Before he was unlike most pitchers his age, Casey Mize was the same as the rest. He threw a fastball and a changeup in his youth, then discovered a breaking ball in high school.
"Just like most players," Mize said with a laugh, "I got pretty addicted to throwing it."
So addicted, in fact, that he lost the feel for his changeup. Within time, he realized he needed to reclaim it. He tried a couple new grips, including the circle change. They didn't work. It was during a game of catch in the backyard -- or maybe the driveway, Mize can't quite remember -- that his dad suggested a splitter grip.
"Dad said, 'Hey, grip it like this,' and I did and I threw it and it worked out," Mize told Tiger Talk on 97.1 The Ticket.
In the words of MLB.com prospect guru Jim Callis, "One of the most devastating pitches in baseball. It's a mid-80s offering that dives abruptly at the plate, and some scouts say they've never seen a pitcher command a splitter better than Mize does."
Scouts -- and skeptics -- also say this: Mize's reliance on his splitter puts him at heightened risk of injury. It's a taxing pitch on the forearm and elbow. More than a few fallen big-leaguers could attest. The concern around Mize grew when he was shelved for about a month last summer with shoulder soreness.
But Mize made a full recovery, and the injury had nothing to do with his splitter in the first place. As for the risk moving forward, so be it. Mize is sticking to his guns.
"I threw it a little bit less (last) year just because I think the cutter was such a good pitch," he said. "But I’m definitely not going to shy away from it, because I think it’s my bread and butter. It’s allowed me to get this far."
If there's anyone who could understand, it might be Jack Morris. The splitter was the pitch on which he built his Hall-of-Fame career. A guy by the name of Roger Clemens threw a pretty good one, too. Mize has had the privilege of spending some time with both, and he keeps in mind a little advice from Morris.
"He said, 'You just gotta do a lot of arm care. You gotta take care of your arm a little bit more than most guys,' so I’ve definitely done that," said Mize. "I think I’ve done that most of my career, but just hearing that and knowing how long he pitched throwing that pitch, he just told me to take care of my arm and body as much as I can."
To that end, Mize has spent the offseason working on his lower-half mechanics. The Tigers shut him down at the end of last season to protect his shoulder and avoid an extreme jump in innings -- "It definitely wasn’t my choice," Mize pointed out -- and he wants to avoid a similar conclusion this season. He knows there's pressure on him to perform.
"If you have pressure on you, that means you put yourself in a good position. Luckily I was able to do that and now people are just going to hold me accountable," he said. "I know that’s always going to be there. And trust me, I’ll hold myself way more accountable than anyone else will on a day-to-day basis."
Mize has continued to refine his breaking ball as well. It's a hybrid of a slider and a curve, though he admits, "I’m not really sure what it is yet." He's harnessed some technology this winter in an effort to increase its spin rate. It's early, but he said he likes the results so far.
In time, they hope to do it in the majors.
"We had a great team," said Mize. "We had a lot of fun, and that’s because we won a lot of games. Winning’s fun. The more we can do that together and realize that’s the ultimate goal, just to experience that together and know what that’s supposed to look like, I think that can only be positive for the future.
"I’m not sure where we’ll be assigned this year, but if we’re together, if we’re not, I’m looking forward to winning either way."