The Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays ended Thursday’s contest deadlocked at three runs apiece. Jeimer Candelario continued to swing the bat well, Eric Haase crushed a late inning home run, and Joe Jiménez continued to look alternately good and bad, often from pitch to pitch. But what mattered in this one, is that both Casey Mize and Michael Fulmer had their backs against the wall after some rough outings in mid-March, and both responded with their finest performances of the spring.
Mize got the call to start this one. One of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Mize struggled in his 2020 debut, but got off to a nice start in spring camp. That started to unravel a bit with two dreadful back-to-back starts, beginning with a beatdown from the Philadelphia Phillies back on March 13, in which Mize surrendered a two run shot to Bryce Harper, followed two innings later by a Didi Gregorious grand slam. Mize faced the Toronto Blue Jays back on March 19, and was again lit up for five runs, including two more homers.
Those shaky outings exposed some ongoing weakness against power hitting left-handers. They also left us wondering whether Mize would get the call as part of the Opening Day roster, or be sent to Toledo to work for a month before getting back into games again. Neither option seemed very appealing considering that Mize would basically be stuck back in practice mode for a month before real minor league games get underway. So he needed to turn things around as he took on the Blue Jays again, this time featuring Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and the rest of their likely starting lineup.
This time, Mize had the upper hand. For three innings, he was nearly unhittable without leaning on the splitter much at all. Mize punched out eight of the first 12 batters he saw, blowing away Bichette with a 98 mph fourseamer to end the third inning. At that point he’d allowed just two routine singles.
In the fourth, things unraveled a bit as Mize continued with a very heavy fourseam approach and the Blue Jays adjusted by getting more aggressive. Teoscar Hernandez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. started things off with hard hit doubles against the fourseamer early in counts, followed by a Lourdes Gurriel single. Two runs were in by that point, and Mize turned back to his cutter to punch out Randal Grichuk before inducing enough weak contact to end the inning, and his outing.
Overall, four innings pitched with two earned runs isn’t going to wow anyone. Still to anyone watching, the life on Mize’s fourseamer was a lot better this time out, and while he pitched aggressively while ahead, he didn’t leave many mistakes center cut, and it showed in the amount of whiffs and fouls he produced. Nine punchouts with no walks, against a pretty good young major league lineup was presumably nice reinforcement for Mize that his stuff plays, and he doesn’t have to be perfect, despite the fact that his splitter continues to be largely missing in action. Learning to pitch well without it will only make it all the more dangerous when the feel returns.
The Plumber is not done yet folks
As for Michael Fulmer, this was his second straight appearance out of the bullpen, but Hinch didn’t treat it that way, allowing him to clear 70 pitches and spin four innings of work. And it was some very encouraging work indeed.
Fulmer only faced the heart of the everyday Blue Jays order once, but he worked through Biggio, Bichette, Hernandez, Guerrero Jr., and Gurriel Jr. without allowing a run, though Bichette did collect a one-out double. Three eighth inning singles tallied a run for the Blue Jays, but otherwise, most hitters were well overpowered by the beleaguered right-hander.
Fulmer hit 96 mph repeatedly in this one, flashing his classic power sinker in on the hands of the heavily right-handed lineup for whiffs and weak contact. The velocity was good to see, especially in the fact that after he really ramped up the velo in the seventh inning, he came out a little softer in the eighth, but was still able to take the ball in the ninth and again pump 94-95 pretty comfortably.
Best of all was the sharpness on both Fulmer’s changeup and slider. He commanded all three pitches quite well, shaping the slider for strikes and out of the zone away to right-handers for whiffs. It was a breath of fresh air for Fulmer fans. He ultimately allowed just the one run on three hits and a hit batsman. Fulmer issued just one walk, and he struck out seven.
For Mize, this performance may have bagged him a spot on the Opening Day roster. The Tigers are clearly loathe to leave him stagnating in Toledo for a month when he’s showing the best velocity of his career and looking quite healthy and ready to go. What he needs is an education in dealing with major league lineups and learning where and when you cannot make mistakes against them. He can’t get that in minor league camp.
However, fitting him in looked trickier a week ago. With Spencer Turnbull on the COVID IL now, and set to miss at least his first start, it’s possible that Mize will now take that spot in the rotation. Perhaps when Turnbull returns, Mize and Skubal could team up for tandem starts through April with adjustments to follow once the season kicks into high gear in May, at which point Hinch has even floated the possibility of a six man rotation.
For his part, Hinch remained noncommital after Thursday night’s performance. We’ll see if Mize gets a final look in spring camp against the Tampa Bay Rays on March 30.
A.J. Hinch on Casey Mize tonight:— Cody Stavenhagen (@CodyStavenhagen) March 26, 2021
"If you watch his stuff throughout this spring, it's very evident he can get major-league hitters out.
"We got to discuss whether the best thing for him and best thing for us is going north ... but I absolutely trust Casey Mize."
Fulmer’s case is more difficult. Despite all the concern and fear surrounding his return from Tommy John and right knee surgery, it’s still perfectly normal that it would take him time to find his new level. The development of his slider since his return has been encouraging. The poor command and diminished fastball have not. So it was great to see him spotting the fastball against the Jays, and great to see him looking very aggressive with it too, while topping out at 96 mph.
Fulmer showed quite a bit in this outing. Clearly there’s still some ceiling left, and as long as he’s still improving and slowly building his arm back up, there is reason for optimism about his future as a starter. The development of his secondary stuff only backs up that case. Fulmer can still get major league hitters out, the question is whether the Tigers are thinking long or short-term here.
In the moment, the best way for Fulmer to help the Tigers is to take a spot in the bullpen. There, he’d provide Hinch even more flexibility than his three converted, left-handed starters already do. They could potentially stretch Fulmer out in multi-inning appearances, and still have a solid right-hander to replace a scuffling Joe Jiménez. However, if the goal is still to give Fulmer every chance to make it back as a starting pitcher, there is a very good case for sending him to Toledo. And if they don’t do that now, Fulmer will be able to refuse such an assignment starting in mid-April when he hits five years of major league service time.
In minor league camp, Fulmer could continue to build up his arm and work on the adjustments to his delivery forced by the issues in his right knee. He could stay on regular rest, and in his normal routines, which may also be smart for his physical health. A move to the next-man-up needs of a major league bullpen would be far from ideal for getting him back to whatever his 100 percent is going to be as a starter going forward. By May, he could potentially be back to full strength and raring to go, forcing a roster decision at that point.
A.J. Hinch and the Tigers face a pair of interesting decisions here, and both were made even more intriguing based on the way Mize and Fulmer looked on Thursday night. With under a week until Opening Day, we won’t be waiting long to see what the organization decides to do with them.