A deep dive into what makes Miles Mikolas tick

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He came out of nowhere (and Japan) to lead the Cardinals rotation. Can it continue? And how does it work?

The St. Louis Cardinals have made some big time moves this winter. With the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller, they’re in the running for Offseason Champion and are in the hunt to return to October for the first time since 2015.

They hope to have a less piecemeal rotation going forward of course, as they saw nine different players start at least four games, and had only one pitcher qualify for the ERA title. That man, Miles Mikolas, is a 30-year old journeyman who spent three years in Japan before returning to the Majors. What can we glean from his surprising 2018, that might portend continued excellence in the coming season?

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The Cardinals probably aren’t relying on Mikolas to anchor their rotation in 2019. They probably expect Carlos Martinez to return to something resembling his 2016-17 self when he pitched a combined 400 innings and posted a 3.76 FIP with a .293 wOBA against him, and while top prospect Alex Reyes’ role is still fluid, with any luck he’ll be a vital part of the staff as well. A rotation is more than two men, though, and championships come on more than just a couple arms—just ask the Cleveland Indians.

So here we find Mikolas, the best pitcher on the Cardinals in 2018. With his ‘stache from the 80’s, socks from the 50’s and strikeout rate (18.1 percent) from somewhere in between, he doesn’t exactly strike an imposing figure. But the 2.83 ERA, the 4.3 WAR and the 13th ranked 3.28 FIP certainly tell the story Cardinals fans and front office types want to hear. But when a guy re-emerges from the NPB and suddenly dominates, you have to wonder what’s real. Like Eric Thames on the other side of the ball, will there be a backlash? Based on what seems to usually lead to long-term success for pitcher, the answer may disappoint.

As I said before, Mikolas isn’t exactly a strikeout artist. That 18.1 percent ranks 51st out of 57 qualified starters, and if we drop the qualifier to 150 innings – a mark 78 pitchers crossed in 2018 – he drops to 68th. It’s amazing that in this era of ever-increasing K rates, he’s somehow so successful while not doing what all pitchers seem to do by accident.

Yet part of that at least is how he does pitch. See, Mikolas also has the highest rate of pitches in the zone of any qualified starter, and fourth highest of those who tossed 150 innings. That leads to a bottom of the barrel walk rate – in a good way – at 3.6 percent, and he also forces a grounder 49.3 percent of the time, 10th best among those who threw 150 pitches.

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So, this could be who he is. It’s an approach out of decades past, but also one that led to the etching of Bartolo Colon as folk hero over the last few years. Since 2015, he’s owned the highest contact rate (87.9 percent), ninth highest in-zone rate (48.1), third lowest walk rate (4.0) and the 6th lowest strikeout rate among starters. Replicating a 40-year old at the endof his career isn’t exactly a goal for most pitchers, but it did work pretty well for Colon. But that walk rate is key to Mikolas’ success. Only 12 players have recorded a sub-4 percent walk rate since he left for Japan in 2015. The range of successes is… interesting:

None of these guys are truly terrible pitchers, at least not at that point in their careers. There’s a few Cy Young winners in there, and Jordan Zimmermann used that season and one close to it in 2015 to get $110 million from the Tigers. He promptly collapsed, but that’s neither here nor there.

The closest guy to Mikolas is that 2014 season for the aforementioned Colon, but it’s kind of hard to compare the two considering Colon hasn’t averaged the 94.7 mph Mikolas does at any point in his career. The same could be said about Josh Tomlin. Both were thought to be control artists who lived on guile and limiting free passes, living on slim edges and slimmer margins of error to maintain effectiveness.

Colon ranked 17th among starters the last two years in hitting the edge of the zone according to Baseball Savant at 40.8 percent of the time, while Tomlin wasn’t quite so pretty, rating 179th at 34.5 percent. Mikolas topped Tomlin, his 37.5 percent rating 117th. So while Mikolas isn’t exactly slicing and dicing, getting calls on the black time and time again, he’s at least good at hitting the zone. It’s a hard read to compare to really anyone.

One other oddity that stuck out, despite hammering the zone so viciously, Mikolas got hitters to chase his pitches out of the zone more than almost any qualified pitcher. At 36.6 percent, only two starters got hitters to chase more than him. That’s astounding, though it also makes sense. He built a reputation in his return to the Majors of hammering the strike zone. Obviously hitters are expecting this, so he got them to go out of the zone when they least expected it, and forced some nice weak contact. It’s hard to know why – part of the mind game between hitters and pitchers, the meta-game that all of baseball springs from. But this pitch-by-count breakdown could hold some truth:

This is kind of strange, or at least different. For a comparison, here’s Justin Verlander this past year:

See what I mean? This is how pitchers usually pitch. It’s like one of the oldest adages in pitching, along with “up and in, low and away” – get ahead with the fastball and knock them out with the offspeed and breaking pitches. Mikolas just doesn’t do that. He just throws whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and catcher Yadier Molina works with him on it. Actually, it seems like Molina did something similar in working with Mikolas’s teammate Jack Flaherty, who himself had a pretty solid season:

Perhaps this is the effect of a great catcher, one of those things we don’t have a way to quantify as yet because it’s just so much of the mind game that builds off scouting reports and pitcher/catcher chemistry. If it works for Mikolas, it could probably work for others with less than truly stellar stuff. Offenses across the league got the memo about him, and they did try to to his use of the zone. He just took advantage of them.

It makes sense – hitters are more aggressive than ever, with 2018 seeing the second highest swing percentage across baseball since it’s been tracked, trailing only 2015 and just ahead of 2016 and ‘17. They came to expect pitches in the zone, which he delivered. He just didn’t give them a steady diet of the same pitch type, leaving them off-balance and unable to drive the ball.

It will be interesting to see whether he takes a new tact in 2019, because for all their work this winter, the Cardinals badly need a strong, healthy staff to compete for a title. He’s not the most vital part of it, but he’s central for sure. At least until they can find another retread and turn them into a Cy Young contender.

Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball at Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and makes honest attempts to do it elsewhere, too. He’s on a podcast, Let’s Talk Tribe. Google it. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. Email him at merrittrohlfing@gmail.com.

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