Casey Mize was groomed to be Detroit Tigers' No. 1 draft pick. Here's how
SPRINGVILLE, Ala. – In the middle of the Deep South, past a bunch of Baptist churches and a sign advertising land for cash, there is a gravel road that leads to the spot where Jason Mize was knocked on his back.
It is here, up a steep, winding hill in the forest, that Jason realized he couldn’t do it anymore.
His youngest son threw the baseball too fast.
It is recalled as the funniest family story of Auburn’s phenom pitcher, Casey Mize, whom everybody thinks the Detroit Tigers will take with the No. 1 pick in June's MLB draft, and the story is prefaced by his mother, Rhonda: “It takes a lot to knock Jay down,” she says.
Mize threw a strike that day, and he threw it at just 80 percent, like his dad had asked. The fastball hit the glove square into Jason's chest, knocking him off the bucket he was sitting on.
“And he jumps up and goes, ‘I told you only 80 percent!’ ” Rhonda says. “And Casey — and I’ll never forget this — Casey goes, ‘Good thing I only threw it about 70.’ ”
This was years ago, when Mize was still in high school, a skinny mystery to scouts who often skipped over his small hometown. He threw in the upper-80s back then, and when his dad, a longtime Birmingham, Ala., police officer, looks back on the moment, he knew his son had a special arm.
“Never again,” Jason says with a laugh.
Mize, 21, is still throwing strikes, but those fastballs clock in at 95 mph. He throws three more pitches now — a slider, a cut fastball and a split-finger change-up that is considered exceptional, or “plus-plus” in the scouting vocabulary — and he throws all of them for strikes.
Mize is the best pitcher in college baseball, and on a recent day off in Auburn, he is talking about how he got here, answering the easiest of questions from a reporter who wants to know what a small-town Alabama native knows about Detroit.
Yes, Mize would like to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
He cracks a smile when asked, because he has been asked this question a lot recently, and it doesn’t get any less surreal. Yes, he has to pinch himself.
But what Mize says next — what he’s been saying for as long as he can remember — shows the mindset of an under-recruited shortstop-turned pitcher, whose competitiveness helped fuel his ascension on MLB draft radars.
“Is it the most important thing to me?” he says. “No. … People ask me a lot, ‘Is it your dream to get to the big leagues?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Is it your dream to be the No. 1 overall pick?’ I’m like, ‘No.’
“Never in a million years did I think that would even be an option and so when I was growing up, that was never a goal or anything.”
No, when you're ranked as the No. 351 prospect in the country out of high school, you set more attainable goals.
When Mize was a junior at Springville High, he was assigned a project on the career he wanted to pursue. Becoming a major league baseball player was not realistic, his teacher said, but Mize did the project anyway. He received 88 percent on the paper and was docked points for not following the rules.
His mom asked the teacher whether she knew the story about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, a stunning precursor for maybe the greatest basketball player of all time. The teacher knew the story, and Mize was awarded the points back.
“You don’t want to be that teacher,” Rhonda said, withholding the teacher’s name because in Springville, a town of roughly 4,250 people, everybody knows everybody.
Mize cultivated his competitiveness here, against his older brother Cody, who is four years older but let Casey win early on in life for the sake of family harmony.
“We couldn’t stand to live with Casey if he didn’t win,” Rhonda says. “It was hell to pay. So for a while, everybody just let him win. And then, finally, Cody just got tired and we all got tired and Cody’s like, ‘I’m not letting him win anymore.’ ”
When that switch flipped, Mize’s competitiveness went to a different level.
“I think I got too cocky with it and I started bragging about it,” Mize says. “And then he just started beating me, so I think that’s where, I don’t know, it just kind of infuriated me. Just trying to keep up with him my whole life is where my competitiveness comes from.”
Over the years, he’s learned to harness his competitiveness. On the mound, he seems unaffected yet steady. There is not much exuberance, no trash talk.
“That’s what I need to be able to go out there and execute,” he says. “I take every pitch personally and I take every at-bat personally and I think it gives me some confidence, gives me some grit out there.”
