Sunday Notes: Verticality in Mind, Casey Mize Has Designs on Being Better

Casey Mize plans to be a different pitcher in 2021. Not just in terms of results — the rookie right-hander had a 6.99 ERA and a 6.47 FIP in seven starts with the Detroit Tigers last year — but also with how he employs his arsenal. Not surprisingly, data will be playing a role. Mize has a history with pitch design that dates back to his days at Auburn, and those efforts have only increased in pro ball.

I asked the first-overall pick in the 2018 draft what technology has taught him about his pitches, and how it’s shaping his efforts to improve.

“It’s pretty much a horizontal profile,” Mize responded. “We’re starting to take the four-seamer up a little bit to add a little more vertical, because it played so well last year. My splitter is super vertical, and we’re trying to really maximize that, because my slider has more of a horizontal break.”

Mize acknowledged that his two-seamer profiles as horizontal as well, getting more arm-side run than depth. It’s a pitch he’s favored, but that’s one of the changes currently in the works. The 23-year-old hurler not only plans to elevate more four-seamers, he intends to up its overall usage. His two-seamer will be used primarily “to mask the splitter,” a pitch he likes to have diving below the zone.

Mize isn’t a spin monster, a fact he readily admits. His four-seam spin rate was a pedestrian 2,245 rpm last season, yet while that ranked him in the 33rd percentile among his peers, he’s not particularly concerned.

“My vertical approach angle is pretty good on the four-seamer, so we think ‘I’ll be able to maximum that up in the zone,” the righty reasoned. “Increasing spin is pretty difficult to do, so I’m just going to maximize location. The axis will tick up when I throw it up in the zone.”

And then there’s his slider, which is classified as a cutter on his player page. What exactly is it?

“Technically it’s a gyro slider,” explained Mize, who developed the pitch while working with Caleb Cotham back when the now-Phillies pitching coach was employed by the Bledsoe Agency. “I call it a cutter, which I do in order to think [throw it] hard. But what you’ll see this year is going to be a little different.”

Ditto his curveball, which also grades out on the lower end in terms of spin rate. Mize said changes can be expected with that pitch, as well. He wasn’t sharing specifics, but once thing is certain: new Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter is playing a key role with each and every adjustment. None may be more important than getting the ballyhooed prospect to command his pitches better.

“The four-seamer was pretty good, but the two-seamer and splitter got hit around pretty good,” admitted Mize. “A lot of it was count and leverage; there were lot disadvantage counts. I think the four-seamer will play better, and everything will play better, in advantage counts.”

Along with increased verticality, that’s a big part of that plan going forward.

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Sticking with the Tigers, SABR’s Southern Michigan chapter held a Zoom meeting yesterday that featured some great anecdotes and opinions from days of yore. One of the guest speakers was Larry Paladino, who covered the Detroit sports scene for the Associated Press, and various publications, for several decades beginning in the late 1960s. Paladino was asked about his favorite, and least favorite, players to interview.

Aurelio Rodriguez was name-checked as his favorite. “At least as good as Brooks Robinson defensively,” in Paladino’s opinion, the Sonora, Mexico native played third base in the big leagues for 17 seasons, nine of them in a Detroit uniform. The erstwhile journalist called Rodriguez, “a great guy…. just an easy guy to talk to.”

And then there were the not-so-easy.

“I couldn’t stand Kirk Gibson,” Paladino said. “He just jumped down your throat. You’d ask him the simplest, basic question, and he seemed to get upset. He was really high-strung. Another one, who was also a Michigan State guy, was Mike Marshall. The pitcher.”

Gary Gillette, who chairs the Southern Michigan chapter, proceeded to share a story about the eccentric reliever-turned-pitching-guru.

“He got a degree in kinesiology from MSU, and would work out with the MSU baseball team,” Gillette said of Marshall, who pitched for the Tigers in 1967, and then for eight other teams from 1969-1981. “Marshall, one time, got in a fistfight with one of the MSU college ballplayers over something, which is just insane. A major leaguer getting in a fistfight with some guy who probably had no future as a baseball player.”

Marshall was subsequently barred from the Michigan State campus.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Johnny Pesky went 29 for 62 against Bobo Newsom.

Willie Mays went 28 for 59 against Clem Labine.

Bruce Bochte went 27 for 54 against Paul Splittorff.

Norm Cash went 26 for 59 against Stan Bahnsen.

Arky Vaughan went 25 for 52 against Ray Benge.

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Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record on August 7, 2007 when he took Washington Nationals southpaw Mike Bacsik deep in a game played at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Earlier that same evening, 2,300 miles away in Aaron’s hometown, the baseball gods presaged the moment in spectacular fashion.

“The Mobile BayBears had a home game that night,” explained veteran broadcaster Tim Hagerty, who was there when it happened. “A thunderstorm passed through Mobile, as often happens in August on the Gulf, and a stadium light tower on the first base side was struck by lighting, causing a power outage delay. Once our broadcast began, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if Barry Bonds broke the all-time home record on the same night Hank Aaron Stadium was struck by lighting?”

