Casey Mize is the clear No. 1 prize in the MLB draft

Auburn pitcher Casey Mize, the projected top pick in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft, is considered close to big-league-ready by many of the scouts who have watched him dominate Southeastern Conference hitters the past two years. If the Detroit Tigers select him at No. 1 when the draft begins Monday, he won’t require much of an apprenticeship in Lakeland, Erie or Toledo.

Mize shows versatility and imagination with a mix of four pitches, and his dazzling strikeout-to-walk ratio is a testament to his command of all of them. But it’s his self-control — along with his ability to control a baseball — that takes him to a different level.

Auburn coach Butch Thompson is sold on Mize’s future in professional ball. Thompson has sent Kendall Graveman, Chris Stratton, Brandon Woodruff, Jonathan Holder and several other pitchers to the majors since 2014 while at Mississippi State and Auburn, so he can identify someone who looks the part.

“You have to have a little something to make it to the highest level,” Thompson said. “Casey has just been so impressive. You look at how he handled last year when it really started looking like, ‘Hey, this is a dude.’ He cares about where his feet are planted. He’s done a good job of caring about Auburn. There have been guys who’ve gotten so sidetracked and distracted by this kind of thing, I think it would sweep the average bear off his feet.

“It just comes back to how he was raised by his mom and dad. He gives all his teammates respect, and his catcher. He’s handled interview after interview, and pro team after pro team. It’s just been amazing. He’s held it together so well.”

Mize might be the best pitching prospect to come out of the SEC since David Price was carving up hitters at Vanderbilt 11 years ago. Mike Minor, Drew Pomeranz, Kevin Gausman, Aaron Nola, Carson Fulmer, A.J. Puk and Kyle Wright have all been selected in the top 10 in recent years — and Vanderbilt product Walker Buehler is quickly making a name for himself as a former No. 24 overall pick — but Mize is on the verge of becoming the first SEC pitcher to top the charts since Tampa Bay chose Price No. 1 in 2007.

It has been a swift ascent to prominence for Mize, who went undrafted out of his high school in Springville, Alabama (population: 4,080). A severe high ankle sprain during Mize’s senior year put a crimp in his draft stock. But amateur talent evaluators also thought that he could benefit from elite college competition and time for his body to get stronger.

“He’s a very typical case of a kid with good size who hadn’t quite filled out and proven an ability to repeat or hold his velocity and his inconsistencies with his secondary stuff,” said a scout based in the South. “You could see it coming, but kids generally in this part of the country go to SEC-land rather than sign for fifth- or sixth-round money.”

Mize has no problem putting the ball where he wants it. In 255 1/3 innings at Auburn, he has struck out 308 batters and walked 37. He throws his fastball in the 92-96 mph range and is equally confident in his slider, cutter and his signature pitch, a split-finger change that induces lots of strikeouts.

“Casey has just been so impressive. You look at how he handled last year when it really started looking like, ‘Hey, this is a dude.’ He cares about where his feet are planted. He’s done a good job of caring about Auburn. There have been guys who’ve gotten so sidetracked and distracted by this kind of thing, I think it would sweep the average bear off his feet.” Auburn coach Butch Thompson on Casey Mize

Tigers general manager Al Avila has declined to comment publicly on which player the team has in mind for the top pick, but he recently observed that Mize’s secondary pitches are more advanced than Justin Verlander‘s when he turned pro out of Old Dominion University in 2004. Some talent evaluators have compared Mize to New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka because of his reliance on the split.

“He has life to everything,” said an amateur scout for a National League club. “He changes speeds really well, and he can kind of choose to pitch with whatever mix of pitches that he wants to. The splitter is really good, and he can locate it, too. Oftentimes, it’s a more difficult pitch to have a feel for and throw strikes with, but he can do it.”

Mize missed some time with a forearm strain as a sophomore, but one MLB scouting director classified it as more a product of “ordinary usage” than a medical red flag. In his three seasons at Auburn, Mize has had the good fortune to be monitored regularly by Dr. James Andrews, the world-renowned orthopedic surgeon who doubles as the school’s sports medical director.

“There’s this old negative connotation associated to the splitter,” Thompson said. “But if it hurt an arm, we wouldn’t ever throw it a second time. Casey has figured out to master it and throw it for a strike and get a chase. He has a really good feel for it.”

By all accounts, Mize is long on talent and short on maintenance and drama. His father, Jason, is a detective for the Birmingham, Alabama, police department, and his brother, Cody, also works in law enforcement. Mize is typically described as a hard worker, a popular teammate and, in the words of one person who has followed him throughout his Auburn career, “the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry.”

In media interviews, Mize invariably focuses on team rather than personal goals. Because he began his college career with such moderate expectations, he has approached the draft without a shred of self-entitlement.

“People ask me a lot, ‘Is it your dream to get to the big leagues?'” Mize told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. “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 be an option, and so when I was growing up, that was never a goal or anything.”

Regardless of whether he’s picked first, Mize will join Frank Thomas, Gregg Olson, Chris Bootcheck and Gabe Gross as the only Auburn players to be selected in the first round of the draft. An even more fitting Auburn comparable: Tim Hudson, who was chosen by Oakland in the sixth round of the 1997 draft and went on to win 222 games and make four All-Star teams over 17 seasons with the Athletics, Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants.

Mize did his part to advance Auburn’s College World Series hopes when he pitched seven dominant innings in a 12-1 victory over Army in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday. Auburn beat North Carolina State 15-7 Sunday night and moves on to a Super Regional for the second time in program history and the first time in 19 years.

“He’s hungry,” Thompson said. “I think he can taste it and smell it this year that something special is around the corner in his future. I’ve seen a lot of guys come through in 27, 28 years as a coach, and I’m impressed with him through and through. It’s real.”

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