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Casey Mize looks dialed in as he makes his final Grapefruit League start on Sunday

After a solid first full season, Mize may just be getting warmed up.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hopes for a playoff push from the 2022 Detroit Tigers are going to require significant improvement from the pitching staff to sustain them. Part of that improvement should come from the addition of Eduardo Rodriguez to the starting rotation. But if the Tigers are really going to be a threat this season, improvement from their core of young pitching talent is going to be a crucial ingredient. While Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and others are capable of taking the next step, much of that expectation has to fall on Casey Mize. As Mize goes into his final spring training start on Sunday, let’s take a look at the odds for a big season for him.

The Tigers’ first overall pick back in 2018 has never shied away from those expectations, and in 2021 settled in as a solid starting pitcher who managed to outperform some of his peripherals. Under less than ideal conditions that made most teams limit the innings of their younger starting pitchers after the short 2020 season, Mize went out and posted a 3.71 ERA over 150 13 innings. That will do just fine.

Casey Mize 2019-2021

Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 Barrel % Avg EV fWAR
Season IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 Barrel % Avg EV fWAR
2019 (A+) 30.2 0.88 1.94 28.0 4.7 0.0
2019 (AA) 78.2 3.20 2.98 23.5 5.6 0.57
2020 28.1 6.99 6.47 19.5 9.8 2.22 13.5 88.6 -0.2
2021 150.1 3.71 4.71 19.3 6.7 1.44 10.0 89.1 1.3

The big question

The one part of Mize’s game that gives some pause is an ongoing lack of strikeouts. His 4.71 FIP, despite impeccable walk rates and fairly pedestrian home per nine, is a function of a 19.3 percent strikeout rate, essentially unchanged from his 2020 mark. His strikeout rate is only three percent worse than league average for American League starters, so it’s not like there are major problems here. However, to continue putting up ERA marks in the mid-3.00’s, and hopefully progress toward frontline starter status, Mize does need to find some more whiffs.

This isn’t just a Casey Mize issue either. If you’re a bit baffled that a 77 win Tigers team last year, who added a couple of good free agents, traded for a good defensive catcher, has one of the best hitting prospects in the game ready to go—with Riley Greene now delayed—and what appears to be an excellent coaching staff, isn’t being picked to improve on their win total much this year? The lack of strikeout stuff on hand is a big reason why. Projection systems just aren’t going to trust a “pitching to contact” approach. Fortunately, there are reasons to believe the Tigers’ staff and Casey Mize in particular, can allow a little less contact this season.

The answer

The answer for Mize isn’t much of a secret. The splitter that was such a dangerous weapon for him in college and the minors, hasn’t really been that effective so far in his major league career. It’s to Mize’s credit that he’s largely achieved success with a well located mix of fastballs and sliders, without a consistent third pitch to add in. His feel to vary movement and velocity, and understanding of how to pitch, have carried him pretty far already. At times he’s gotten into a groove with the split-finger or occasionally the knuckle curve, but only briefly. If he can catch a good groove with the splitter in particular this season, hitters are going to be in trouble.

Coming out of college, Mize wasn’t expected to be an overpowering fastball-heavy starting pitcher. He touched 97 mph at times with Auburn, but he sat more 93 mph consistently. Projected more as a sinker-slider type, who would rack up ground balls and get plenty of whiffs with the splitter, Mize has continued to develop into more of a fourseam-based power pitcher.

Since the jump to pro ball, he’s built up a little more velocity, averaging 93.9 mph with his fourseamer last season, and showing the ability to ramp up to 96-97 whenever he needs a little extra. We also now have Statcast to tell us for sure that Mize gets good release extension down the mound, helping him get the ball on hitters a bit quicker. And while his spin rates are naturally low, Statcast continues to confirm that he gets at least average movement on the pitch. So there’s a little more power pitcher style here than maybe was projected in the draft, and we saw that in some pretty dominant outings from Mize last year.

Early in his pro career the Tigers had Mize mixing in pretty balanced doses of fourseamers and sinkers. That continued to hold true through 2021, but the fourseamer continues to be the better performer, racking up almost twice as many whiffs last year. Hitters slugged .571 against the sinker compared to .455 against the fourseam, despite similar percentage usage. Mize is talking about largely setting the sinker aside this spring. We’ve seen evidence of that in his strong Grapefruit League outings to date.

There may be benefits that go beyond fastball type and performance here should Mize follow through and throw a lot more fourseam fastballs. To throw a good sinker with tailing action, a pitcher has to get around on the glove hand side of the ball in his release. With a fourseam fastball it’s more of a straight up and down move, and that better mirrors the ideal splitter release to get it to come out looking like a high fastball and then dive straight to the ground as it reaches the hitting zone. Mize looks to be throwing from a slightly higher arm slot this year, and that, plus a more consistent vertical release, could add ride to the fourseamer, improve his consistency with the splitter, and make the pairing quite a bit spicier on hitters this season.

A cursory look at Mize’s stuff reveals uniformly low spin rates, but this doesn’t matter as much as some might lead you to believe. Mize probably won’t be a darling among fantasy baseball analysts, for example, but one has to look a little deeper. Until the strikeouts arrive, it can be difficult to trust that they’re coming. But everything Mize throws moves. He gets a lot of deviation between spin based and observed movement, presumably from seam-shifted effects. Beyond that, we’ve seen the level of feel he can exert over his fastball-slider mix, and when you combine all this with good command, the potential for substantial improvement remains quite strong.

Beyond looking for an improved strikeout rate, there are other reasons to expect Mize to have another good year. The Tigers infield was one of the worst in the game defensively last season. For a pitcher who got 48 percent of balls in play on the ground, the addition of Javy Báez, and the return of Jonathan Schoop to second base, are points in Mize’s favor this year. With a solid defender in Riley Greene due to arrive in the outfield, the club’s defense should be quite a bit better this year. Add to that an upgrade in receiving from new catcher Tucker Barnhart, and the team around the pitchers is going to help them this season.

Outlook

We’re pretty high on Casey Mize’s chances for improvement this season. He may not be threatening in the AL Cy Young voting yet, but the ingredients are in place for Mize to improve into a bona fide number two starter behind Eduardo Rodriguez. And if things go well, and Mize can find the handle on the splitter again, there is a pretty good chance he takes over as the Tigers’ best starting pitcher in 2022.