And then it happened: Bonds hit No. 756. Whether the baseball gods had been celebrating the event to come, or if they were messaging their disapproval, is a matter of interpretation.

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Adam Ottavino is known for his efforts in pitch design, and I broached that subject with the veteran reliever following his trade from the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox. What has he been working on this offseason?

“I don’t want to give away too many things,” Ottavino said in response to my question. “But multiple shapes of my breaking pitches is the area where I can be elite at. That’s the category I feel is my specialty. Just trying to lean into that and grab a little better control of pitches that break downward, as well as sideways and everything in between… I just want to be a little more diversified.”

Ottavino elaborated, saying that he’d become too enamored with a specific shape on his slider, and as a result, hitters had begun tracking its break. Hence the desire to return to throwing multiple variations of his signature pitch.

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A quiz:

A total of 128 players have homered in their first big-league at bat. Which of them has the most career home runs?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The Milwaukee Brewers have promoted Sara Goodrum to Minor League Hitting Coordinator, making her the first woman to serve in that role. Goodrum’s official title is Coordinator – Hitting Development Initiatives.

La Velle Neal, a Minnesota Twins beat writer for the last 23 years, is transitioning into a columnist role at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Neal will reportedly be the first sports columnist of color in the newspaper’s 153-year history.

Paul Foytack, who pitched for the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Angels from 1953-1964, died earlier this week at age 90. Foytack infamously allowed four consecutive home runs in a game against Cleveland in 1963. Chase Wright, in 2007, Dave Bush in 2010, Michael Blazek, Craig Stammen in 2019, and Roel Ramirez in 2020 are the other pitchers to suffer that fate.

Ron Johnson, a longtime manager and coach in the Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles organizations, died of COVID-19 complications this past week at age 64. A first baseman during his playing days, Johnson saw a smattering of action with the Royals in 1982 and 1983, and with the Montreal Expos in 1984.

The summer-collegiate Wild Wild West League will continue play as a four-team league in 2021. Located in Portland, Oregon, the league was formed last year as a response to COVID-19 travel limitations. (Per Ballpark Digest.)

The finalists for the 2021 SABR Analytics Conference awards were announced on Friday. Ben Clemens, Jay Jaffe, and Meg Rowley are among them.

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The answer to the quiz is Gary Gaetti, who finished his career with 360 home runs. The first was off Texas Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough in Gaetti’s September 20, 1981 debut with the Minnesota Twins.

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Who was better, Joe Nathan or Jonathan Papelbon? I posed that question in a Twitter poll a few days ago, and somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t a close race.
Before we get to the results, let’s look at some of their numbers.

Nathan: 787 games, 377 saves, 30.63 WPA, 9.5 K/9, 2.87 ERA.

Papelbon: 689 games, 368 saves, 28.38 WPA,10.0 K/9, 2.44 ERA.

Piggybacking on those stats, Nathan went 0-2 with one save and an 8.10 ERA in 10 postseason innings. Papelbon went 2-1 with seven saves and an 1.00 ERA in 27 postseason innings.

Nathan won the poll handily, garnering 65.5% of the 436 votes cast, while Papelbon — this despite having played for a larger-market team and performing better in October — received just 34.5%.

There’s little reason to believe that their regular-season W-L records — Nathan 64-34, Papelbon 41-36 — had much of an influence on the ballots cast. Their personas may well be another story. Was Nathan truly the better of the two, or he is simply looked back at more favorably?

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Freddy Galvis met with the Baltimore media after signing with the Orioles this past week, and one of the questions he fielded was about his improved offensive game. Basically a banjo hitter early in his career — he had a 75 wRC+ from 2012-2017 — the 31-year-old shortstop has upped that number to a more respectable 87 over the past three seasons. Growing up, he was more interested in emulating a particular countryman than he was in trying to knock down fences.

“When I was young in Venezuela, I always loved to take ground balls,” Galvis explained. “I never paid attention to hitting a lot of baseballs… What I loved to do was take grounders, and try to make crazy plays. I tried to be like Omar Vizquel.”

Galvis went on to say that it’s only in the last three or fours years that he’s worked hard to fine-tune his swing. This offseason he’s under the tutelage of respected hitting instructor Ricardo Sosa.”

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Fernando Salas had 17 saves and a 0.74 ERA in 24-and-a-third innings for Naranjeros de Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League. The 35-year-old right-hander has pitched for five big-league teams, most recently the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019. He logged 24 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.

Brisbane Bandits right-hander Ryan Searle made his 139th Australian Baseball League appearance on Thursday, tying him with Justin Erasmus and Matt Williams for the most ever in the relaunched ABL A 29-year-old native Australian, Searle pitched in the Chicago Cubs system from 2008-2014, topping out in Triple-A.

Curtis Mead is slashing .361/.400/.607 in 64 plate appearances with the ABL’s Adelaide Giants. A 20-year-old infielder originally in the Philadelphia Phillies system, Mead is No. 34 on our recently-released Tampa Bay Rays Top Prospects list.

