Unheralded and undrafted coming out of Springville (Ala.) High in 2015, Casey Mize was a revelation as a sophomore last season for Auburn. His breakout campaign earned him All-America honors and a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
Mize had electric, top-end stuff, pinpoint control and, because he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, the look of a premier college righthander. But he missed a few starts during the spring due to forearm tightness, was shut down for the summer after a brief appearance with Team USA and held back in fall ball.
Scouts were in agreement that Mize had the look of a top-of-the-draft talent, and he was voted a first-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors, but questions about his durability lingered into this year.
That uneasiness has quickly dissipated this spring. Mize again has been outstanding this season for Auburn, helping the Tigers climb to No. 6 in the Top 25 a month into the season and pushing himself higher on draft boards. He threw a no-hitter against Northeastern on March 9 and followed that up the next week with 13 strikeouts in a victory against Texas A&M to open Southeastern Conference play. By then, he had become a leading contender to be the top pick in the draft.
Auburn catcher Brett Wright said he is having fun this spring working with Mize.
“He’s just a bulldog on the mound,” Wright said. “He wants to throw strikes every time and he wants to strike out everybody.”
Mize has done a great job of pounding the zone over the last two years. He led the country with 12.1 strikeouts per walk last season (109 strikeouts to nine walks) and is on a similar path this season. Through five starts, he had 51 strikeouts against three walks in 32 innings.
Mize’s above-average control helps his already impressive arsenal play up further. He throws his fastball 92-94 mph and touches 96. His split-changeup is a swing-and-miss pitch and is one of the best offspeed offerings in the country. His slider is an above-average offering and he has this year added a cutter, which already earns above-average grades.
Mize does a good job of repeating his release point with all of his pitches. Coach Butch Thompson, who served as pitching coach in addition to head coach for the last two years before turning over the pitching duties this season to Steve Smith, said he thinks in addition to using the same release point, Mize’s pitches all look similar to hitters after they’ve left his hand.
“I think he is tunneling and sharing space with his pitches,” Thompson said. “I think all of these pitches are staying together in a bouquet fashion for a period of time once it leaves his hand.”
Mize’s repertoire has evolved significantly in the last year. First, he reworked the grip of his slider, which he believes will help alleviate the forearm problems he had a year ago. He also believes the new grip has improved the pitch.
“It’s basically a new pitch from last year,” Mize said. “I’m throwing it for more strikes and I’m getting the action I want on it.”
Then, in the weeks leading up to the season, Mize picked up a cutter from graduate assistant coach Tyler Stovall, a former minor league lefthander.
Mize said he wanted to add the pitch to help his slider play up. It has also helped his fastball and given him another way to attack hitters.
“I’m always trying to learn new things because I think you’ve got to stay ahead of the competition somehow,” he said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how quickly that’s come along.”
Thompson compared the evolution of Mize’s arsenal to a wedding.
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” Thompson said. “He’s got this cutter going now. He’s got the staple of what’s allowed him to really grow as a pitcher with that split-finger.”
Mize used his whole repertoire to great effect against Texas A&M, which came into the game hitting .313 as a team. Facing his toughest opponent yet this season, Mize began the game with seven strikeouts. He finished his outing with 13 strikeouts and held the Aggies to one run in 7.1 innings on five hits and no walks.
“Thirteen strikeouts against not a good offense, but arguably one of the best offenses in America,” Thompson said. “That’s a hat-tipping performance.”
As good as Mize’s secondary offerings have been, he can excel pitching off his fastball. And that is just what Thompson thinks has been the key to Mize’s early-season success.
“His fastball has played up as well as I’ve seen in three years of coaching him,” Thompson said. “His cutter is rounding into shape. He’s got the staple of what’s always allowed him to grow as a pitcher with that split-finger. I just think the last two weeks his fastball has played so well.”
The Tigers enjoy games with their ace on the mound. Not only because they are 14-3 in games he starts over the last two years, but because of the energy and presence he brings every Friday night.
“His mentality on the mound gets us pumped up,” Wright said. “His enthusiasm after he throws every pitch keeps you in the ballgame and gets you excited.”
There are still three months until the draft, but Mize is loudly making his case to be the first player selected. There has been a large scouting presence at all of his starts, and Thompson said he spoke with two general managers in his office before the game against Texas A&M.
The highest drafted player in Auburn history is righthander Gregg Olson, who went fourth overall in 1988. Outfielder Gabe Gross, who is in his first season as Auburn’s hitting coach, was the highest pick this century, going 15th overall in 2001.
Thompson said Mize is ready for the added attention that comes with being evaluated for one of the first picks in the draft. Mize was able to watch righthander Keegan Thompson go through the process last season before he was drafted in the third round by the Cubs.
Because Mize is projected to go about 100 picks higher than Keegan Thompson did, there is even more attention on him. But Mize is ready for his closeup and the forest of radar guns behind home plate.
“If he can’t get past that, he’s never going anywhere anyway,” Butch Thompson said. “He’s well aware and pretty well versed. To this point in the season, he’s handled it masterfully.”
Mize has a long way to go before he makes program history, but he has clearly made a move up draft boards in the season’s first month. Thanks in part to his efforts on Friday nights, Auburn has also climbed the rankings. Mize and the Tigers appear to be in for a special spring.
“That’s good for the head coach to see when I can see our team feeling like they have a chance against anyone with Casey Mize on the mound,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a quiet confidence, and I think you’ve really got to look at the players and really get a feel, but they play with a confident rhythm when Casey’s in control of the ballgame.”