Battle-tested: Tigers' Casey Mize not defeated or defined by rough 7-start MLB debut

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — If you were looking for a window into Casey Mize’s character, go back to Sept. 23 at Target Field.

It was after his final start of the 2020 season. It went the way most of his six other starts went last year — an encouraging start quickly devolving into a flurry of hits and runs and an early exit. Afterward, Mize was certainly bloodied emotionally, but he was far from broken.

“I’m not lost,” he said in his postgame interview. “I feel like I have the stuff to be here.”

He was sounding his own offseason battle cry. He was telling whoever needed to hear it that even though he is a one-one — first overall pick in the draft (2018) — he’s never felt anointed or entitled. He’s not going to let seven starts defeat or define him

“It took a lot out of me, honestly,” Mize said Friday in a Zoom conference. “Just getting beat down repeatedly. But I still showed up. I still prepared well and I still competed very hard. I just got after it the best I could.

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“The on-field performance was not what I wanted, but I was really happy how I battled through and I kept moving forward. I was pleased with how I handled that and I’m looking to build off it."

What betrayed him in those seven starts wasn’t his stuff. It wasn’t his four-seam fastball, his sinker, slider or splitter. It was the one aspect of his game that never failed him at Auburn — his command. He walked 13 and hit five in 28.1 innings.

And he was pitching behind in the count far too often.

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“I need to get back to being me,” he said. “And that’s pounding the strike zone, overwhelming hitters with strikes and having leverage on my side.”

Here’s the tale of the tape, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize throws to a Minnesota Twins batter during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Minneapolis.

►Hitters' slash line when they were ahead in the count against Mize (54 hitters): .385/.556/.846 with a 1.4 OPS.

►Hitters' slash line when they were even in the count (42 hitters): .220/.238/.341, .580 OPS.

►Hitters' slash line when they were behind in the count (37 hitters): .143/.189/.229, .418 OPS.

His inability to stay ahead in counts greatly nullified his signature pitch, the splitter. Opponents hit .318 against it.

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“Throughout the season I threw some really good ones, I yanked a few, I sailed a few and a bunch got hit,” Mize said. “I know a lot of teams were wondering, ‘That’s supposed to be an amazing pitch? What’s up with that?’

“Well, the thing is, the metrics on that pitch didn’t change very much.”

The velocity, spin efficiency, the movement, the sink and fade — all the analytics were on-point. But as Mize said, if he’s throwing splitters in the strike zone on 3-2 and 3-1 counts, big league hitters will attack.

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“What changed was when I was throwing it, the counts and the location,” he said. “It all depends on count and location and unfortunately I was in a lot of non-friendly pitchers counts. The odds go way in the hitter’s favor and it kind of seemed like no matter what I threw, they’d put a good swing on it.

“Once I get the count leverage back on my side and pair some pitches together and start planning ahead in the at-bat a little bit, I think you will see a big improvement in the splitter.”

Through all the tumult last season, though, Mize made a significant discovery. His four-seam fastball is effective at this level, especially up in the zone. With an average velocity of just under 94 mph, he held opponents to a .143 average and .333 slugging with his four-seam.

And that's with a below-average spin rate (2,200 RPMs). 

Pitcher Casey Mize at Detroit Tigers' spring training photo day in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 20, 2020.

“With conversations I’ve had with (new pitching coach) Chris Fetter and people in the organization, they really dove into the data, and I did, as well,” Mize said. “The common thing everybody agreed on was the four-seamer played pretty well up in the zone. Maybe we can mix it in more."

In the past, Mize used the four-seamer mostly late in counts and he worked it in the lower quadrants more than the upper. He may flip that script this year. 

“Maybe I can throw it up there above the barrel a little earlier instead of trying to locate it down and having it leak up over the middle of the plate where the hitter can do damage," he said.

For a pitcher like Mize, with four elite pitches, the 29 percent chase rate and a 10 percent swing-and-miss rate he posted in those seven starts was astoundingly low. But — and you don’t need a sabermetrician to point this out — hitters chase less against pitchers who don’t establish command of the zone and they tend to miss fewer pitches in the zone in hitters’ counts.

“I definitely expected more of myself and I was really frustrated with how things turned out,” he said. “But in that light, in the past I’ve shown the ability to learn from experiences and I’ve had a lot of failed experiences. I’m just going to try to do that again — just take the things I’ve learned and work through it and improve.

“Hopefully it translates to the field, which I think it will.”

Manager AJ Hinch has let Mize know that while he is an integral part of the team’s future, his spot in the rotation in 2021 will have to be earned. Going into spring training next month, Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Fulmer and Jose Urena will have the inside track on four spots.

The fifth and possibly sixth spots are open and Mize is in the mix with fellow rookie Tarik Skubal, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander.  

“It’s definitely a different feel going into this camp and I’m looking forward to it,” Mize said. “The last couple of times (Mize was in big-league camp in 2019 and 2020) it was like, ‘I’m not making the team, everybody knows it, it’s OK.’ Now I’m trying to make the team and win a spot. It’s a different feel.”

Not one he’s shying away from at all. In fact, even though he only threw 28 innings last year, Mize has already told Hinch that he’s ready and willing to pitch as many innings as they will let him.

“It’s the real deal when you’re playing in the big leagues,” he said. “There are no free passes. You’ve got to get the job done and I am looking forward to getting it done this year. Obviously, I want to show people what I can do. But I want to prove it to myself too, that I can go out there and do my own thing.”

Twitter: @cmccosky