Nick Martínez has reportedly signed with the SoftBank Hawks. The 30-year-old former Texas Rangers right-hander has spent the three seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

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A note on Masahiro Tanaka, who is returning to NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles after seven seasons with the New York Yankees. Per Tokyo-based scribe Jim Allen, Tanaka won 28-straight regular season decisions from 2012 through the end of the 2013 season. Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten in 2013.

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Speaking at SABR’s 50th anniversary program, Baseball Hall of Fame president Tim Mead said yesterday that the Hall has no intention of removing the character clause from voting criteria.

“We can agree or disagree on how we define it — it’s a subjective discussion — but character is very important,” said Mead. “Character is something that might be defined differently, but the word itself represents something very, very important.”

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The New York Mets signed sidewinding southpaw Aaron Loup to a free agent contract on Wednesday. If you’re interested in how Loup began throwing from a low angle, that story led a February 2019 Sunday Notes column. Included within was the line, “The fact that his arm didn’t fall off qualifies as remarkable.”

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For those of you who missed episode 906 of FanGraphs Audio earlier this month, erstwhile Cleveland closer Chris Perez shared several eyebrow-raising stories. The infamous episode where he arrived home to find law enforcement agents executing a search warrant — marijuana had been mailed to him in his dog’s name — was among them. What percentage of his former teammates would at least occasionally partake was also addressed, as were his comments criticizing fans for not showing up at Progressive Field. As he’s wont to be, Perez was refreshingly candid throughout our conversation.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Sporting News supports a proposal to remove J.G. Taylor Spink’s name from the BBWAA award that bears his name. Ryan Fagan has the story at that very publication, for which Spink served as publisher for nearly half a century.

The Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan opined that the Baseball Hall of Fame should let Curt Schilling take his name off the 2022 ballot.

The Undefeated’s Rhiannon Walker wrote about the day Hank Aaron had a home run taken away by a plate umpire.

Writing for the Quincy (Illinois) Herald-Whig, Christine Ledbetter introduced us to a small town schoolteacher named Floyd Smith, who served as baseball’s schedule-maker from the 1930s through the early 1950s.

Mike Marshall pitched in 106 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974. Will Carroll explored the feasibility of somebody’s one day approaching that total, at Under The Knife.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Jim Brosnan is the only pitcher to have faced Hank Aaron at least 50 times without surrendering a home run. Brosnan is also the only pitcher to give up a walk-off, inside-the-park grand slam. Roberto Clemente was the batter.

Joe Bauman batted an even .400 when he hit a minor-league record 72 runs for the Longhorn League’s Roswell Rockets in 1954. All told, Bauman batted .337 with 337 home runs in his professional career. He never played in the majors.

Daniel Murphy reached base safely in 24 of his 25 postseason games. That 96% percentage is the highest in history for players who appeared in at least 15 postseason games. (per the Elias Sports Bureau.)

The 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates went 98-64 during the regular season with eight pitchers recording between eight and 14 wins. John Candelaria’s 14 wins were tops on the club.

Doc Crandall was the first pitcher with 30 or more relief appearances in a single season, Crandall came out of the New York Giants bullpen 33 times in 1913, a season that saw him traded to the Cardinals on August 6— and then sold back to the Giants 13 days later, having never taken the mound with St. Louis.

Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler has the most seasons (four) of a 0.00 ERA in MLB history. Sisler pitched six innings over those fours years. All told, he logged a 2.35 ERA over 111 big-league innings.

Texas catcher Drew Butera — he signed with the Rangers earlier this month — has made seven pitching appearances and allowed five runs over six innings. His father, Sal Butera — a catcher for nine big-league seasons — made a pair of one-inning pitching appearances and didn’t allow a run.

Six players who debuted in the live-ball era have had more career stolen bases than strikeouts (minimum 1000 PA): Juan Pierre (614-479), Eric Young Sr. (465-462), George Case (349-297), Miguel Dilone (267-197), Alan Wiggins 242-193), Rudy Law (228-210). Stats per @ajacksonevans

Players born on today’s date include Hank Aguirre, who pitched for four teams, mostly the Detroit Tigers, from 1955-1970. One of the worst-hitting pitchers in big-league history, Aguirre slashed .085/.117/.108 in 427 plate appearances. He had 33 hits and struck out 236 times.

Eleven outfielders born in the state of Oklahoma have accumulated at least 1,500 hits. In order by hit total, they are Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner, Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell, Joe Carter, Matt Holliday, Bob Johnson, Bobby Murcer, Matt Kemp, Johnny Callison, and Paul Blair. The first four are in the Hall of Fame.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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muskox
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muskox

I am glad you provided a link to the Sporting News piece regarding removing J.G. Taylor Spink’s name from the BBWAA award. It was an excellent history lesson. I think Spink’s name should be removed.

The Ancient Mariner
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The Ancient Mariner

Reading that piece, I don’t think there’s even a “he was good for baseball” argument to be made for keeping his name on the award. Whatever good he did in building up its popularity, his fight to uphold the color barrier did grave harm to the game. That’s not the most important thing, but I do think it’s instructive.