But there was this one time, in the SEC tournament last year, when an Ole Miss hitter tagged him for a solo home run late in the game. Auburn led, 2-0, at the time. As he jogged around the bases, the hitter jawed at Mize. Mize ignored him, did not allow another baserunner and after striking out the final batter of the game to pitch Auburn into the NCAA tournament, he looked at the Ole Miss dugout with his finger on his lips.
Without saying anything, Mize told them to shut up.
'Where did that come from?’
It happened by chance, Chris McRaney thinks, the way he stumbled into Casey Mize one day at a high school showcase in Birmingham.
McRaney, the director of Team Georgia, a travel baseball club based out of Atlanta, was in the area and decided to stop by to see an old friend, Butch Thompson, then the pitching coach at Mississippi State.
McRaney couldn’t help but notice the kid at shortstop.
“I just saw the athleticism, the arm action, all of the above and said, ‘Hey, this kid’s got a pretty good chance to be a player,’ ” McRaney said. “And you could see he was a competitor, it didn’t take much to figure that out.”
There was only one person within an earshot of McRaney in the empty stadium, so McRaney asked the man a few seats away if he knew whose kid that was. The man was Jason Mize. What McRaney still might not know is Jason, who coached Casey throughout his early teens, knew his son needed more advanced coaching. He positioned himself close to McRaney because, “He looked like he knew something about baseball.”
The meeting with McRaney was the first domino in Mize’s ascension. He played three years with Team Georgia, on a team stocked with SEC talent, and he often had to make the 2½-hour drive to Atlanta and back. Mize played shortstop but couldn’t hit all that much — “.250 (average) and every once in a while, I’d smoke one,” he says — and during his second summer with Team Georgia, his full-time transition to the mound began.
The team needed a spot starter for a tournament game and called on Mize.
“He was the type of kid, he was like 10-0 in high school that year with a 1.3-something ERA, something ridiculous with crazy stats like that,” said Jordan Einstein, Mize's former Team George teammate. “And he didn’t ever say a word that he could pitch. He was just here, he was going to play shortstop and that was his thing. He wasn’t going to say, ‘I’m good at this or that.’ ”
It didn’t take long to see where Mize’s future on the baseball field would be. After one good start, then another, he became a mainstay on the mound against premier competition.
“We were all like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ ” Einstein said. “Everyone pitched in high school, but he came up and he was different. And we just had no idea.”
By following a between-starts strength and conditioning routine and throwing consistent bullpen sessions, Mize’s fastball velocity jumped from the mid-80s to touching 90 mph. He discovered the split-finger pitch playing catch and began using it as an out pitch in his next start. As fall arrived, he began receiving interest from Division I schools, including Auburn, his favorite team growing up.
On his official recruiting visit to Auburn, with other schools lined up, he jumped at the scholarship offer.
“I committed immediately,” he said. “It was my only offer, and it’s the only one I needed, because I knew I wanted to go here. It was all Auburn for me, really.”
Mize got some looks from major league teams during his senior season, but an ankle sprain mostly kept him off the radar. When he arrived at Auburn as a freshman, in came Thompson, who assumed head-coaching duties after establishing himself as one of the best pitching coaches in the country at Mississippi State.
The first question Thompson is asked about his star pitcher is why he didn’t recruit him harder in high school.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he says. “I didn’t know. I think I knew the name, but it was lost in a list of 20 names and didn’t pop off the page. I probably should have.”
“No, I definitely should have.”
The next Verlander? Or Clemens?
Three years later, Thompson believes he has created a monster.
But the monster Mize has become on the mound — most evident in the physical traits, four pitches and gaudy statistics — is fueled by a mentality that looks past the draft and to the major leagues, where some scouts believe he could successfully pitch right now.
Mize is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds with thick legs and still a soft body which offers room for development. His pitches are praised by top talent evaluators, especially the split-finger change-up, and the rate at which he throws them for strikes is eye-opening. In the past two seasons, he has struck out 249 batters and walked 19.
