough stuff and just hasn’t been able to show more than flashes of major league command. Better IVB on the fastball and good velocity helps, but he’s got to find a way to simplify his approach and throw more quality pitches to stick in a bullpen that has Tyler Holton and Andrew Chafin locked in as the two main left-handers.

Notes from camp

Parker Meadows crushed a home run to right center field for his first of the year on Friday. With a few nice defensive plays already and flashing the power, he’s off to a good start.

Eddys Leonard homered on Friday as well. He has a pair of doubles and a homer in 11 plate appearances, picking up where he left off in 2023 after catching fire with the Toledo Mud Hens in August and September. The young shortstop is widely considered a future second or third baseman, but he’s not a mess at the shortstop position either. If he continues to drive the ball in the air to left field like this it might be enough to overcome some defensive liabilities at the shortstop position. With few options if Javier Báez can’t turn things around, Leonard already had some attention coming into camp. A strong start doesn’t hurt his chances. In related news, the other viable shortstop on the roster, Ryan Kreidler, homered on Friday as well. Injuries have limited Kreidler the past two years after his 2021 breakout, but he seems likely to get a long look this season if he can just stay on the field and get back in a groove at the plate.

Andre Lipcius was DFA’d as the Tigers claimed 25-year-old infielder Buddy Kennedy off waivers from the Cardinals. Kennedy is a little more versatile fielder than Lipcius perhaps, but similar in that he controls the strike zone and gives a good bat, without any real standout tools. The Tigers would probably like to re-sign Lipcius to a minor league deal, but we’ll see if he gets through waivers or not. He’s still only 25 as well, and a fairly solid all around player who did a pretty good job getting on base and adding a dash of power in his 38 plate appearance major league debut last year.

Right-hander Brenan Hanifee has posted three scoreless innings so far, showing a bigger fastball than he had last year in Toledo.

Right-hander Drew Anderson, signed to a minor league deal in January after two years with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the NPB, has also shown some pretty impressive stuff in camp. This a big time fourseam fastball, and a nasty breaking ball scraping 3000 rpms as well. His ERA for Hiroshima was really good throughout his tenure, but he will get a little wild at times and issued his share of walks. If the Tigers can dial him in they might really have something.

Finally, the Tigers made an interesting minor league free agent signing in RHP Thomas Bruss. The 24-year-old was training with Tread Athletics and posting some outstanding numbers. Bruss was topping out at 100 mph with good movement and a pretty nasty breaking ball. The Tigers decided to give him a shot, and watching his clips you’ll see why. He has a long way to go, but it’s just good to see the Tigers continuing to cast a wide net and picking up a lot of talented but overlooked young pitchers.

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