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Casey Mize’s debut introduces a new era in Tigers baseball

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When the Tigers committed the first overall pick to Mize in 2018, they made him the centerpiece of the rebuild. Here’s what he brings to the table.

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

On Monday, it was announced that the Detroit Tigers were making some big moves. Most notable during general manager Al Avila’s Zoom call with the media was the imminent arrival of the club’s top prospect, right handed starting pitcher Casey Mize. Mize has been their top prospect from the moment he entered the Detroit system and despite a little shoulder trouble in 2019 has shown consistent improvement and the major league ready stuff that made him the team’s pick in 2018 with the first overall selection in the MLB draft.

Fans have been clamoring for his major league debut for the better part of the 2020 season, and rightly so. He’s talented, he’s polished, and he’d fill an immediate need on the Tigers roster.

Despite going undrafted out of high school in 2015, Mize transformed himself into the clear-cut top player in his draft class by the time his junior season at Auburn rolled around. What made Mize so special was that he was miles ahead of his peers in terms of development. Despite the enormous gap in talent between D1 college baseball and major league baseball, the were some who believed that he could have contributed in a major league bullpen on day one.

At the time, his command is what impressed evaluators most. “Most college pitchers have locating even their best secondary pitch at times,” wrote Rob Rogacki. “That Mize is able to pound the zone with three different off-speed pitches speaks to how refined a prospect he is already.” That command led to one of the most absurd strikeout to walk ratios in recent memory during his sophomore season and has held up well at each step of the way in his march to the major leagues. .

However, his voracious drive for improvement has led to developments well beyond his refined feel for the strike zone. Even his splitter, which is considered one of the best pitches in the minor leagues, doesn’t get the attention it once did.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at his strengths, weaknesses, and what to expect from Mize in his first year as a major leaguer.

Strengths

All the ingredients that made Mize an excellent draft pick in 2018 are still present, and he has done a great deal to improve upon those attributes as well. Depending on who you ask, he throws as many as six pitches — a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, cutter, splitter, and straight change.

According to virtually every major outlet, the best of the bunch is his splitter — a pitch of eye-popping quality since the day he come onto the national radar. MLB Pipeline and Baseball America scouting reports on Mize give it a double-plus grade, commenting that it gets whiffs and weak contact. Evidently, that’s an assessment Mize himself agrees with. “I threw it a little bit less (last) year just because I think the cutter was such a good pitch,” he said to 97.1 The Ticket. “But I’m definitely not going to shy away from it, because I think it’s my bread and butter. It’s allowed me to get this far.”

FanGraphs voices a different opinion. In their January assessment of Mize, they gave the upper hand to his newly redesigned cutter. Thanks to the ongoing work to make him a more complete pitcher, he’s been able to create “greater demarcation between his cutter and slider,” which only makes them both more potent. That rebuilt cutter was on display in spring training, with velocity into the low-90’s and hellacious late action. In FanGraphs’ estimation, all off his pitches have above average potential, positing that “purely on quality of stuff, Mize is arguably the top pitching prospect in all of baseball.”

Scouts adore him, not only for his stuff, but also for his gamer attitude and intelligent, high-tech approach to developing his skills. Mize made his biggest impression on old-school fans when, in his Double-A debut, he managed to throw a no-hitter in under 100 pitches. Even so, his notes to the press included complaints about his fastball command and he liberally spread credit around to his catcher, Jake Rogers, and the SeaWolves defense.

To new-age fans, he’s not just a pitcher, he’s an artisan; a model student of the game who spends his time using advanced technology to lovingly craft his pitches into their best possible incarnation. In Mize’s first offseason as a pro, he took a solid but unimpressive slider and polished into a far deadlier swing and miss breaking ball. Last offseason, the work focused on honing the cutter, with excellent results based on brief looks in spring training. The relentless development and willingness to experiment make the 23-year-old an easy player to believe in.

“It’s the most efficient way to develop a pitch,” he said to The Detroit News. “The numbers are right there in front of you. You can see the flight of the ball, the path of the ball. You know how it’s playing off your other pitches. With the slow-motion cameras, you can see the last thing the ball touches out of my hand.”

Weaknesses

The quality of his fastball is the only facet of his play on the field that has been consistently called into question. It’s not as though the heater is a low-quality pitch, he can run it up to 97 miles per hour though he’s more typically around 94 mph. However, his four-seam fastball lacks the kind of movement that is generally needed to keep major league hitters off the fastball. He lacks the advantages of deception and stride length as well. Oddly, while Mize overall has quite advanced command, his ability to spot the heater has also been a relative weak point during his brief minor league career.

However, he makes up for it with his ability to add and subtract velocity at will, which gives hitters trouble when they’re trying to lock in their timing or discern whether he’s throwing the fastball, cutter, or splitter. He’s also good at presenting multiple pitches out of the same release point, making them more difficult for hitters to pick up on.

MLB hitters are able to exploit the smallest deficiencies though, especially in an era that allows them better tools to prepare than at any point in history. Based on his work in the minor leagues, the fastball isn’t really much of a weapon unless his command of it is particularly sharp. The good news, is that unlike most top pitching prospects, he doesn’t need to rely on the fastball to begin with.

There’s also the matter of readiness to take on hitters in the present major league environment. He’s never had to play competitively with the juiced ball, a factor that has radically shifted the landscape in the highest levels of baseball. While there’s no major red flags in that regard and he’ll play half of the season in cavernous Comerica Park, he does have a somewhat higher than average fly ball rate, which is a little bit concerning. The fact is that, without a meaningful track record, we won’t know if it’s a real problem until he pitches with the big league ball.

The biggest concern regarding Mize’s long-term future is his health. Dating back to high school, he’s had problems with his ankles, shoulder, and forearm that continue to crop up and keep him out of the action for portions of the year. He’s never thrown more than 112 innings, which he did in his sophomore year at Auburn, and it’s not as if players with checkered histories suddenly become poster children for reliability. If he cannot stay on the field, he cannot help the team win.

We’re not trying to rain on the parade here either. Mize is at least as prepared for this than say, Justin Verlander was back in 2006. But there are some elements of his game that have gone untested, and as we saw with his good friend Tarik Skubal on Tuesday night, facing major league pitching is a different beast.

Expectations

What can we expect from Mize in his debut? It’s tough to know. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to perform poorly in their first major league appearance and the White Sox have been torching opposing pitchers lately, so it’s a safe bet that he’ll give up a few runs. Instead of looking at the box score, pay attention to indicators of long-term success, such as how repeatable his delivery is, the quality of his raw stuff, the way he goes about his business on the mound.

This is an important week of the era of Tigers baseball which we are experiencing. The debuts of Paredes, Skubal, and Mize put Al Avila’s fingerprints on the major league roster. This is his team now, and we’re entering the era that he envisioned in 2015. Five long years later, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show. Casey Mize has earned it, and dare I say, we’ve earned it too.