He has drawn comparisons to Corey Kluber and Zack Greinke. A scout who was in town speaking to Thompson the other day said Justin Verlander comes to mind. The last similarly accomplished college right-hander was Stephen Strasburg in 2009, but Auburn pitching coach Steve Smith goes much further back when asked about the last pitcher he saw with this kind of ability.
Smith, who came to Auburn last fall after 21 years as the head coach at Baylor, stops short of a direct comparison, but goes back to his playing days, when he faced a Texas righty named Roger Clemens in the early 1980s.
“Clemens was the best college guy that I saw,” he says. “But with Casey, I haven’t seen anybody, whether I’ve coached him or somebody else has coached him, I haven’t seen anybody with four plus-pitches for strikes. I just ain’t seen it.”
In this day and age of SEC baseball, where pitching coaches communicate with their catchers on headsets to call pitches, Smith leaves the pitch-calling to Mize, a rarity in the collegiate ranks.
When Smith came aboard, after meeting with pitchers to go over game-calling strategies, he pulled Mize into his office.
“And I looked at him and I said, ‘You know what, Case,’ I said, ‘If I’m you and I’ve been sitting there all fall watching somebody, a new guy come in who is calling all of the pitches, I’d wonder, is he really going to do that to me when the spring rolls around?' ”
Mize nodded his head.
“And I said, ‘Let me tell you what I’m going to do when the spring rolls around.' I said, ‘I’m either going to fold my arms while I cross my legs or I’m going to rest them on the back of the bench.’ And that’s the way it’s been. With Casey, he’s way ahead of the game on that.”
Mize's strike-throwing ability is borne from a mentality to attack hitters. It’s something he struggled to do earlier in his career, during an up-and-down freshman season, which he considers to be the most adversity he has faced.
“It’s a commitment,” he said. “I trust my stuff and my defense behind me, so it’s just a commitment to throwing the ball in the strike zone. It’s more of a mindset than anything.”
Thompson didn’t know about that mindset when Mize was just a name on his recruiting list, a hard-thrower from a small town, one of many he passes on every season.
“As I tell (Thompson) periodically," McRaney says, " ‘Boy, that one fell into your lap.’ ”
Thompson has seen a boy grow into a man, a possible draft pick turn into the possible No. 1 draft pick, and a pitcher who improbably keeps improving. A week before the season started, at the suggestion of graduate assistant Tyler Stovall, a former Braves minor leaguer, Mize experimented with a cut fastball.
“He’s just one of those guys that just picks up a ball and when he throws it, he’s got unbelievable feel,” Stovall said. “He just took it and ran with it.”
Three months later, Mize counts the cutter as one of his best pitches. One scout who has seen the majority of his starts this season said the pitch has improved a full grade.
Add it all up — the added strength, the added pitches, all of the strikes and a personality that has matured beyond his years — and Thompson barely can recognize the kid who fell into his lap.
“Right away, I saw that, if I invest in him, I’m going to get a return on this investment,” Thompson says. “I saw him compete with everything he had. He was beat up some as a freshman but it was like he had a cap gun. He’s toting armor now. He’s got an artillery now.”
Above the calendar on Thompson’s desk, scattered amongst a stack of pocket schedules, NCAA pamphlets and some scouting information for an upcoming series against LSU, is a business card for a sports psychologist who traveled here from Europe last week.
It has the Old English ‘D’ on it.
‘He checks too many boxes’
The Tigers have been on the clock since October, when they wrapped up a major league-worst 98 losses and kickstarted their rebuilding process.
With those losses, they won the No. 1 pick in the draft this season, at a time when their farm system needs an impact player. It also is a time when the Tigers can't afford to err.
It has been said there is no sure superstar in this year’s draft — no Bryce Harper or Strasburg — but Mize has separated himself from the pack by plowing through the SEC, considered college baseball’s toughest conference.
The Tigers have had a scout at every one of Mize’s starts this season. And on a Friday night earlier this month, for his final regular-season start against LSU, general manager Al Avila is watching from behind home plate as Mize strikes out his fifth and sixth batters of the game in the third inning. Avila, a longtime scout, watches Mize's arm action from down the third-base line as Mize strikes out the side in the fourth inning. And though he had a flight out of Atlanta later that night to see another amateur, the possibility cannot be discounted that by the time Avila and his comrades left after the fifth, he might have seen enough.
