Why Detroit Tigers' Casey Mize knows exactly what he needs to improve

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Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
·7 min read
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Casey Mize got beat up in his debut season for the Detroit Tigers in 2020.

Repeatedly.

But he still showed up. He still prepared. He still faced the best talent in the game, doing so inside Comerica Park, where many All-Stars have taken the mound. From those situations, the former No. 1 overall draft pick gained much-needed experience.

"That's always a step forward, no matter how the performance is on the field," Mize said Friday. "The performance wasn't great, but that's also a step forward because I learned from that."

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize pitches during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park, Aug. 30, 2020.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize pitches during the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park, Aug. 30, 2020.

Last year, Mize made seven starts. He finished 0-3 with a 6.99 ERA and 1.482 WHIP in 28⅓ innings, adding 26 strikeouts, 13 walks and seven homers allowed.

"Anytime I'm out there, I'm trying to compete and win," Mize said. "I expected more of myself, and I'm really frustrated with how things turned out. In the past, I've shown the ability to learn from experiences, a lot of failed experiences. Just trying to recapture that."

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What went wrong

Of the 33 rookie starting pitchers with at least 20 innings, Mize was 20th in strikeout rate (19.5%), 24th in walk rate (9.8%) and 28th with a 6.47 FIP. His ERA came in at 32nd, better than only Houston Astros righty Brandon Bielak.

The expected batting average against Mize was .294, placing him in the bottom 7% of MLB last season. The expected slugging percentage against him was .551 — in the bottom 4% of the league. Opponents hit him hard, barreling 13.5% of 89 batted balls. He was below the league average in nearly all of Statcast's primary percentile rankings, other than his 93.7 average fastball velocity.

Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Casey Mize's 2020 MLB percentile rankings from Statcast.
Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Casey Mize's 2020 MLB percentile rankings from Statcast.

Mize's split-finger fastball, dubbed as his wipeout pitch, was hit at a .313 clip. Yet it accounted for 10 of his strikeouts, just under 40% of his total. If the splitter wasn't getting swings-and-misses, it typically permitted runners to reach base.

"A bunch got hit," Mize said. "A lot of people are wondering, 'This is supposed to be an amazing pitch, what's up with it?' Well, the thing is, the metrics didn't change much on the pitch. A lot that changed is when I was throwing: what counts, the locations and things like that.

"If I'm throwing a 3-2 splitter, or 3-1 splitter, in the zone, somebody might be looking for that. It all depends on counts and locations. Unfortunately, I was in a lot of hitter-friendly counts, and the odds go way in their favor. It seemed like no matter what I threw, they were able to put a good swing on it."

Why success is coming

The numbers show Mize's 2020 season was a disaster, but that doesn't mean he is destined to fall apart again in 2021. Remember, he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. He pitched a no-hitter in his Double-A Erie debut. He struck out two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera on three pitches in July's summer camp.

And on Sept. 11, in his fifth big-league start, Mize took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Chicago White Sox, of all teams. Before that, in his Aug. 19 debut, he struck out seven with no walks in a clash with — you guessed it — the slugging White Sox.

"Personally, I think you're going to see what I know is the old me," Mize said. "Just pounding the strike zone and overwhelming hitters with strikes. Having leverage on my side is really the goal, so I think I'm going to improve a ton in that area."

Doing so starts with his fastball, by far his best pitch last season. Opponents only hit .143 against the fastball, with seven strikeouts.

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize (12) heads to the dugout after manager Ron Gardenhire relieved him during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Chicago.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Casey Mize (12) heads to the dugout after manager Ron Gardenhire relieved him during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Chicago.

New pitching coach Chris Fetter helped him dive into the data. They learned his four-seam fastball played well, especially up in the strike zone. Usually, he locates the four-seamer down in the zone before going up with it later in the count. When it would accidentally leak toward the middle of the plate, Mize got crushed.

In 2021, expect to see more fastballs up in the zone earlier in counts. And by going up, Mize believes he can better set up his other pitches for success down in the zone.

"He's just got a ton of knowledge," Mize said about Fetter. "We've already started that narrative and conversations. He knows a lot about technology and data, but he goes beyond that as well. We've been able to find common ground, really on all fronts of pitching."

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After learning in 2020, and with Fetter and manager AJ Hinch by his side, Mize feels prepared to take a step forward. From the moment he was drafted, he was stamped as the team's ace of the future.

For the Tigers to complete their rebuild and return to the playoffs, he needs to step up.

"It's the real deal when you're playing in the big leagues," he said. "There are no free passes. You got to get the job done. I look forward to getting out there and getting it done this year."

Innings limits

Because of the jump in season length from 60 to 162 games, many teams are preparing to implement innings limits, especially for younger pitchers. The Tigers have three of them: Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning.

Mize tossed 114⅔ innings for Auburn in 2018. He registered 109⅓ innings combined in High-A and Double-A in 2019. Last year, thought, he only got in 28⅓ innings, plus what he pitched at the alternate training site before making his debut.

The 6-foot-3 righty doesn't want any restrictions this season.

"I'll go as many (innings) as they let me," Mize said. "I'm going to make that pretty known. I already have. We will see what they decide."

So, did the Tigers respond by granting him his wish?

"They definitely didn't say that," Mize said. "I'm not going to tell you what they said. I told them my thoughts on the matter, and that's the end of that."

Tigers make Ramos official, DFA Alcantara

On Friday, the Tigers announced the signing of catcher Wilson Ramos, an 11-year MLB veteran, to a one-year, $2 million contract. The deal was done Tuesday but had to be finalized with the 33-year-old's completion of a physical.

"Whether it’s playing in a lineup with Miguel Cabrera or working with a really talented group of young pitchers, this was an opportunity that I was excited to take on," Ramos said in a released statement. "I’m looking forward to getting to work with my coaches and teammates soon, and winning baseball games for the fans in Detroit."

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Tigers general manager Al Avila shared his thoughts: "Adding a reliable veteran catcher was one of our priorities this offseason, and we know that Wilson will be a great fit for that role. He’s still producing on the field at a high level after 11 years in the big leagues, and we feel his presence in the clubhouse will be a major positive both for our young catchers and pitching staff."

To make room for Ramos on the 40-man roster, infielder Sergio Alcantara was designated for assignment. He went 3-for-21 (.143) across 10 games for the Tigers in 2020, and notably homered in his first major-league plate appearance.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Casey Mize knows exactly what he needs to improve