Erie, Pa. — Casey Mize’s afternoon was going smoothly in the fashion of late-summer days on baseball’s farm.
The TV inside Erie’s clubhouse featured some raucous, 20s-something game show in which every five words were bleeped, which at moments amused Mize, and the man sitting next to him on a leather sofa, wearing a powder-blue-and-white stocking cap, SeaWolves outfielder Cam Gibson.
Five feet away was Mize’s locker. Here he would sit a few minutes later on a metal stool explaining his semi-sweet 2019 season and first full year of professional baseball.
“Definitely, a very long year,” said Mize, a steadfastly pleasant gent graced by a capacity crowd of dark brown hair and curls. “But I prepared extremely well for that. I didn’t see much difference from what I had done last year.”
He speaks of a 2019 season that brought for Mize some sexy status: He was good enough during his years at Auburn to have coaxed the Tigers into making him last year’s First Overall Draft Pick.
And then he pitched like the draft’s top prize.
There was a casual 13-inning warm-up last summer, followed by this year’s early virtuoso: four starts at Single A Lakeland where Florida State hitters all but petitioned for his promotion. That came in late April, after which he had nine more starry shifts with Erie.
His combined numbers during those 13 games were the stuff you might see from, well, a top overall draft pick: 78 innings, 41 hits, eight earned runs, 12 walks, 75 strikeouts. His ERA (0.92) was nearly as staggering as his WHIP (0.68.)
All so smooth, so inspiring, with people covering their eyes at a Detroit team’s antics wondering if Mize’s Single A-Double A blitz was simply a rehearsal for regular work sometime next year at Comerica Park.
Then the masterpiece got blurry, as so often is the case with pitchers.
During a game June 13 at Reading, Mize lasted only into the third inning when his shoulder didn’t feel right, just as a suddenly drooping fastball suggested.
He ceased in mid-inning and was hustled to the office of James Andrews, baseball’s famed orthopedic expert. Meanwhile, Tigers team doctor Stephen Lemos joined in inspecting a MRI of Mize’s right shoulder.
“Minor inflammation in the back of the shoulder,” was their diagnosis, as described by the Tigers, although Mize said this week, “It was so minor I don’t think they put a real label on it.”
“All was good, health-wise,” he said. “I was 100 percent.”
But he did not pitch again in a game for nearly a month, not until July 10, when he began a pair of rehab starts at Lakeland.
He soon was back with Erie. Minus his old mastery.
'He had a great year'
There were six more starts for the SeaWolves, the last on Aug. 17, before Mize was excused for the remainder of 2019. Those six games were Jekyll and Hyde outings: five earned runs, then a lone run, followed by a third start with six more earned runs, then another single-run stint, followed by another where Mize was socked for a half-dozen, and then a strong finale.
His ERA during those six games: 7.21.
His final numbers for 2019: 109⅓ innings, 2.55 ERA, with a 0.94 WHIP, based on 80 hits and 23 walks, spiced by 106 strikeouts.
“Not too much to it,” Mize said of the Tigers’ decision to halt his season following a final start Aug. 17 against Akron (six innings, four hits, two earned runs, two walks, four whiffs). “I only had two or three starts left. They thought they had seen enough.”
That, in fact, was the Tigers’ verdict: They had seen plenty.
“We just felt, after that first full season of professional baseball, and being very successful, that our eyes told us to shut him down and then work with him on specific things at Instructional League,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president for player development, speaking of the annual teaching seminar teams throw for their better prospects during late September and early October.
“He had a great year. And there are no physical issues, not at all.”
Littlefield says the uneven work following his June-July layoff was all but predictable.
“You see this frequently in the trenches, whether it’s position players or pitchers,” Littlefield said. “You take time off during the season and everyone else is getting their rhythm and timing together, and they’re getting razor-sharp in June and July.
“You take time off and you’re going to be a little rusty when you get back. You’re in quasi-spring-training mode, and whether it’s Casey Mize or anyone else, it’s slow-going to get back what you had.
“But I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. He’s going to be a successful pitcher. Very successful.”
