Of all the Cardinal starters looking to prove themselves next season, Miles Mikolas will have the toughest test ahead of him. But then again, it isn’t as if Mikolas hasn’t faced this type of make or break situation before.
Now widely known among the baseball community, the right-hander’s story began with his callup with the Padres back in 2012. As a young gun, Mikolas didn’t perform too badly either, appearing in 25 games with a 3.62 ERA, all in relief. But Mikolas never got a chance to back up his encouraging performance in San Diego, appearing in just two games during 2013. In all, Mikolas suffered through five different triple-A stints that season.
By way of a couple trades, Mikolas then moved onto the Texas Rangers, appearing in 10 games, this time all as a starter. Ultimately, the year in Texas proved a season to forget, with the right-hander accruing a 6.44 ERA and out of minor league options. Now Mikolas was in an even more difficult spot. 26 years-old, less than one hundred innings under his belt, no team with an obvious need for his services.
Instead, Mikolas opted for a very different career path than most players ever undertake. Instead of further navigating MLB’s minor league system, Mikolas signed with the Yomiuri Giants and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Getting the opportunity to refine his pitches and get more playing opportunities could only better serve his skillset, Mikolas reasoned. And at the worst, he would have gotten the opportunity to play in Japan.
Which is seriously cool in its own right.
Over the next three seasons Mikolas would become a legitimate star. By the end of 2017, he was 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA and was the best international pitcher in Japanese baseball.
The Roller Coaster of Success
Mikolas signed with St. Louis before the 2018 season, at which point he was still a stranger to most MLB audiences. His quick ascendance among MLB’s top-tier pitchers that year surprised many, since he had been absent for three years previously. Indeed, Mikolas broke out in a big way, earning an All Star selection, Cy Young votes, and a sparkling record of 18-4. For the former reliever-turned-workhorse, his 2.83 ERA proved it was hard to do wrong.
Of course, where there was ascendancy, soon Mikolas came back to earth. Fresh off his first and only 200-inning season, Mikolas struggled to remain consistent in 2019. His ERA inflated to 4.16, which was still a respectable figure, but he led the league in pitching losses. 14 of them in all.
The Cardinal right-hander struggled with pitch consistency and some command issues during the early part of that season. The staggering 14 losses were also the unfortunate product of deficiencies on the St. Louis offense. Despite the team’s struggles, Mikolas was still brilliant that postseason, going six innings and allowing one run in both his starts.
Entering spring training, many saw the 2020 season as an opportunity for Mikolas to rebound. Perhaps he wasn’t the 18-win pitcher of 2018, surely he wasn’t quite as bad as 2019’s performance would indicate? This season was an important one.
And yet, before normal spring training began, Mikolas was already struggling with a forearm issue. Then camp got delayed, the Cardinal pitcher began a throwing program, opening day was pushed back, the complete works. But the issue didn’t subside. Mikolas eventually underwent surgery to repair his flexor tendon. He completely missed last season.
Now before the 2021 season, Mikolas understands the situation is make or break. The Cardinals’ rotation retains all its members from last season, and Mikolas can augment that core group. Pitching, then, will be a crucial component to earn a divisional crown in a weakened National League Central. Aces like Trevor Bauer and Yu Darvish have been shipped out of the division. Nearly every Cubs hitter seems to float in trade discussions. The Pittsburgh Pirates will not be good this season. So is life within the current National League Central.
After Jack Flaherty, it’s unclear who would follow in St. Louis’s rotation next year. Adam Wainwright is still a free agent, but his signing could be contingent on the Birds re-signing Yadier Molina. Dakota Hudson, the next most consistent starter in the bunch, will miss all of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery.
Kwang Hyun Kim performed admirably in limited action last season but still isn’t without risk. Carlos Martinez will need to earn a rotation spot in 2021 after a suffocating 9.90 ERA in five starts last season. Plenty of other players are also on the horizon for a starting role, though no one is a certain bet. These guys might include Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber and even… Alex Reyes.
Add in a steady seasonal performance from Mikolas, and some of the Cardinals’ question marks begin to fill in. At least, theoretically.
Having Flaherty fill in a majority of the Cardinals’ innings should be St. Louis’s optimal strategy. Flaherty is a bonafide 25 year-old ace with electric stuff. On the opposite side, Mikolas will be 33 years-old before next season ends and has lots of mileage on his arm. During his three years in Japan, he averaged 150 innings each year, but that number has only increased with his return stateside. Remember, he pitched 200 innings when he initially signed with St. Louis in 2018.
Should Mikolas chip in a reasonable number of innings in 2021, (maybe around that 130 to 150 range) his presence could go a long way toward stabilizing the rotation. The Cardinals feel comfortable with their bullpen pieces and have enough rotation depth. They may be able to sub out starters who need extra rest. Mikolas’s decent ERA suggests he could remain a mainstay for next season, especially if the offense can put up runs against the division’s weaker pitching.
As previously mentioned, roles for players like Wainwright and Martinez truly aren’t set at this point. For the Cardinals front office, relying on Mikolas for consistent deep starts will be the first step toward a lock-down pitching staff.
Conversely, any fatigue from a year’s layoff could spell disaster for Mikolas. If he falters, Mike Shildt might consider greater turnover in the starting rotation or even working a rotation with seven or eight spots.
Getting the Ground Ball
No, Mikolas does not get the most ground balls among the pitchers on the Cardinals’ staff. Hudson owns that prestige. Neither does Mikolas lead the team in strikeouts. Flaherty takes that honor. But Mikolas also doesn’t allow more fly balls than the average St. Louis pitcher, either. But for 2021, in order to remain a “middle of the road” pitcher, it will be critical for Mikolas to continue inducing the ground ball.
The right-hander owns numbers similar in that aspect to the elder Wainwright. The pair’s ground ball rates are pretty comparable over the last three seasons. Inducing soft contact as he did in 2018 could again lead Mikolas to a Cy Young type season. If his hard hit rate, exit velocity, and launch angle off the bat increase, as they did in 2019, then this year could foreshadow the same type of struggle.
Like Wainwright, allowing more fly balls will inevitably lead to more runs. And perhaps a quick leash in any of Mikolas’s starts this year.
The organization also places confidence in their hurlers pitching to contact. Since the 2018 season, the club has drastically improved its league-worst defense. The Cardinals ranked among the top of baseball in most defensive metrics the past two seasons. Perennial Gold Glove nominee Paul Goldschmidt likely has a lot to do with that transformation, as does Paul DeJong’s defensive turnaround.
Without a powerful offense to back Mikolas’s stingy pitching, the Cardinals will need to play as a team to win games. Trusting their defense should remain a large part of the Cardinals’ mission next season. Scoring three to four runs each night paired with consistent play could make all the difference for a pitcher like Mikolas.
Whenever Mikolas takes the mound next season, he’ll have a host of pressure on his shoulders. It will remain there all season. The only way the starter will be able to cope with those pressures will be able to stay focused on the game in front of him.
Because, for Mikolas, 2021 is make or break.
Featured Image Courtesy of Kevin C. Cox & Getty Images
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