What is Wrong With Miles MIkolas in 2019?

In 2018, Miles Mikolas came over from Japan in an unheralded move that actually frustrated more people than it won over at the time. I was not one of those frustrated people as my 2018 projections thought highly of his work in Japan and how they might translate to the states. I got lucky (I mean, was super intelligent) and was right on Miles MIkolas in 2018. He came over and mystified hitters to the tune of 32 starts and 200 2/3 innings of 2.83 ERA, 5.03 K:BB, and 1.071 WHIP ball. He was absolutely fantastic. His calling card in 2018 was the lack of walks he allowed, as his BB/9 was just 1.3 and his BB% was just 3.6% of all plate appearances (in the top 1% of all of baseball).

He was so good on the field and so popular with the fan base and his teammates, that the club took his $8M contract for 2019 and extended him instead with a contract that goes from 2019-2023 and pays him $15.75M annually and is worth a total of 5 years and $76M (including his $8M that was already going to be owed to him).

In my 2019 Projection Series, I wrote then of Mikolas in terms of how my projection (which was similar to the 2018 numbers) could be off in a bad way - or how it could be worse:

It’s REALLY hard to walk people at such a low rate. 1.3 BB/9 for an entire season? That led the league. He walked only 2.8 batters per 9 innings as a reliever his final season before going to Japan. Even in Japan, he walked 1.5 batters per 9 innings while over there (but 1.1 his final season). To do that again over 33 starts is going to be ridiculously hard. He had one season in Japan with, a still very good but nearly double last year, 2.3 BB/9.

That was really all I came up with. This year, he's having quite a down year, but he's only walking 1.6 batters per 9 innings. To put that into a percentage, only 4.3% of all batters (still in the top 7% league-wide) have walked off of him! So that is not the issue plaguing Miles Mikolas this year.

What could it be? A cursory glance through his stats at Baseball-Reference and/or Fangraphs does not have much that stands out. His strikeout rate is only 17.5%, but last year it was only 18.1%. His K/9 has stayed at 6.5. His ERA has jumped tremendously from 2.83 to 4.48, but why? His H/9 is up to 9.3 from 8.3, and his line against has jumped from .245/.278/.350 to .267/.306/.472 - and that is where we start to see the real issue. The SLG against him has risen dramatically.

I want to dig deeper. I want to know, why? The HR against this year are enormous. That started early and often against the MIlwaukee Brewers - as it did everyone as I think Christian Yelich homered in something like his first 417 plate appearances in the first month of the year against the Cardinals (slight exaggeration?).

Miles Mikolas has already given up 14 home runs this year. Last year, he gave up just 16 all season long. In fact, last year only 23.7% of the hits that Mikolas allowed went for extra bases, due to a nice 49.3% ground ball rate compared to a 28.5% fly ball rate with a 9.8% infield fly ball rate. You'd think this year would look very different than that, but it really doesn't. His 2019 numbers show an increased ground ball rate of 50.8% at this juncture. His fly ball rate is basically the same at 28.0%, but not as easy fly balls with only 5.4% of them infield fly balls. What stands out beyond those in terms of batted ball data is this set of numbers:

The amount of fly balls that turned into homers against Mikolas in 2018 was 9.2%.

The amount of fly balls that have turned into HR against Mikolas in 2019 is 18.9%.

Yes. They've more than doubled. Home runs prolong innings, bring in more runs per swing, and are just worse for a pitcher than just about anything else. Mikolas' HR rate this year has more than doubled despite giving up less fly balls in 2019 than 2018.

The launch angle of batted balls against Miles Mikolas is up a bit from last year. He's sitting at 8.2 currently; last year the launch angle against was just 7.4. So players are putting the ball in the air a bit more against him...but obviously by how many balls in play having gone for fly balls going down year-to-year, they're not elevating the ball too much more. However, the exit velocity has gone up dramatically - 2.5 mph. His exit velocity against last year of 85.4 was in the top 8% of all pitchers. This year, he's allowed an exit velocity of 87.9 mph on average.

Now, the average of these doesn't matter quite so much...although obviously lower is better. It's the distribution that really makes the biggest difference. Baseball Savant has radial charts (link to 2018) that show all the batted ball types on one neat looking chart. Here is 2018 on the left (top on mobile) v. 2019 on the right (bottom on mobile).

I apologize to anyone who is colorblind at this point, because basically...ugh. As you can see, the weak contact (yellow) has significantly decreased while the number of barreled balls (red) has significantly increased. Weak contact has gone down by 33.9% from last year while barreled balls has gone up by 52.9% from last year. The (orange) number of flares/burners has also increased from last year (by about 11%) while the number of balls that batters just got "under" (in light blue) has gone down about 11%, offsetting the flares and burners.