What the Tigers know and Mize concedes is that his fastball velocity was down a “tick or two” during those alternately strong and wobbly games of July and August. But he says fixating on his fastball is wrong. His four-seamer runs low to mid-90s and was reasonably close to normal range as he settled in for his final turns at Erie.
He has five pitches, counting his two-seamer, along with a swerving cutter that most qualifies as an out-pitch, a curveball, and a split-finger he throws as his change-up.
“More than anything, it was pitch selection,” Mize said, although he acknowledged “I just didn’t like my stuff overall as much” after the layoff.
“I got a little out of whack. My pitches weren’t as good as they were prior.
“I didn’t do a good job of expanding the strike zone. Or making quality pitches early in the count.”
Erie manager Mike Rabelo shook his head last week when asked if Mize had turned into your basic Double A mortal after the shoulder flared.
“No, no, no,” Rabelo said. “I don’t think anything changed.”
Counting the innings
Rabelo agrees with Littlefield that a three-week shelving during midseason is nothing a pitcher, any pitcher, is likely to shake off. You undergo a re-start, even after a handful of rehab games.
He also says opposing teams “have video like we do” and that teams were making him pay for pitch selection that Mize insists was at the heart of his bumpy starts.
“What they know,” Rabelo said of opposing hitters who too often were jumping on Mize’s first-pitch fastballs,” is they’ve got to get their hits against a guy like him real fast.”
What could be somewhat messy for Mize and for the Tigers in 2020 is a pitcher’s workload. In throwing only 109 innings this season, it’s unlikely Mize gets much past 130-135 innings in 2020, based on innings increases the Tigers prefer to keep at 25 percent, tops.
Those innings ceilings take on added drama for Mize, given that the only times he has been hit, dating to his junior year at Auburn, have been in his latter starts.
Mize sees it as no issue.
“I threw 130 innings last year,” he said, speaking of the combined 128⅓ innings he threw for Auburn and on the Tigers farm. “I feel I can go a lot more than 130 next year. I’d have been more than 130 this season (minus his shutdown).”
What the Tigers will want from Mize in 2020 is perhaps less than they were envisioning earlier this year. Then it looked from afar — more to outsiders than to the Tigers — as if Mize would go to spring camp in February with at least an outside chance at winning an Opening Day rotation job.
Brake-pedals are now being tapped.
He will need a smooth spring and summer minus slowdowns or breakdowns. If all goes well and he slices and dices hitters as was Mize’s habit in the past, it’s possible he could see Detroit at some point in 2020, although with an innings cap set in the vicinity of 135, it is all but certain the Tigers will work simply to get him a full plate of starts at Erie and/or Triple A Toledo.
The strategy and expectations now are more basic. Mize needs overall innings to be stretched. And then the Tigers can decide if he’s ready for big-league life, with 2021 a more realistic target.
When he shows up at Instructional League in two weeks at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Florida, boundaries will be set.
“Not any competitive throwing,” Littlefield said. “But he’ll keep his arm moving. A.J. (Sager, Tigers minor-league pitching coach) has some things in mind.
“Analytics help identify things a player has done positively and constructively, and we kind of customize a program for each pitcher and position player.”
Mize is fine with plans there and insists the benefit from 2018 was the same dividend his bosses say came from a first full year of pro baseball: A man from Alabama who turned 22 in May dealt with a new routine: pitching in games, not every weekend, but every five or six days.
And with bumps and realities he never knew at Auburn or during those breezy sandlot days.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting over it, mentally,” he said, speaking of those tough summer starts.
Next year, he expects a steadier season.
And maybe that’s because life will also have become more grounded.
He is getting married on Nov. 1, to his longtime girlfriend, Tali Milde. Not many hours after they’ve traded vows and partied heartily the couple will leave for a honeymoon on Tahiti, where thoughts of pitching will have been shelved. A dreamy Pacific island will offer its happy distractions, far from baseball, and closer to what Mize and the Tigers believe will be a more streamlined 2020.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former reporter for The Detroit News