On Wednesday night, the eyes of the baseball world will rest on the Detroit Tigers. You know, that team with the navy hats that used to have Justin Verlander and sometimes shows up on your TV to lose to the Minnesota Twins. Those guys.
It may seem strange to mention them now, given that they’ve lost 310 games in the past three years, but things are looking up in Detroit. The Tigers jumped out of the gate to a 9-11 start this season, a vast improvement on their 47-win pace from 2019. And while this club is hardly going to make the 1927 Yankees tremble in their spikes, being within a couple of games of .500 is no small matter in a season when .500 ought to be good enough for a playoff berth.
The real reason to get excited about the Tigers now, though, stems from their dismal recent history. As one might expect from a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2016, Detroit has built up an impressive collection of talented minor leaguers. And since the club’s playoff odds have moved from “essentially nil” to “merely unlikely” in the first three weeks of the season, it’s time for the kids to start contributing. On Monday, Detroit called its no. 2, no. 4, and no. 5 prospects (according to FanGraphs) up to the big leagues for the first time. That night, 21-year-old third baseman Isaac Paredes went 1-for-4 with an RBI double. On Tuesday, left-hander Tarik Skubal made his first major league start.
And on Wednesday, Casey Mize takes the mound for the first time in a Tigers uniform. It wasn’t too long ago that the Tigers had the deepest rotation in baseball, with Verlander, Max Scherzer, Aníbal Sánchez, Rick Porcello, and David Price all operating at the same time. Mize has that same kind of upside, and his debut is a huge step toward Detroit reclaiming that legacy.
At a stocky 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, the 23-year-old former Auburn pitcher looks like a cross between Normal People’s Paul Mescal and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. And while Mize has left his fair share of hitters weeping messily into their hands, the comparison to Cole is a bit more relevant from a baseball perspective.
When scouting an amateur pitcher, MLB front offices have to weigh several different considerations: fastball velocity, command, quality of off-speed stuff, physical presence and athleticism, durability, and track record against top-level competition. No prospect checks all the boxes, but every few years, someone comes close. When that happens, he almost always goes within the top three picks of the draft, and usually no. 1: Mark Prior, Stephen Strasburg, Cole, and most recently, Mize.
Mize’s fastball is a tick below Cole’s, sitting the mid-90s, but the variety of his off-speed offerings is nothing short of ace quality. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus graded his slider, splitter, and cutter as potential plus pitches. “There’s command of everything,” reads the BP write-up on Mize from this past offseason. “Every prospect writer on staff that saw Mize preferred a different secondary, which means it could all come together one day as a monster top-of-the-rotation starter.”
It’s not that any particular pitch of Mize’s is among the best in baseball; it’s that he has command of four plus pitches, two of which—the fastball and slider—he can manipulate to change their shape and velocity. He can combine mid-90s heat with low-80s breaking stuff. He can attack both left- and right-handed hitters with pitches that move toward either side of the plate. Hitting against Mize is like boxing an octopus: There are just too many avenues of attack for one hitter to cover them all.
This impressive arsenal resulted in a 98-pitch no-hitter in his first start at Double-A last April:
In 21 starts across two minor league levels in 2019, Mize posted a 2.55 ERA with a K/BB ratio of 4.61. The Tigers had about as good a pitching staff as a 114-loss team can have last year, but Mize has been one of the organization’s five best starting pitchers since just about the minute he signed a pro contract in 2018.
Which raises the obvious question: Why is he only coming up now?
There are two reasons; both are familiar and, in one way or another, somewhat frustrating. The first, as you might expect, is injury risk. Mize, like Cole, had the no. 1 draft spot all but wrapped up after his sophomore season, only to take a little bit of a step back as a junior. By draft time, there was significant chatter about Mize’s elbow. It wasn’t enough to knock him out of the first slot in the draft, or to keep him from receiving the biggest bonus in his class, but it was there. And in 2019, he missed a month due to shoulder soreness.
There’s not a huge red flag with Mize, like a torn labrum or thoracic outlet syndrome or Tommy John surgery, but even a history of seemingly unrelated minor injuries is worth noting with a potential 200-inning front-of-the-rotation starter. I’d speculate that the injury concerns might be somewhat overstated because there’s almost nothing else wrong with Mize—and with a player like that, any flaw stands out more. He did make at least 20 starts and throw at least 100 competitive innings in each of the past two seasons, so this isn’t the young Chris Paddack we’re talking about here. But it was enough for FanGraphs—which still has Mize in the top 15 prospects overall—to rank Mize behind his teammate Matt Manning, another archetypal power righty in Detroit’s upper minors.
But while the injury excuse is legitimate, it’s also probably providing cover for the Tigers to claw back a year of service time. Detroit would’ve needed to leave Mize in the minors for about a week after the start of the season in order to delay his free agency, and about three weeks in order to keep him from getting Super Two status and reaching arbitration after the 2022 season, rather than 2023. With that in mind, it’s somewhat suspicious that the Tigers called up three top prospects en masse 25 days into the season.
Other pitchers of similar prospect stature and experience—Toronto’s Nate Pearson, Philadelphia’s Spencer Howard, and San Diego’s Luis Patino—were called up early enough to make Super Two, but late enough to delay free agency. It’s a sickening outgrowth of baseball’s amoral pursuit of efficiency, but for good or ill, it’s how teams operate.
Mize will finally take the mound on Wednesday, and as frustrating as it is that he’s had to wait so long for his debut, it’s a relief that he won’t have to wait any longer. Or rather, it’s a relief to anyone who isn’t an American League hitter.