Casey Mize is a student of the game. It’s one reason the young right-hander was able to grow from undrafted out of high school to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. So it should come as no surprise that the Tigers’ top pitching prospect saw the humbling experience of his first Major League stint last summer as a learning experience for the coming season.
“I think it's just a lot of reminders of things that I probably already knew but just needed a big-time reminder on -- count leverage, getting ahead in counts and just really attacking the zone,” Mize told MLB.com in an interview last week as part of MLB’s Rookie Career Development Program.
“I'm kind of known as one to throw a lot of strikes, and I just didn't throw as many strikes as I would've liked this [past] year and I was behind in counts a lot, walked a lot of hitters. I kind of got away from what I normally am, which had a negative effect on a lot of things that happened. It was just a huge reminder of how important pouring the ball in the strike zone is and having the leverage on your side when it comes to counts.”
Mize made his much-anticipated Major League debut last Aug. 19 in Chicago and struck out seven White Sox with no walks over 4 1/3 innings, but he also gave up three runs on seven hits. He walked at least two batters in each of his other six starts. He finished the season with an 0-3 record and 6.99 ERA, allowing 13 walks over 28 1/3 innings. He also showed flashes of his potential, such as 5 1/3 innings of one-hit ball in his rematch against the White Sox on Sept. 11.
Mize threw 46.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, two points below the Major League average, according to Statcast. His first-pitch strike rate of 55.6 percent was four points below the MLB average, according to Baseball Reference. More of half of his hits allowed (15 of 29) came in hitter-friendly counts.
At the same time, Mize took away positives. While his trademark splitter was hit for a .313 batting average -- despite a 28-percent swing-and-miss rate, according to Statcast -- his four-seam fastball yielded just a .143 average and 27.9 whiff rate. Those numbers surprised even him, and they gave him something to build on this offseason.
“We had a lot of good results with that, which was something that I did not expect would happen,” Mize said. “Not really a pitch that I was super confident in. I was throwing the sinker and two-seamer a lot more often, but I think we had a lot of great results with the four-seamer, so maybe I'll put that into play a little bit more often this upcoming season.”
The COVID-19 pandemic turned this year’s rookie program into a virtual format. Mize was able to take part online from his home and workout facility in the Nashville, Tenn., area as current and former players, including ex-Tigers Curtis Granderson and Andrew Miller, discussed the opportunities and challenges of life in the Majors, on and off the field.
“It means a lot,” Mize said. “Those are guys that have played at a very high level for a long time and they're very successful in this game. It's just cool for them to invest their time and the things that they've learned along the way to try and help us out. It really means a lot as a young player just starting our journey.”
While the pandemic denied Mize the chance to have his family in attendance for his debut, or any of his starts, he focused on the benefit of having a little less pressure as he worked in empty ballparks. Still, he hopes not to repeat the struggles nor the empty ballpark this coming season, when he will still be officially considered a rookie.
“Hopefully things can get back to normal,” he said. “Going up to the big leagues was awesome. I really enjoyed my time, even if it didn't go as well as I would've hoped. But [I] learned a lot, looking forward to getting better and going back out there next year and doing my thing.”