“Yes,” Thompson says, when asked whether Mize should be the Tigers’ choice. “He checks too many boxes. I’d be selling Casey short if I wasn’t man enough to make that statement.”
But there are no sure things in scouting, especially with starting pitchers. It's safe to assume Mize will get hurt at some point in his career, and his reliability poses a question that only medical tests can answer, regarding a few missed starts with a right forearm strain last season. Even then, those tests cannot predict the future.
Mize talks about the strain, saying he thinks it has been taken out of context. That’s what teams do when they have the No. 1 pick. They pick players apart until they find something wrong.
“I know it’s a scary thing, you know, forearm strains or whatever," he says, "and I understand the concern there, but for me, I see it as definitely a minor injury."
And then he offers the best defense against any injury-related questions.
“We have Dr. James Andrews, who is one of the best doctors in the world, as our team doctor. He comes here monthly, I’ve seen him tons of times and when we got an MRI done, he said, ‘Your ligament looks like every other elite pitcher at your age.' And I think if the best doctor in the world tells me that I’m fine, I’m going to trust his word a little bit.”
At its core, the goal of the MLB draft is to select players who make it to the major leagues. And as Mize mows through the LSU lineup, he looks every bit like a professional pitching against amateurs. But as soon as the Tigers leave, his inexperience shows. Well-represented teams who hope Mize falls to them wish the Tigers would have stayed. It is the seventh inning, and Mize has been chased from the game.
'A depth of character'
Slouched over the dugout railing, this is not how tonight was supposed to go.
Mize looks out at Auburn’s home field, at the mound he walked off hurriedly an hour earlier, now tarped over during a ninth-inning rain delay, and he wonders if he will get another opportunity to pitch here.
Two days earlier, sitting inside one of Auburn’s batting cages, underneath the words, “WAR EAGLE,” Mize talked about his final days at the place that turned him into the best college pitcher in the country.
“This place has been really good to me,” he said.
It was his fourth interview of the week. His picture will be on the cover of Baseball America next month. On June 4, his life will change, both in fame and financial security. The expectations will be amplified.
“Pitching in front of our fans at home, possibly for the last time, it’s definitely going to be emotional,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be more emotion during the game or after, but there definitely will be more.”
The game is not yet over, but the emotions are there. In between conversations with a couple of teammates, he stares out at space, as thoughts seem to be racing through his mind. For the past six weeks, he went to sleep knowing he might be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“He handles it beautifully,” Thompson says. “I haven’t seen it affect him at all. It’s been remarkable. I have seen guys fall apart like a house of cards. There’s a depth of character, maturity and work ethic that I didn’t know he had when I first met him. I’m more impressed with how he handled that than this season itself.”
Mize knows what went wrong in the sixth inning against LSU. After overpowering hitters for five innings, he relied too much on his cutter. With so many pitches at his disposal, he forgot he has a 95 mph fastball in his back pocket. A few of those cutters were left over the plate. Four runs scored.
“If there’s one thing that stands out about him, it’s his awareness,” Thompson said. “He’s got a heightened awareness.”
Mize was aware the Tigers were watching him. He might have been aware they left. He is aware that bigger things are coming, a new challenge he has been preparing for since his teenage years.
And while he hopes to have at least one more start at Auburn, in the NCAA tournament, his body of work has spoken for itself. Yet his goal, as he reminded his mom the other day, is not to be the best pitcher in college baseball.
“He had to remind me of that the other day,” Rhonda says. “He said, ‘Mom, my goal is not to be drafted. My goal is to play in the major leagues.’”
As he leans on the front of his white Toyota truck, underneath the dimmed parking lot lights, he talks with his dad about what went wrong against LSU. Soon, the lights will get brighter. The goal is within reach.
And Mize now knows that if he wants to get the major leagues, he’s going to have to throw his fastball.
Contact Anthony Fenech: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Download our Tigers Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!