A deeper examination of a pitching masterpiece by Tigers' Casey Mize
Houston — Eight of Casey Mize’s first 11 pitches Monday night were balls. He walked Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and was staring at Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa, the Astros’ Nos. 4 and 5 hitters. Three batters in and already things were teetering.
Catcher Grayson Greiner took off his mask, called timeout and walked to the mound.
“I went out there and said, ‘Hey, your last five misses were in the same spot. You are good enough to make the adjustment. Make the adjustment,’” Greiner said.
Oh, did he ever make the adjustment.
Mize got Alvarez to fly out to center and he struck out Correa with an elevated 97-mph fastball painted on the outside black. He had to navigate a couple more bumps, especially in the second inning, but when the dust settled, Mize had pitched seven scoreless innings, allowed just four hits and earned his first major league win.
“He was yanking a lot of pitches early, then he started filling up the strike zone with all of his pitches,” manager AJ Hinch said. “His stuff is dynamic, we know that. But to see him put it together and kind of corral himself after some early-game scattering of pitches, I was very proud of him for getting through seven scoreless and getting his first win.”
It was at the end of the second inning, when he struck out Martin Maldonado, that Mize and Greiner both knew his splitter was lethal. With runners at second and third, Mize got Maldonado to strike out swinging at the splitter and then finished the inning getting Altuve to beat another splitter into the ground.
The only issue at that point was to stop yanking his fastball to his glove side. A dugout conversation with pitching coach Chris Fetter did the trick.
“Fett said, ‘In your warm-up pitches, throw with more intent,’” Mize said. “He said, ‘Really try to lock in the fastball command in your warm-up pitches.' Normally I just ramp up to the first pitch of the inning. But he said warm up with more intent and get that locked in because you’re going to need it.”
Fetter also told him his delivery was too quick, too herky-jerky and that he was opening up too fast. Greiner told him it was the same thing he'd dealt with in the fourth inning of his first start of the season at Comerica Park.
You already know how to fix this, was Greiner's message.
“I did that and from the third inning on my fastball command was locked in,” Mize said. “That little fix allowed me to locate my fastball better.”
With the Astros hitters having to honor the four-seam fastball, which Mize was throwing at 95 mph on average and touching 97.6 mph, they couldn’t sit on any of his secondary pitches. Michael Brantley found that out leading off the third inning. Mize set him up with three straight splitters and then froze him with 95 mph right down the middle. Same thing happened to Correa to end the sixth inning, froze him with a 96-mph heater.
“That pitch usage and mix, that’s what I need to be at,” Mize said. “I felt really confident. I felt like I could command everything. And hats off to Grayson. He did a great job of game-planning and mixing pitches.”
Mize threw 28 four-seamers. He threw 26 splitters, the five that were put in play were all ground-ball outs with an average exit velocity of 81.6 mph. He threw 21 hard sliders (88-90 mph, which were also beaten into the dirt, mostly), plus eight knuckle-curveballs and six sinkers.
He went through Brantley, Bregman and Alvarez in nine pitches in the third inning. He dispatched Maldonado, Altuve and Bregman in six pitches in the fifth. Starting with the double-play grounder he got off speedy Myles Straw to end the fourth, Mize recorded six straight ground-ball outs, and 11 on the night.
“We definitely threw the splitter more today,” Greiner said. “I might’ve fallen in love with his slider too much in his first outing. Today we mixed in more splitters and curves and got a lot of weak contact on the ground. Whenever they had runners on, I was trying to call a pitch that could get us a ground ball and get us out of the inning.”
When a pitcher is executing his pitches like Mize was Monday, it makes the game plan look psychic. Like how they went after Bregman, for example.
“We set up Bregman in that third at-bat,” Mize said.
Mize threw Bregman two fastballs in the first inning when he walked him. He got him out with a curveball in the third.
“He hadn’t really seen a fastball in, so we missed off the plate with a fastball in (in the sixth inning) and threw a slider right off that and got weak contact (ground out to third),” Mize said. “That’s just a really small part of what goes into a lot of game-planning and prep.”
The splitter wrote Mize’s ticket from Auburn to the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2018. But it hadn’t been a dependable weapon for him in his young big-league career, until Monday.
“Tonight was a good night,” he said. “I need to capture what I was doing, take some notes on that and look at video and try to bring that back out for the next time. I threw it a ton; in disadvantage counts, to right-handers. That’s normally what I can do. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that as of late.
“This is something I can definitely build on.”
He won’t soon forget his first big-league beer-orange juice-baby powder-baby oil shower, which his teammates bestowed upon him in honor of his first big-league win. The first phone call went to his wife. The game ball will probably go to his parents.
But only time will tell if this win, in his ninth big-league start, was the turning point in his career. It sure felt like it.
“I’ve learned to succeed through failure,” Mize said. “And I’ve had it a lot, especially early at new levels. And I’m not saying I’m through with that here. I need to keep it rolling. But that failure allowed me to re-evaluate some things and go back to the drawing board and put in the work that comes from that.
“The experience. Filling up the strike zone, throwing first-pitch strikes, creating weak contact instead of trying to chase strikeouts, get the guys back in the dugout. It’s stuff I’ve always known, but it was a reminder. And last year I had a lot of reminders. Tonight felt really good.”