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2020 BYB Tigers Prospect #1: Casey Mize remains top dog on the farm

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Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal are breathing down his neck, but Mize remains number one in our rankings.

Detroit Tigers Spring Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Fortunately, prospect rankings don’t mean a thing in the end. If they did, Casey Mize would be feeling the heat this spring. The Tigers dynamic trio of Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and Mize have all made their presence felt in camp, but the former have gotten more of the limelight recently. Manning captured the top spot on several prospect lists, including FanGraphs, this offseason. Meanwhile it’s Skubal who has blown minds this spring with his cool professionalism and eye-popping fastball.

Mize is still number one on most lists however, a spot he’s held since the Tigers drafted him first overall in 2018. Injury concerns aside, he remains the most certain bet in the Tigers’ farm system. He’s already capable of taking on the major leagues, and it probably won’t be too long until he gets that chance. While some of the BYB staff favor Manning, and others are having a hard time believing anyone is better than Tarik Skubal, Mize remains our consensus top prospect in the Tigers’ system.

Background

Mize grew up in Alabama, and played his college ball at Auburn University. He wasn’t particularly heralded as a prep draft pick, but broke out in a major way during his sophomore season. By the fall of 2017, he was already looked at as a potential first overall pick in 2018, and his junior season solidified that opinion. With their first number one overall pick since taking RHP Matt Anderson back in 1997, the Tigers selected Mize and he’s done little but impress ever since.

The Tigers kept Mize to very limited action after the draft. They kept him in Lakeland to start the 2019 season, and he had little difficulty with Florida State League competition. After just four starts, he was promoted to Double-A Erie, and promptly spun a no-hitter in his debut for the SeaWolves.

Everything was going to plan until June 15, when the Tigers placed Mize on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. He wasn’t sharp when he returned, alternating good starts with bad the rest of the season. Choosing the safer course, the club finally decided to shut him down for the year with a few weeks left in the season.

So far this spring, Mize has shown no ill effects. His fastball command has been spottier than we’re used to, but it’s still early in camp and his velocity has been excellent with the fastball topping out at 97 mph.

Strengths

Mize brings an awful lot to the table. He throws five different pitches, all of them above average or better. More importantly, his command is advanced beyond his years and he’s able to spot each of those pitches and produce a whole that is perhaps better than the sum of its parts. When one pitch isn’t working, Mize still has more than enough to approach hitters in multiple ways and be very effective.

The real showpiece here is a splitter that generates tons of whiffs and draws better than plus grades from most evaluators. Mize throws it with great conviction and armspeed, and once you’ve bitten on it, the bottom absolutely drops out, leaving hitters with nothing but air. The pitch is so effective that it must be tempting to lean on it, but Mize does a nice job setting hitters up for it and then breaking it out mainly just to finish them off.

His fastball sits 93-94 mph, but as we’ve seen Mize is capable of ramping it up to 97 when he wants it. The fourseam version is pretty straight and without notable ride to it, but his velocity and command generally help it play up. However, Mize tends more toward the twoseamer and at his best shows the feel to add and subtract horizontal life and depth on the pitch.

On days when the fastball isn’t working well, Mize has another wrinkle to offer in the form of his cutter. Thrown at 90-92 mph, the cutter mimics his fourseamer well before biting in and down under the hands of left-handed hitters for whiffs. Right-handers struggle to square it up, and Mize gets a lot of weak contact against them. The cutter draws plus grades from most publications, and we’ve seen Mize use it in place of his fastball as his main pitch on numerous occasions. It’s an excellent weapon that multiplies the number of different looks he can show hitters.

Finally, there’s the slider. At the time he was drafted, Mize’s slider was more of a slurvy, looping breaking ball thrown with a spike curveball grip. Mize’s immediate project in his first offseason as a professional was to rebuild it with better depth and prevent it blending together with the cutter.

The project was the first hint that Mize was advanced between the ears as well. He was introduced to spin data and high speed cameras at Auburn, and was already very comfortable in a pitching laboratory. Offseason work with those devices, and his competence in implementing data assisted adjustments, helped him debut a much better version in 2019. Thrown 84-85 mph, the slider now has good depth and some tilt. Mize has shown good command of it, and can now spot it for a strike or bend it sharply out of the zone fishing for whiffs.

