Auburn, Ala. — Friday night’s air is heavy and wet in the manner of a warm near-spring evening in America’s Deep South. Already, the game against Texas A&M has been delayed 45 minutes by a March shower, although a man who just sauntered onto the mound, Casey Mize, seems content.
Auburn’s baseball Tigers are playing sixth-ranked A&M at splashy, high-tech Hitchcock Field, adjacent to Auburn’s football cathedral, Jordan-Hare Stadium.
First batter is the talented Zach DeLoach, carrying a 1.054 OPS: Four pitches. Strikeout swinging, the last pitch a hard-breaking slider.
Second batter, Michael Helman, 1.025 OPS: Strikeout swinging, last pitch a cutter at 89 mph.
Third batter, Braden Shewmake, nicks Mize for a single up the middle, all before Mize blows away clean-up batter Logan Foster who swings through a third-strike, 95-mph heater. One thing you notice: Mize pitching from the stretch is as potent as when he’s throwing from a full wind-up.
The second inning is even tidier as scouts from nearly all of baseball’s big-league clubs take in the show: Three batters. Three strikeouts. A wicked slider, a 96-mph fastball, and a cutter at 90 are Mize’s second-inning, put-away pitches. A junior right-hander, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, who some see as the Detroit Tigers’ possible, if not probable, first overall pick in June’s draft, is dealing.
“The last two weeks his fastball has played up really well,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said, stepping into an interview room within the team’s glass-and-carpet offices following Auburn’s 4-1 victory.
“Where Casey was as a freshman and where he is now,” and Thompson shook his head, unable to measure, with any real precision, how much progress a 20-year-old man has made in three years since he left Springville (Ala.) High, a half-hour north of Birmingham, and headed for Auburn.
Mize has four tough pitches a team from Detroit is monitoring as the Tigers bone up for the first pick in the June 4 amateur draft. They are not sharing secrets about who heads their list in the way-too-early going. But Tigers scouts, who were known to have been on hand last Friday, had fodder for their files.
Mize’s four-seam fastball runs 94-96. There is a slider that cruises 83-84. There is a devilish split-finger dart Mize throws for his change-up. And then there is the pitch he added only 10 days before the 2018 season got rolling. It’s the veering cut fastball. And he throws it as he throws each of his pitches: for strikes.
Mize has tossed 32 2/3 innings in his five starts, striking out 51 batters. He has walked all of three. He is 5-0, with a 1.93 ERA and .134 opposing batting average. Already this month he has no-hit Northeastern University. His final line, in the weekend series opener against tough Texas A&M: 7 1/3 innings, one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts. Of the 98 pitches he threw against some often-overwhelmed Aggies batters, a stunning 72 were for strikes.
The Tigers have options, plenty, 10 weeks before the draft. Brady Singer, who was the presumed No. 1 pitcher in the country heading into 2018, is throwing niftily at the University of Florida. Shane McClanahan, who is throwing-left-handed bullets at the University of South Florida, a few miles from the Tigers’ spring camp, is hitting 100-mph. Arizona prep lefty Matthew Liberatore is dynamite. Young hitters Nolan Gorman, Jarred Kelenic, Brice Turang, and Travis Swaggerty — any could find themselves in the top spot by the time Memorial Day arrives.
And yet Mize steadily is flooring scouts with his power and precision.
Baseball America’s summary from the past weekend was heavy on Auburn-Texas A&M, adding this nugget: “Mize was magnificent Friday night in a 4-1 victory, showing why he is becoming a leading contender to be the top overall draft pick in June.”
Thompson, 47, has eyes that look like blue baseball seams. He is a native Mississippian armed with what you deduce in a hurry is a high-OPS intellect meant to teach baseball, with particular expertise on the pitching side.
“I’m seeing this cutter,” he says of Mize’s arsenal, after mentioning Mize’s fastball uptick the past two weeks. “Last week it (cutter) was up to 90, 91. I’m seeing a slider hanging out in the neighborhood of 83-84.
“Anyone who can get 26 strikeouts in a couple of outings,” he said, referring to the Northeastern no-hitter and Friday’s follow-up against the Aggies
“That cutter’s got a fastball look for a long period of time. The slider’s got much more depth, and it’s a two-planer that’s a lot slower than the split. But I think the cutter has allowed him to throw the split less frequently.”
