It’s not exactly Earth-shattering news to report that strikeouts in the game are up. Here at Birds on the Black, we’ve written about it in many different ways just over the course of this baseball season. In 2018, baseball’s K rate is up more than a percent over 2017. In the last 3 ½ seasons, baseball’s K rate is up more than 2%. Baseball’s K rate has increased every season since 2003. Strikeouts now are much more a part of the game than they ever have been in baseball’s history. All this makes what Miles Mikolas is doing so incredible. He looks a lot more like what a successful starting pitcher looked like 10 years ago than what a successful starter looks like in 2018.
Just as it’s not news to say that strikeouts are up in baseball, neither will it surprise any Cardinal fan to say that Mikolas has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher so far in 2018. After another good outing last night, his ERA is under 3 and his FIP is 15th best in the game and 7th best in the NL. His ERA+ is 150 (50% better than average) and he’s approaching 3 WAR in just about half a season (5th among NL starters). For a guy signed as a free agent from Japan, this is remarkable enough but how he’s doing it is even more remarkable.
If you look at Mikolas’ peripheral stats, most of them don’t look all that great. Ten starters in the majors have K rates above 30%. Unsurprisingly, they’re among baseball’s best pitchers this season. Out of baseball’s 87 qualified starters, however, Mikolas ranks 79th in K rate, right there with pitchers like Bartolo Colon, James Shields, and Mike Leake. That’s not exactly a who’s-who from the AL All-Star team in 2018. Jake Arrieta is in this group as well and he’s been OK this season. Same with the A’s Sean Manaea, but overall this is not a group that typically lists the game’s best pitchers. Indeed, the list of baseball’s best pitchers is on the other end of the K rate spectrum.
So how’s he getting it done? One is that he’s got about a 50% ground ball rate and that’s allowing him and a bunch of other guys who don’t strike out a ton of batters (Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel, Aaron Nola) to consistently get batters out. The other thing that’s leading to Mikolas’ success is a Corey Kluber-esque walk rate of under 4%. Despite a relatively low strikeout rate, Mikolas is still striking out about 4 ½ batters for every batter he walks. That ratio puts him in some pretty elite company – 11th in baseball (company that includes former Cardinal Marco Gonzalez, by the way). Last night’s performance against the D-backs where he walked 4 in 6 innings was an aberration as it doubled his previous season high for walks in a game.
The key, as it is with most pitchers, is first-pitch strikes and no one in the game has been better than Mikolas at throwing first-pitch strikes in 2018 (71.4 %). Getting ahead in the count has been key for Mikolas because once he’s ahead in the count, batters have a .483 OPS against him. Their OBP is just .199 and they’re slugging a paltry .284 when Mikolas is ahead in the count. He’s been getting ahead and then inducing ground balls with his sinker and slider. Sounds just like guys like Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Braden Looper tried to do it 10 or 12 years ago. Mikolas is just doing it better.
Even though he’s not getting a lot of strikeouts, he is excelling in minimizing hard contact. According to baseball savant, out of 146 starting pitchers with more than 150 batted balls against, Mikolas’ average exit velocity is 8th lowest in the game. He’s only been barreled up in 4.4% of the plate appearances against him. So when a pitcher’s not walking anyone and batters aren’t hitting the ball hard, that pitcher is going to find some success.
The question is – considering that baseball is changing with batters trying to launch balls and pitchers becoming more dependent on strikeouts – is this sustainable? If you look at the leaderboards for the last couple of years, what Mikolas is doing right now looks a little like what Rick Porcello did in 2016 and what Michael Fulmer did last year but most of the rest of the guys on those leaderboards look like most of the guys on this year’s leaderboard – high strikeouts, low walks, little contact. That hasn’t really been Mikolas’ profile.
For what it’s worth, Porcello and Fulmer don’t exactly fit Mikolas to a T anyway. Porcello is much more of a fly ball pitcher and was pretty bad in 2017 due to giving up a ton of homers and actually has increased his strikeout rate each of the last 2 years so while 2018 Mikolas looks a little like 2016 Porcello, the same isn’t true today. For his part, Fulmer’s walk rate is about double Mikolas’ so while they have similar strikeout and ground ball rates, Mikolas’ ability to throw strikes – assuming he keeps doing that – could allow him to be better than Fulmer, who is a pretty good pitcher.
The problem is that it doesn’t give Mikolas a lot of room for error (pun intended, given the state of the Cardinals’ defense these days). There will certainly be days when those ground balls find holes and when fielders don’t make plays they should make. Maybe hitters will figure out how to get Mikolas’ pitches in the air and those balls will leave the yard. Mikolas presently has only yielded 8 homers, tied for 8th lowest in baseball among qualified pitchers. And, of course, sometimes pitchers just need to be able to strike batters out and I’m not sure that Mikolas has that out pitch that he’s going to need in tough situations. Maybe hitters will start jumping on more first pitches – batters are batting .392 and slugging .549 on the first pitch from Mikolas this season (but that’s actually 7% better than league average on the first pitch).
So maybe Mikolas can keep doing what he’s been doing. He’s probably going to be an All-Star and, in a season when the Cardinals have needed everything they can get from their starting pitchers, he’s been setting the standard for the rest of the staff.
Thanks as always to @cardinalsgifs for the great photo (and platform) and to baseball-reference, baseball savant, and fangraphs for their help with this post.
Thanks for reading.