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Casey Mize knows the knocks are coming as the MLB draft looms

Mize has a unique profile, but he continues as the smart choice for the number one overall pick.

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Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Auburn ace Casey Mize has been the unanimous projection as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB amateur draft for a few months now. It’s no surprise to see him maintaining that position, according to every recent mock draft. In fact, there’s been a certainty around Mize that you don’t often see lasting throughout the entire spring and run up to the draft. However, we’re in the home stretch now. That period often features a slate of rumors and a growing admission of the uncertainty inherent in projecting draft picks from various prospect sites.

FanGraphs released their latest mock draft this week, and there is Mize squarely atop the draft board. The same holds true at ESPN—Keith Law mentions an underslot deal for Matthew Liberatore as an outside shot—Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Yet in a FanGraphs chat on May 16, writer Kiley McDaniel noted that the top of the draft board was showing signs of “blowing up.” Eric Longenhagen clarified McDaniel’s comment a bit in his FanGraphs chat on Thursday.

We just think the pack up top is close enough that you can talk yourself out of Mize between his injury history, atypical pitch usage, etc. We’ve been operating under the assumption that he’d go 1 for a while now but all that stuff I just mentioned plus what we know about where Detroit decision makers have been lately indicate that other scenarios are more possible than we’ve discussed up to this point.

You can expect more of this sort of thing in the coming weeks. McDaniel and Longenhagen are both excellent prospect writers and highly respected. Yet, no one is immune from the rising tide of chatter that will sweep the baseball world in the coming weeks. It’s quite difficult to separate wild rumors from those with a kernel of fact to them. This could be the Tigers angling to keep Mize’s bonus demands down. It could be another team with a top pick trying to create uncertainty, or simply a random employee spouting off. The point is, don’t take any of this too seriously. Mize is still the heavy favorite to go first overall, and nothing is likely to change that.

Despite the certainty of his status as the number one player in the draft — or perhaps because of it — Mize doesn’t seem to be generating quite the buzz you might expect. Some of this is just the shenanigans that surround the final weeks before the draft. Rumors and posturing hit a new fever pitch, and for a lock like Mize, that means you can expect some nitpicking and criticism along the way. Everyone seems to think he will be good, but there continues to be a slightly muted appraisal of his potential as a future ace. Mize is aware of this fact.

Some of this is due to his past injury history, while some can be attributed to the fact that he throws a splitter as one of his main swing-and-miss pitches. There has always been a bit of apocryphal wisdom in baseball that throwing a splitter is harder on the arm, and Mize has had some minor arm trouble during his college career. However, the splitter is also a devastating weapon, especially in these home run happy times. One need look no further than Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani to see just how impossible the splitter can be for hitters when it’s set up with a power fastball.

In an excellent piece from Katie Strang of The Athletic, Mize recently addressed some of the nagging concerns about his injury history and splitter usage. As he explained, he doesn’t characterize his version as a true splitter, but as more of a hybrid split-change.

What people don’t really understand about it, like who haven’t seen the grip or haven’t seen me throw it or talk to me about it — the first thing is I don’t have very big hands, and so I don’t split the ball, like, almost in half like a lot of people think,” Mize explained in a conversation with The Athletic’s Max Bultman this past weekend.

Research continues to correlate velocity and usage with arm injury. As to various breaking balls and changeups, there is basically nothing concrete to suggest any particular concerns with offspeed pitches. As Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy confirmed to Strang, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the splitter is any harder on a pitcher’s arm than any other pitch. And as Mize says, he’s not exactly splitting his fingers all the way to either side of the ball, as in a true split-finger fastball. On the other hand, it’s more about how far your fingers are split in relationship to your hand size and finger length, and as Mize illustrates in the video clip, it’s pretty close to a full splitter.

Mize did have a bit of arm trouble last year, but as he detailed to The Athletic, he and his coaches at Auburn did a lot of video analysis, concluding it was actually his old slider grip that was the culprit. Mize revamped his grip and approach to throwing the slider this year, and the results were an improved pitch with sharper tilt to it. After a monster campaign for Auburn this spring, he’s also got results in the form of 89 innings with a 124:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio to say he’s clearly the best amateur pitcher in the country.

It’s perfectly natural to have injury concerns about a pitcher who is about to command a bonus of $7 million (or more) and a premium draft pick. However, worries about Mize seem like much ado about nothing. He just wrapped up one of the better college seasons you will ever see in a tough SEC, and could doubtless get outs in the major leagues as he is. If you’re worried about the splitter, take comfort in the fact that his new cutter and improved slider should mean he can use the splitter as an out-pitch almost exclusively.

If there’s an actual issue left to discuss, it’s the debate over just how well Mize’s fastball will play in the major leagues. The heater is rated as plus by just about everyone, so this is still hair-splitting for the most part. But for some observers, seeing a college pitcher using a cutter to keep hitters off the fastball leaves a lingering concern as to whether the pitch is too straight, too often. These are the kind of details where a team has to rely on it’s data, and on experienced sets of eyes to evaluate the nuances of a pitcher’s delivery.

Mize doesn’t have a Justin Verlander caliber fastball, but it’s hard to knock a guy for having developed a cutter graded as a plus pitch by most sites, and an improved slider over the past year. Sitting 94-96 with precision, the fastball may not feature explosive late life, but there is some deception and two-plane life out of his high arm slot. More importantly, Mize already has the command to make all his offerings play up, and the development of both the cutter and slider over the past year speak to a dedicated young pitcher with some ability to make adjustments and groove them relatively quickly.

Still, when you’re projected to go 1-1, the intense scrutiny just comes with the territory, and Mize seems to understand this better than most. Get ready for a wild few weeks ahead. When the smoke and chatter clear, you’re still almost certainly going to see Mize wearing the Olde English D.