Shohei Ohtani made history this past offseason by leaving Japan’s NPB to join MLB at the ripe old age of 23, much younger than most Japanese imports, as a bona fide 2-way superstar. If you follow baseball, you don’t need to be told that Ohtani generated more hype than any prospect in recent history. In the early going, Ohtani seems to be justifying the hype (and blowing his measly league minimum contract out of the water).
The Cardinals courted Ohtani, and in the early days of the 2017-18 offseason we fans could make a reassuring case to ourselves that we would at least be in the running. “The Cardinals tried to develop a 2-way player in Jordan Schafer just last year,” we told ourselves. “And the Cardinals are flush with cash. They’re always talking about it! And I read that Ohtani is from the country. There’s nowhere more country than St. Louis!”
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Ohtani eliminated the Cardinals in the early going. Our dreams of a Japanese superstar pitcher withered on the vine.
…or did they?
On December 5, 2017, news broke that the Cardinals had signed 29-year-old Miles “Lizard King” Mikolas to a 2-year deal. Mikolas, a Padres-then-Rangers farmhand from 2009 to 2014, got limited looks in the majors and was generally mediocre before migrating to the Yomiuri Giants in 2015. Over the next three years, Mikolas threw 424.2 innings of 2.18 ERA ball and recorded 378 strikeouts to only 69 walks–a nice line indeed. There’s always a lot of difficulty projecting MLB viability from Asian pro numbers–otherwise Eric Thames would’ve surprised nobody with his breakout campaign last year–but Mikolas’s performance in Japan was dominant. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about Mikolas the day before he signed with the Cardinals and posted a chart plotting Mikolas’s performance against his NPB peers:
Mikolas excelled at everything a pitcher does except contact suppression, and even there he was above average.
So, how has Mikolas’s stuff translated to MLB? The early returns are exceptionally promising. Mikolas has pitched 40 innings of 2.70 ERA baseball over 6 starts, striking out 31 against 37 hits and a microscopic 2 walks. That’s not a typo – Mikolas has walked 2 batters out of 161 total batters faced. His performance so far has been good for a 3.47 FIP, 3.04 xFIP, 0.7 fWAR, and 0.8 bWAR. If you take out his lackluster debut in the frozen Milwaukee tundra, his FIP and xFIP drop to 2.67 and 2.99, respectively. Add his .1 fWAR/bWAR with the bat, and Miles is on pace to break 4 WAR by either metric. Maybe not superstar territory, but a dang nice thing to have. Mikolas is the 33rd highest-ranked pitcher in MLB by fWAR and leads all of baseball in walk rate.
How is he getting there? I’ve alluded to Mikolas’s low walk rate, which suggests he is a control pitcher. But there’s a lot more to Mikolas’s repertoire than control. Miles throws 5 different pitches–fourseamer, curve, slider, sinker, and change–and mixes them up pretty evenly but for the change, which he uses almost exclusively against lefties.
His fourseamer averages around 95 mph and has run all the way up to 99, and generates swings 58% of the time. Nearly half the pitches Miles throws to lefties are fourseamers, while right-handers only see it 22% of the time. He pounds the zone with the pitch, challenging hitters and setting up his secondaries. When lefties aren’t looking at fourseamers, they’re looking at a pretty even mix of one of the other four pitches.
Right-handers are more likely to see sliders to the tune of 40% overall usage. Mikolas tends to open right-handers with a sinker, slider, or curve. When he’s ahead of righties they see sliders 2/3 of the time, but righties see non-changeups enough in any count to keep them on their toes. It’s just 14 pitches, but look at this heat map of Mikolas’s first-pitch sliders to righties:
The low and away placement is pretty standard in all counts, though when he finds himself behind he’ll throw it more over the heart of the plate. The sinker is his second most-used weapon against righties, and it is almost exclusively up and in:
Mikolas likes to lead with the sinker to righties, then hit them with sliders, fourseamers, and the occasional curve. He has yet to throw a 2-strike sinker to a righty, instead turning to the slider 45% of the time and the curve or fourseamer 27% each for a putaway. Mikolas’s best strike pitch appears to be his slider, inducing whiffs or fouls three times out of five. His sinker and fourseamer aren’t far behind.
When Mikolas’s pitches are put in play, the change, slider, and curve trend heavily toward grounders (around 70%), while the fourseamer is more evenly distributed with a slight bias toward liners. The sinker, ironically enough, only results in grounders 45% of the time.
I eyeballed Mikolas’s release points, and while I’m no expert, it looks to my eye like there’s no glaring differences between pitches.
All in all, Mikolas brings a sublime mix of control and command, and combines it with durability and an effortless velocity that I’m not sure anybody expected (Sullivan had Mikolas as pushing 94 mph with the fourseamer in his article this past winter). He’s no Shohei Ohtani, and he probably won’t challenge Carlos Martinez for the Ace designation, but Mikolas is a lot of fun to watch. It remains to be seen if he can continue to produce at this elite level, mixing grounders with strikeouts and stubbornly refusing to walk opposing batters, but he has the pitch mix and sheer stuff and velocity to avoid being figured out easily.
And then there’s this:
Welcome to St. Louis, Miles. You’re my favorite NPB import to debut this year.