The element that brings the whole package together is Mize’s ability to command all these offerings and understand how to use them in sequence to make life very tough on hitters. From the beginning, he’s begun seeding his knowledge among his fellow pitching prospects, and really led the way in introducing guys like Matt Manning and Alex Faedo to the process. Those leadership qualities, and Mize’s relentless work ethic, are just the icing on a very impressive cake.

Weaknesses

There are really two issues where Casey Mize is concerned. Despite the fact that he’s probably major league ready now, two questions will be on everyone’s mind as they watch him work in Toledo this spring. The first involves his fastball and whether or not it’s good enough for him to eventually evolve into a frontline starter. The second is simply the main concern for all pitching prospects; health.

Mize had some forearm soreness during his sophomore season in college. That is never a good sign, but as of yet nothing has come of it and Mize changed some of his workouts and conditioning to help alleviate the issue. So far, so good. However, his 2019 season was derailed somewhat by shoulder inflammation in June, and he never looked quite as good later in the summer.

All pitchers can and ultimately will get injured. There’s only so much you can do to prevent that, and it’s probably not worth worrying over. However, Mize’s fairly high effort, upper-body heavy delivery, gives a little extra cause for concern. He doesn’t really have the lanky frame and high-powered leg work that generally powers the more durable hard throwers out there.

As a result, there is a line of thought that says Mize might be better with more limited usage than the Detroit Tigers are known for. It’s unlikely the Tigers are going to try to break him in slowly, or use him as a five inning starter. They’ll turn Mize loose in the hope that he can be the type of starter that throws 180+ quality innings for you each year, and we’ll just have to see how it works out. Predicting pitcher injuries is too much guesswork to be worried about. There just seems to be a little extra risk here based on his history and mechanics.

Finally, while Mize has plenty of velocity, the fastball does play down closer to major league average. Partly this is due to this frame and stride, which don’t produce good extension. His arm extension is fine from a pitching mechanics standpoint, but he just doesn’t gain as much ground toward home plate in his delivery as would be ideal. He also shows the ball a little early and doesn’t carry much deception as he drives toward home plate.

The fastball also lacks great life. The twoseamer will run in on right-handed hitters, and Mize has some feel for adjusting the movement to favor horizontal movement or more depth, but either way the movement is somewhat pedestrian compared to the rest of his weapons. When it runs a lot, it’s often flat without ride or sink. When he throws a little more of a sinking version, it doesn’t run as much. As a result, the fastball won’t generate a lot of whiffs, and when Mize is struggling to locate it he’ll get hit pretty hard.

One doesn’t need to get too worked up about this either, however. Mize has plenty of stuff, and as long as he gets his reps, the fastball command he had early last year should return. The heater will play just fine. He’s able to vary shape and speed enough to keep hitters off balance, provided he’s spotting it where he wants. He’s just not the type of pitcher to live and die by overpowering hitters with a high volume of fastballs. The better Mize mixes his powerful and diverse arsenal, the more successful he’ll be. The fastball may not be the major weapon we’d like, but it’s still plenty good enough.

All in all this a very mature, talented pitcher with a good head on his shoulders and command of a really fascinating pitch mix. There are plenty of industry observers who believe Mize is already ready to pitch in the bigs, and may not have much left to learn against minor league competition. Frankly, it’s almost unfortunate that he’s so near his prime, while the Tigers rebuild languishes several years behind him. Ultimately, his best work and the Tigers return to contender status may not line up that well, but there’s no sense getting ahead of ourselves with those concerns at this point.

Projected 2020 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens

There’s no question Mize is ready for the Triple-A level. He should handle the jump from Double-A with little to no trouble at all. The Tigers are in no rush here, and it makes sense to give Mize time to continue developing his routine and building his arm in a lower pressure environment. If all goes well, he should be set to make his debut sometime late in the summer, with the possibility that injuries in the Tigers rotation could force their hand into giving him a spot start or two sooner than later.