The National League’s Most Balanced Pitcher

When I think about control artists, I think about pitchers who consistently hit their spots, particularly on the edges of the strike zone. These thoughts are further associated in my mind with low walk totals. So when I look at the National League leaderboard in walk percentage and see Miles Mikolas at 3.9%, I assume, he is good at painting corners. Then I look at his heat maps, and I don’t see that at all.

Here’s Mikolas against right-handers:

Here he is against left-handers:

It sure looks like he’s throwing it almost right down the middle. His 32.5% rate of pitches inside the zone is 5th in all of baseball, per Baseball Savant. It’s a bold strategy, particularly for a pitcher like Mikolas who lacks a standout offering to generate strikeouts. Despite the lack of strikeouts, Mikolas has been very successful in his return to MLB after spending several years excelling in Japan. Before he signed with the Cardinals, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Mikolas and included the graph below showing just how good Mikolas was in many of the important aspects of pitching, even if he was lacking in strikeouts and contact rate.

Here’s that same chart for this season, with FIP added in.

The contact and strikeout numbers have gone even further down compared to where they were in Japan, but ERA, FIP, walks, ground-ball rate, zone percentage, and first-strike rate all remain incredibly high, and he leads the league in the latter two figures. Mikolas has been successful in avoiding walks by doing two things very well: pitching in the zone and inducing swings outside the zone. Here’s a scatter plot showing all qualified starters in those two metrics.

Mikolas isn’t the greatest when it comes to inducing swings outside the strike zone, but he is good, and his inability to get swings-and-misses actually helps him a bit in this regard. When batters make contact on balls outside the strike zone, their wOBA is a meager .281 and their ground-ball rate is 53.5% this season. A swing-and-miss might be preferable given the guaranteed outcome, but generally speaking, contact outside the zone isn’t going to do much damage. As far as limiting walks goes, a simple average of O-Swing% and Zone% compared with walks reveals the following graph.

The correlation between walks and O-Swing% is actually higher than Zone%, and their average nets an impressive correlation as seen above. We know Mikolas throws a ton of pitches in the strike zone and that he rarely walks batters, but what is left unexplained is how he’s able to do so without giving up a ton of damage off batters teeing off on his meatballs. If you look at the players behind Mikolas in Zone%, you see Luis Severino, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, and James Paxton in the top 10. These are pitchers who can pitch a lot in the zone because they have filthy stuff. Mike Minor and Steven Matz are also up there, but they don’t throw in the zone as much on the first pitch and give up a decent amount of homers. Tyler Mahle and Bartolo Colon are on the list too, but they gives up a lot of homers as well, something Mikolas has avoided.

Of Mikolas’ offerings, a 95-mph fastball is a solid start, and by movement, his curveball has one of the bigger drops in baseball. Neither pitch is the sort of special go-to pitch that makes one an ace. Where Mikolas excels is in variety. Mikolas throws four different pitches most of the time with a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a curve, and a slider. What’s remarkable is that all four pitches are thrown between 20% and 30% of the time. No other pitcher in baseball throws four pitches at least 20% of the time and only six pitchers have four pitches they throw at least 15% of the time.

Mikolas also features a changeup, but he throws that pitch around 6% of the time. Using those pitches interchangeably provides a diverse set of looks, as the graph showing movement reveals.

Each of his pitches has fairly different movement profiles. The slider might start out looking like the four-seamer or sinker in the zone, but then it darts out. The curve has so much movement, it is likely difficult to determine if the pitch will be a strike. In his last start against the White Sox, Mikolas started Yolmer Sanchez out with a sinker wide of the zone and high, then he got a called strike on a slider followed by a foul tip on a slider. Here was Mikolas’ next pitch.

That’s a 95-mph fastball at the top of the zone. Sanchez protected himself and fouled it off. At this point, Sanchez has seen three of Mikolas’ four main options, so Mikolas uses that fourth pitch, a curveball.

Sanchez was able to fight off the fastball, but he couldn’t do the same for the curve. The pitch was probably outside, and compared with the movement of the fastball, the pitch might have looked way outside. By the time he realized it was a curve, it was too late. Mikolas’ release point is incredibly consistent, and it almost looks like he’s throwing the ball to the exact same spot but letting the natural movement of the pitch dictate location. With the exception of the curve, which is used a lot right down the middle, look at the heat maps below and compare them to the movement graphs from earlier in the post.

Mikolas is able to continually pitch in the zone because of his consistent release point and the variety of his pitches. He will throw any pitch in any count. The table below shows what Mikolas throws on the first pitch, when there are three balls, and when there are two strikes.

Miles Mikolas Mixes it Up
Overall First Pitch Three Balls Two Strikes
Fastball 28.1% 27.0% 33.7% 34.8%
Sinker 21.0% 29.0% 23.8% 11.7%
Curveball 21.1% 21.6% 10.9% 27.2%
Slider 24.1% 20.9% 29.7% 22.4%
Changeup 5.7% 1.5% 2.0% 4.1%

When he gets to two strikes, he minimizes his sinker usage, but other than that, he keeps hitters guessing and off-balance. This isn’t to say Mikolas has solved some weak-contact riddle to give him a .260 BABIP, an 8.2% HR/FB rate, and a 2.65 ERA. His FIP is still a very good 3.20, that HR/FB rate isn’t as low as it appears considering Mikolas has a healthy 12.4% infield fly-ball rate, and if he can keep walking players just 4% of the time, his 18% strikeout rate is more than acceptable. There were a lot of free agent pitchers available this past offseason, but so far the Cardinals have gotten the best one as Mikolas has carried over what made him successful in Japan.

We hoped you liked reading The National League’s Most Balanced Pitcher by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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8 Comments on "The National League’s Most Balanced Pitcher"

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Jim
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Jim

VERY good work, Craig.