One of the most fun parts of following baseball is seeing guys that are really doing well but haven’t received much attention if any at all. While there are many examples, I don’t think there is a more prime example than St. Louis Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas.
Now don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard that name before, because up until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t either. It’s not as if he’s a young up and comer. At 29, Mikolas has spent almost his entire career in the minors and Japan. Although he is really getting his first big crack at a major league rotation for an extended period, he pitched for the Yomiuri Giants from 2015-17 with a sparkling 2.59 RA9 and 5.48 K/BB. His time overseas really helped him refine his pitching and fine tune his various pitch types. This has translated into a very respectable first half of 2018.
One thing I definitely did not expect from Mikolas is a top 15 fWAR among all major league pitchers, though his 3.25 FIP and 3.76 xFIP say he’s pitching worse than his 2.79 ERA and regression may be in the future. A big reason for the high FIP is Mikolas isn’t a huge strikeout guy, striking out only 17.3 percent of the batters he’s faced which translates to 6.26 strikeouts per nine innings. This is mainly due to his relatively low whiff rate of 9.5 percent. He makes up for that by really limiting the walks, fourth in the league with a walk rate of 4.2 percent. This combined puts him in the top 20 in strikeout to walk ratio, despite the low strikeout numbers.
Another spectacular number is his ability to stay out of full counts, only 47 all season out of 481 batters faced, which equates to just 9.77% of opposing batters. By limiting the 3-2 counts, he’s been able to pitch deeper into games, including a complete game shutout against the Royals on May 21. Mikolas has pitched at least six innings in 15 of his 19 starts so far. Meanwhile, he’s done so while only throwing more than 100 pitches twice, one of which was the complete game shutout I mentioned.
A big reason for retiring hitters early in the count and keeping his pitch counts down is Mikolas developed solid command during his time in Japan. He’s able to locate all of his pitches on the edges of the zone incredibly well and can throw them for a strike when he needs one. As the chart below shows, almost all five of his pitch types (four-seam, two-seam, slider, changeup, and curveball) are able to be located on the edges and mostly kept from the middle of the strike zone unless he absolutely needs a strike.
As you can see, it’s amazing how he’s locating all but the curveball exclusively on the edge of the zone. Ironically, even though he’s locating the curveball in the strike zone quite often, his wOBA against it is only .220 which is odd considering how many he’s putting in the heart of the plate.
The command is also the reason his home run numbers are so low, 0.60 HR/9, explaining his elevated xFIP. The high xFIP might be concerning to some but his HR/9 and HR/FB are right in line with his minor league career numbers.
His solid command and location has helped him lead the league in first pitch strike rate at 71.5% and tie with Max Scherzer in out of zone swing rate at 35.1%. Normally things like that would lead him to a high strikeout rate, however he has the eighth highest out of zone contact rate with 71.6 percent. So, while he does generate a ton of swings out of the zone, they’re often contact swings.
Another huge part of Mikolas’ game is his ability to throw any of his pitches in any count. He even keeps them somewhere close to even usage rates in each count. Doing this gives him an advantage as the hitter has a much lesser chance of predicting what pitch he is going to throw.
There does seem to be a hint of luck to Mikolas’ season so far, given his 15% in-play rate and only 5.9% hit rate, which gives him a somewhat low BABIP of .266. Combined with a higher than average hard contact rate of 32.7%, this suggests at some point it’s more than likely that he will regress somewhat. However, if he can generate more swings and misses given his low whiff rate, that could prevent any such regression and really bring his numbers up, especially that FIP if he strikes out more batters.
It’s easy to see why Mikolas has put up the numbers he has so far. Through solid command and the ability to throw any pitch in any count, he has excelled in the first half of 2018. He’s done this by limiting walks and retiring batters early in counts in order to pitch deep into games. While 29 is not an ideal age to breakout, the Cardinals will take it (as would any other team). He’ll provide a solid back end of the rotation as the Cardinals look to climb back into the postseason hunt behind ace Carlos Martinez. Mikolas will play a huge factor in determining where the Cardinals end up, whether he continues his success or regresses.