You might ask: "Ben, what does all that really mean, though?"

Here is why those numbers are important. In the 1+ year sample of 2018-2019 league-wide numbers, here are the actual (not expected) batting average, slugging, and wOBA on those four types of batted balls.

Barrels (up 52.9% from last year for Mikolas):

.779 average, 2.664 slugging percentage, and 1.389 wOBA

Weak Contact (down 33.9% from last year for Mikolas):

.201 average, .207 slugging percentage, and .179 wOBA

Flares/Burners (up 11% from last year for Mikolas):

.659 average, .786 slugging percentage, and .623 wOBA

Hit Under (down 11% from last year for Mikolas):

.070 average, .137 slugging percentage, and .084 wOBA

When you look at all that in combination, you can see why the distribution of those 2.5 increased miles per hour of exit velocity and 0.8 degrees of launch angle matter.

The difference between the two in terms of straight forward (average for the year) numbers only looks like this (2018 average LA/EV on left, 2019 average LA/EV on right):

I apologize it's a Flaherty .gif on the right. I couldn't find the exact EV/LA I wanted for Mikolas

BUUUUUUUUT...what does look quite different is this:

The average barreled ball off of Mikolas in 2018-19 has gone 382 feet. Here is a long fly out to Tommy Pham in 2018 that went 381 feet, the closest to that average I can find.

You can see how giving up more balls like this would be a BIG problem.

The average flare/burner off of Mikolas has gone 179 feet. Here is one burner (left) that was 105.1 mph off the bat compared to one flare (right) that was just 69.6 mph off the bat.

You can also see how giving up more balls like these two would be an annoying problem to have. No fielder can get to many of these, despite them not being hit completely well. Batters are getting slightly more of the ball than they did last year, just enough it seems.

Meanwhile, he's been giving up 11% less balls that were "hit under." Those balls off of Mikolas the last two years have averaged going 274 feet in distance at 84.7 mph and a launch angle of 44.6 degrees. Here's an example of how easy a catch that is (on the left/top on mobile). Next to it is an example of how easy it can be to field a ball labeled "weak contact." Those balls off of Mikolas the last two years have averaged going 54 feet in distance at 47.8 mph and -14.3 degrees:

Mikolas has done that a LOT less often this year. That's quite a bummer for his fielders - and thus for him.

Can we dig any deeper than that? Let's try. Last year, MIkolas lived on the edge of the strike zone 42.3% of the time. This year, he's only found that edge of the zone 40.0% of the time. Not only has he thrown less of them, he's thrown them for a ball nearly 1% more often. That in combination with him getting the exact percentage of swings and misses on pitches on the edge of the strike zone as he got in 2018 means that he has thrown to the outside of the black more often than catching the edge of it.

One more thing. I don't know if this is intentional, but it seems to be something that happens much too often with Yadier Molina behind the plate; but this second year with Yadi catching MIoklas, he has thrown "waste" pitches 21.3% more often this year than last year.

Whether by design or not, he has just thrown more balls outside of the zone in 2019 (49.8%) than last year (47.0%), and hasn't gotten swings and misses as often off the plate (11.3% last year to 10.6% this year) as before. That number is especially stark on balls that aren't close to the zone. On "chase" and "waste" pitches in 2018, batters swung and missed at 10.5% of them. In 2019, that number has dropped to just 9.1% - a 13.3% decrease in swings and misses well outside the zone.

When you're throwing more balls out of the zone (as opposed to swing and miss strikes), you are forced to either nibble more (which he's not doing) or miss in the zone. He's not missing in the zone more often than last year, but players are not missing it in the zone this year. In 2018, batters had a .303 wOBA against Mikolas over the heart of the plate. In 2019, that has rocketed to .392! While league average wOBA on pitches down the heart of the plate have gone up from .365 to .377 this year (.012 jump), Mikolas' jump of .089 is 742 times that of league average!

Hopefully Mikolas can be more like the Mikolas we saw in 2018 soon, but in the meantime you should be more like Mik as well. #Belikemik

*tip of the hat to Cardinalsgifs for all of the .gifs and the cover art. He's truly doing remarkable work as of late. Just ridiculous.

*tip of the cap to those people on Twitter who wanted me to point out Mikolas' road/home splits. I did not. I also did not point (until now) out how he's been much worse vs. lefties this year as last year.