When thrown with zip and to specific spots, the cutter is one of baseball’s death-knell pitches. It is the pitch that next year probably will put Mariano Rivera in the Hall of Fame. Jon Lester, David Price, Adam Wainwright — all have dined heavily on cutters.
THE LEARNING CURVE
Mize’s father, Jason, explained this week how his son’s cutter evolved. Tyler Stovall, a graduate-assistant coach on Thompson’s staff, was the Auburn football team’s four-year holder on place kicks from 2014-2017.
That’s after he pitched in the Braves organization from 2008-2011. He had been a second-round pick out of high school and decided after baseball didn’t work out that there could yet be life as a student and athlete at Auburn.
It was Stovall who a couple of months ago showed Casey Mize a cutter grip. It worked from the get-go. Not much tinkering.
It’s all part of a pitcher’s progression from his days at Springville High when he was throwing a low-90s fastball but didn’t get drafted, in part because of a high ankle sprain his senior year, and perhaps also because scouts knew he was committed to a school he had fallen for as a kid: Auburn.
“When I got here, my slider was not good at all,” said Mize, whose dark-brown curls spill from the back of a white Auburn baseball cap. “My split-change was OK, but coach messed with my grip a bit and it’s been pretty good ever since.”
Then, this winter’s epiphany: the cutter.
“It allows my slider to play,” said Mize, who is a sports business major at Auburn, with an emphasis on coaching. “It allows me to throw the slider at 83, 84, for a first pitch, then maybe go to a power-cutter at the end of the at-bat and maybe get a strikeout.
“It also plays off the fastball. If I know a guy’s really sitting fastball, I can throw a cutter and it looks like a fastball and it misses the barrel.
“Command has to be there, and there are a lot of adjustments I had to make, and need to make. But it’s evolved into some pretty good pitches now.”
If there are jitters about a prospect who later this spring turns 21, they concern last year’s forearm strains that twice shut him down.
“A lot of people said it was his splitter causing the strain,” said Jason Mize, Casey’s father, a Navy veteran and law-enforcement staffer for the past 23 years who works for the Jefferson County sheriff’s department. “But Casey always said, no, I don’t feel anything when I throw the splitter. They figured out that it was more the way he was releasing the slider. He was extending too much.
“It was made into a big deal. But the fact is, he never took enough time off for it to heal.”
There have been zero issues in 2018.
Nor are there dark questions about a pitcher’s make-up.
Jonathan Ford is Springville High’s head baseball coach and remembers a middle-school shortstop seven years ago who had uncommon all-around talent.
“He played as an eighth-grader on my jayvee team, and that very rarely happens,” Ford said. “I knew, just by watching him play shortstop that pitching was definitely something he would succeed at.
“His freshman year was where you saw the change. By then, he was on the varsity. He got in quite a few innings. He still wasn’t the main guy, but each time he went out there, he just knew how to attack people. He was fearless in doing it, and he has that same mentality now.
“One thing I especially remember: His freshman year, I made all my players write down their goals for that season. I remember his goal was to be a leader, even though he was just a freshman. That always stuck with me. You could see it from an early age.”
These are the kinds of issues teams always consider with draft picks, emphatically so when a player is to be taken first overall and mistakes cannot, practically speaking, be forgiven. It isn’t only the $6-million-plus check written to sign the first round’s litter-pick. It’s the stakes involved for a rebuilding club like the Tigers. Had they missed on Justin Verlander in 2004, as the Padres did in not taking him first overall one spot ahead of Detroit, some rich Motown baseball history would have been rewritten. And probably for the worse.
Mize understands why men with radar-guns and laptops are settling into box seats at Hitchcock Field, as well as at ballparks on the road. They are taking detailed notes on scores of players, including a college junior who could out-point everyone when Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, steps to the podium and announces the first overall pick on June 4.
“He knows there were north of 20 ballclubs there tonight,” Thompson said late Friday night. “I had two GMs (big-league general managers) come to my office today, so he’s aware. We’re all aware.
“I’m bracing for it. I love it. I think he’s deserving. And if he can’t get past that,” Thompson said, speaking of the scouts’ scrutiny Mize might feel as he unloads any of those four pitches, “he’s not going anywhere, anyway.
“But he’s pretty well versed. This is a different level, where he could potentially fit into the draft. He’s well aware, and I think to this point in the season, he’s handled it masterfully.”