When Casey Mize takes the mound on Thursday against the Chicago White Sox, it will be amid rumblings of frustration with his performance. While every baseball fan worth their salt knows that even very talented young prospects can take time to succeed at the major league level, heavy lies the crown for a former first overall pick. Let’s see how much there really is to worry about right now.
Mize was the Detroit Tigers first overall selection in the 2018 amateur draft after an excellent college career at Auburn. He breezed through High-A and Double-A ball in 2019, though shoulder inflammation and a few poor performances left a sour note as his season ended. Under normal circumstances, the plan may have been to call him up from the minors in May of 2020, but of course the season didn’t begin until late July, and the Tigers kept him to just seven starts out of concern for the shortened summer preseason camp and limited time to build up his arm. So far in 2021, he’s made four starts. That’s 11 total starts in the majors if you’re counting at home.
Yes so it’s a bit early to get frustrated with Casey Mize. There is a lot riding on the Tigers young pitchers, and It’s true that he hasn’t put together many good starts. Still, there are good reasons to think a little patience with him will bear fruit this season.
The Two-Strike Special
When you look though Mize’s numbers, the situation is not quite as bad as the grisly 5.23 ERA so far would suggest. His walk rates are fine, and he’s getting 55 percent of balls in play on the ground. The lack of strikeouts are one issue, as a 15.4 percent rate is not good. The home runs are the other, as Mize has allowed 2.18 home runs per nine innings this season. There’s a relationship between those two weak points, and that’s where we’ll do a bit of investigating.
Let’s start with the home runs. Mize has allowed five of them in 20 2⁄3 innings, and what’s really notable is both the counts the home runs have come from, and where the pitches hit for homers were located. There isn’t a ton that needs be said, as this isn’t even all the center cut pitches that have been launched off of him in pitcher’s counts dating back to the spring.
For examples, let’s start by taking it right back to spring training, and this 0-2 fastball into Bryce Harper’s sweet spot. Or the second one to Didi Gregorius where he really did have to throw one in there 3-2. Just preferably not right down Main Street.
Here against the A’s, two more grooved pitches to Aramis Garcia and Matt Olson in counts he didn’t have to throw a strike in. In both cases the count was 3-2, so a bit different circumstances, but again you can’t miss right down the middle when a hitter is guaranteed to swing. The slider to Garcia is particularly egregious, while the heater to Olson is at least up at the top of the zone, but still, center cut.
Here’s Andrew Benintendi in the second inning of Mize’s loss to the Kansas City Royals. 1-2 count. Fastball again grooved right down the middle.
Not all of the homers have come with two strikes, it just feels that way. Below is a 0-0 splitter to Ryan O’Hearn that just floats into the center of the zone with no depth.
We’ll look at the splitter and Mize’s release points in a moment. The point of all these clips is simply that you can’t groove pitches in two strike counts. Hitters are 100 percent primed to swing at anything close. Laying a meatball in there in those counts against major league hitters is really sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. We didn’t even show them all, lest you get queasy, but from spring training right through each of his starts—apart from the dominant performance against the Houston Astros two weeks ago—the problem has been center cut mistakes in guaranteed swing counts, and hanging splitters without the necessary depth to keep them from looking like batting practice fastballs.
The former may just be too much aggression in trying not to let a hitter back in counts, or it may stem from putting too much pressure on himself to make perfect pitches when runners reach base and he’s ahead in the count. The latter is more of a problem, as it speaks to the inconsistency of the splitter, which is supposed to be his most dominant offering. Either way, allowing a .325 wOBA to hitters in two strike counts is telling. The league average in two strike counts is just .239. He’s getting into those counts at a very good rate, and yet he’s not closing the deal anywhere near often enough.
Flat spinners and wobbly release points
Of course, pitchers make mistakes. Those with elite stuff have a wider margin for error, and this is why the best in the game get away with pitches like the examples we’ve seen more often. Mize is supposed to be among that milieu as a recent first overall selection with a splitter that typically draws double-plus grades, and a plus fastball and cutter to boot. Mize has even unexpectedly added velocity this year, which again should expand his margin for error. And yet the margin doesn’t seem particularly good when so many of your mistakes are getting crushed.
Statcast data shows that even compared to his 2020 campaign, the splitter has lost depth this year. Last season’s model had five inches of drop more than the average splitter, while this season that mark stands at just 2.6 inches of drop above average. Obviously, location is crucial as well, and you don’t want near this many splitters up in the zone as you see below, but the issue is compounded by the diminished depth and overall inconsistency of the pitch.
Considering that Mize is throwing a good bit harder with the fastball this year, the splitter should theoretically be more effective, with a wider separation in velocity. Instead, the pitch hasn’t drawn the level of whiffs and weak contact expected, other than in his dominant seven innings of shutout work against the Houston Astros back on April 12th.
Why is the spitter inconsistent? Well, to begin with, it’s just a trickier pitch to command consistently than most. His reliance on it is one of the reasons his floor as a pitcher didn’t seem as high to some observers as it should for a 1-1 pick in the draft. If the splitter isn’t on in an outing, he quickly becomes a fastball-cutter pitcher whose ceiling is more of a mid-rotation starter. It’s just difficult to predict whether he can dial it in night in and night out.
Anecdotally it looks like he’s just not getting on top of it consistently to get that depth, but as his release point cluster below illustrates, he’s been pretty consistent in that regard, so perhaps it’s just the nature of a feel pitch like the splitter to be difficult to get consistent life on. As long as he keeps it down, it’s probably not a big issue.
Again, we’re only four starts in to Mize’s 2021 season. There are some issues here, but it’s far too early to get panicky or dissect everything he’s doing in comprehensive fashion. These are just the two things we’re watching in particular. The splitter’s inconsistency is the more worrisome of the two issues. That pitch is supposed to be his bread and butter, so the loss of depth in several outings is a problem that has to be resolved.
As far as grooving all these two strike pitches? That’s a mix of command and inexperience. Missing in the right spots is an art all great pitchers learn. Manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter have heavily emphasized “the race to two strikes” and many of their pitchers have responded with excellent first pitch strike ratios and generally working ahead in the count. Where they’ve struggled some is with putting hitters away with strikeouts.
Mize’s strikeout numbers reflect this, as he’s throwing 61 percent first pitch strikes and pitching ahead quite a bit. Yet the results have been mediocre to downright bad in too many of those at-bats with a swinging strike rate well below what he needs to be a good major league pitcher. No matter how good your stuff is, you can’t just pipe pitches in the heart of the zone in swing counts. Hopefully the coaching staff and his catchers can help him find the balance.
Throwing quality strikes, or at least quality chase pitches around the edges, when he’s ahead is the step Mize has to take right now. Some of the inconsistency in command is presumably linked to the same issues repeating his release point that have left the splitter veering from dominant out pitch to meatball at times. So this is all inter-related, and certainly not ideal for a player picked first overall on the basis of advanced command and major league readiness. But for now, being patient with him is warranted before we start reaching for the panic button.