The Gerrit Cole vs. Casey Mize pitching matchup on Thursday in Lakeland came out in favor of the No. 1 ranked RHP prospect and not the big league star.
The better pitcher in Thursday afternoon’s spring training matchup between the Tigers and Yankees in Lakeland wasn’t the reigning Major League strikeout champion, the player who signed a $324 million contract in the offseason. It was Casey Mize, the Tigers No. 1 ranked prospect and the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, who out-dueled Gerrit Cole and shut out the Yankees over his two innings of work.
Mize and Cole share a number of similarities. They were both the first overall pick in the MLB Draft, Cole by the Pirates out of UCLA in 2011 and Mize by Detroit in 2018 after a stellar career at Auburn. In his age 22 season in 2019, Mize finished with a 2.55 ERA, 0.942 WHIP, and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings; when Cole was 22, in 2012, he had a 2.80 ERA, 1.197 WHIP, and struck out 9.3 per nine innings.
They both throw fastballs that reach into the upper-90s on the radar gun and combine that power with devastating breaking balls. But on Thursday when they faced off against each other for the first time, those similarities came to an end.
Mize was perfect in the first inning, striking out Gio Urshela on a cutter that darted off the outside corner of the plate before getting Miguel Andujar looking at strike three on a knee-buckling slider. After a lead-off walk to Gary Sanchez in the second, he got Clint Frazier to ground into a double play with another slider down in the zone. He completed his outing with two innings, no hits allowed, and two strikeouts against players who helped the Yankees become the highest-scoring offense in the league last year.
Cole, meanwhile, fresh off signing his record-setting deal to join the Yankees, struggled mightily. In the first inning, Travis Demeritte hit a hanging slider over the left-field fence at Publix Field for a two-run home run. Miguel Cabrera followed with a homer to left-center on a 96 mph fastball as the Tigers went back-to-back. Cole didn’t surrender consecutive home runs once all of last season.
But Demeritte and Cabrera weren’t done there. They connected off Cole for home runs again in the second inning, both hitting long shots to straightaway center field. Cole hasn’t given up two home runs to a player in a regular season game since Lucas Duda did it in 2017; two Tigers did it to him on Thursday.
Established starting pitchers like Cole don’t show off all their stuff in Spring Training. They often focus more on getting a feel for certain pitches and being prepared for the start of the season rather than what their line looks like at the end of an outing. For a minor league prospect like Mize, though, a game like he had on Thursday can be what convinces his club that he has what it takes to make it in the big leagues.
Mize dazzled in 2019. Called up to Double-A at the end of April, he threw a no-hitter in his first start and finished with a 3.20 ERA in 15 starts, the first full season of his pro career. His fastball hit as high as 96 against the Yankees. He combines that with a splitter and a slider that he’s working on adding to his repertoire. But what really sets him apart is his maturity, both on and off the field, that belies his age.
“With Casey Mize, he’s got a very good professional approach,” Tigers General Manager Al Avila told MLB Network on Thursday. “He studies everything. Not only his grip and overall mechanics but he studies opposing hitters. His maturity is really beyond his years. He looks like a seasoned veteran when he prepares and on the mound.”
Avila says Mize will likely begin the season at Triple-A Toledo to build up his arm. He only pitched 109 innings last season after throwing 127 between Auburn and the minors in 2018. The Tigers aren’t going to rush their prized arm, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think he’s going to be special.
“I think he’s an All-Star caliber player. I think he’s definitely a No. 1 starter,” Avila said. “But at the same time, you’re taking it one step at a time. The thing about him and what makes him special is … he’s a very mature kid. He’s a very cerebral guy. He studies everything. Very focused where he has a purpose for every pitch.”
Cole made his Major League debut for Pittsburgh in 2013, the season he turned 23. Mize is at that stage of his career, and here is another similarity between the two: Mize will be in the Tigers rotation at some point in 2020. And after what he showed on Thursday, he should be there to stay.