Mize settles, ends rookie season with flourish

September 30th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- had 30 starts this season to build a routine, one outing to the next. As he walked into the dugout and received his end-of-outing handshake from manager A.J. Hinch after his fourth inning in Wednesday night's 5-2 loss to the Twins at Target Field, his routine was over.

The Tigers have four games to go, but Mize is the first member of the Tigers’ current rotation to complete his final turn. It’s an odd feeling for him.

“I’m a pretty consistent routine guy,” Mize said. “Maybe it’ll be a good thing for me to break that a little bit, but it’s definitely going to feel weird waking up tomorrow and knowing that I don’t have to check all these boxes to prepare for the next start.”

The routine is why the Tigers set up a month of abbreviated outings for him, usually three innings each. At this point in his career, it was more important for him to experience preparing for a game plan and an opponent every five or six days than to pitch into the sixth or seventh inning a few times and end his season around Labor Day.

For a moment, Mize admitted, even a third inning on Wednesday seemed doubtful. He received a mound visit from pitching coach Chris Fetter after four batters, having given up back-to-back singles, a Jorge Polanco three-run homer, then another single.

From there, Mize retired 12 of his final 13 batters.

“To sum it up, I think he got [ticked],” Hinch said.

Mize’s finale was arguably a microcosm of his season. Three hits in a 31-pitch opening inning came in two-strike counts, including a Byron Buxton infield single after the Twins star worked out of an 0-2 hole to force a full count. Mize leaned heavily on his fastball and slider, including a first-pitch sinker that Polanco drove out to center for his homer.

Mize had Josh Donaldson in a 1-2 count before his ground-ball single on a 3-2 slider brought Fetter out. From there, Mize retired the Twins in order to escape further damage, getting a Max Kepler popout on a splitter, fanning Miguel Sanó on a 96 mph fastball and Nick Gordon on a curveball.

Mize’s only hit from there was a two-out, second-inning single from Luis Arraez in an 0-2 count.

“He kind of just found himself,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of Mize. “He’s a good pitcher. He’s been doing a good job. He has a lot of different weapons, I think, and ways he can get hitters out. I think he’s really zeroing in on just when and where and how to use some of those pitches.”

That remains a work in progress. The splitter that was the trademark of Mize’s career at Auburn was a secondary pitch at best for much of the year. Even without it, he was a four-pitch hurler early on, mixing sliders and curveballs with two and four-seam fastballs. In other stretches, especially short starts, he would trust his slider and fastball to get him through nine outs rather than waste time finding his other pitches.

“Obviously my splitter, I need to command it and have that feel like I used to have with it,” Mize said. “I felt good about my splitter out of my hand the last month or so; just the usage needs to improve. The curveball, I felt good about all year along, but again, the usage needs to go up.”

He has time for that, just like his strikeout rate, which ended at 7.06 per nine innings.

“Casey is a really good example of someone we need to have patience with as he evolves and develops into who he is,” said Hinch before the game. “If you look back at a lot of good pitchers in this league, they were not identified perfectly after their first full season or even after their first couple seasons. They develop over time and they learned their craft. They become experts, and then you see them settle in, in the middle part of their career as to who they are.

“Casey can punch out anybody in the league, so I'm not worried about that coming out of this season as being a problem.”

Mize finished with a 3.71 ERA, the fifth-lowest by a Tigers rookie pitcher since 1947 and the lowest since Michael Fulmer’s 3.06 ERA in his AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016.