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So, Miles Mikolas is a Thing Now

And it’s evident you should now pay attention to him. Jeff Sullivan wrote about Miles Mikolas here — Sullivan does a good job of summarizing Mikolas’ skill set and how he’ll succeed stateside. Which is helpful. But, for fantasy purposes, it doesn’t help us a whole lot in terms of exactly what we should expect. Not that that’s Sullivan’s fault. He doesn’t keep a cross-league projection system in his brain.

So when you see a Tweet like this — from NEIFI Analytics, which FanGraphs has featured previously — it’s hard to ignore:

Then again, there are Tweets like this from ZiPS’ own Dan Szymborski:

I guess the two Tweets can coexist harmoniously if you think that ZiPs thinks that Jake Arrieta will be worse than league-average next year and/or across the next three years. But, more likely, we’re staring at three glaringly different opinions about one mustachioed man.

I’m here to break the tie my own way: by comparing Mikolas’ Japanese career to (1) the NPB’s league environment, and (2) the pre-MLB careers of other pitchers who have made their way to the MLB to showcase their talents.

Unfortunately — and unless I’m looking in the wrong place — DeltaGraphs, Japan’s li’l brudder version of FanGraphs, doesn’t have granular league data prior to NPB’s 2014 season. Alas, my limited comparisons rely on the data from the following sources…

… and, accordingly, some of the following anecdote will focus solely on Maeda as a goalpost.

Let’s start with facts. From 2015 through 2017, Mikolas posted seasonal ERAs of 1.92, 2.45 and 2.25, respectively. Fantastic, yeah? Except among 25 player seasons assembled by Mikolas, Darvish, Tanaka and Maeda, Mikolas’ ERAs rank 10th, 14th and 16th — not horrible, no, but even Mikolas’ best season (of only 145 innings) trails five Darvishes, three Tanakas and a Maeda (together averaging 205 innings).

So, peak NPB Mikolas is barely an average Darvish or Tanaka. Not that that’s a dealbreaker. That’s OK. That’d be asking a lot, and we shouldn’t be asking that much.

There is one thing Mikolas does well, though, as Sullivan mentioned in his piece, and that’s pitch with command. Mikolas struck out 25% and walked 3% of hitters last year, producing a 22% K-BB% mark that, among the aforementioned Japanese aces, was bested only twice (once each by Tanaka and Darvish, both in 2011). That’s good. That’ll do. Darvish, Tanaka and Maeda have produced career MLB K-BB% marks of 20.7%, 19.0% and 18.5%, respectively, so this seems to bode well for Mikolas.

Another thing that pops out immediately from the DeltaGraphs batted ball metrics: Mikolas generated a 58% ground ball rate (GB%) last year. Fifty-eight percent! It’s really easy to salivate over a number like that, but context is crucial. NPB-wide ground ball rates generally hover around 47% to 48% — typically about 3 percentage points higher than MLB. It’s not huge, but in light of much lower line drive rates (LD%), it’s hard for me not to imagine a fundamentally different league context in which the average launch angle is much shallower. To attest: MLB hitters hit home runs 48% more often per at-bat than NPB hitters in 2017. If the collective hitting body of NPB swings on a different plane, it stands to reason pitchers allow contact at a different average angle.

To attest further: Maeda’s 50% ground ball rate from 2014 to 2015 — 5% better than the NPB league average — has translated (thus far) to a 41% MLB ground ball rate, 7% worse than MLB league average. Maeda’s MLB career is already a bit speckled; the GB% dip could be attributable to repertoire changes or even injury concerns. Alas, Maeda’s transition shouldn’t damn Mikolas’ pending transition. However, it’s also wise to not expect more high-50s ground ball percentages from Mikolas. But high-40s, maybe even low-50s? Yeah, that’s reasonable.

Mikolas was an average to above-average purveyor of swinging strikes in Japan. His indexed swinging strike rates (SwStr%) falls slightly short of Maeda’s NPB days, but that’s only faint damnation — Maeda sports a 25% strikeout rate (K%) during his MLB career, 12th-best among 67 pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings since the start of 2016. When it comes down to it, Mikolas and Maeda actually share very similar plate discipline peripherals. This could be a limitation of DeltaGraphs data, but it could also simply be a pleasant and convenient coincidence. (The only big difference is Mikolas lives in the zone much more — likely a result of his above-average command — but I’m not sure what kind of impact it’ll have on his translation back to MLB play.)

Where does this leave us? I’m not sure. But if Mikolas, a reigning 7-WAR NPB pitcher, compares favorably to Maeda, a former 7-WAR NPB pitcher who is now a 3-WAR MLB pitcher, then I’d venture to say Mikolas’ prospects are relatively bright for a guy signed for two years for the going rate of 2 WAR total, roughly. A 3-WAR Mikolas would threaten to crack the first page of any given year’s default pitching WAR leaderboard.

I placed some arbitrary parameters on pitching data from the last five years to find arms potentially similar to Mikolas (see table footnote for details):

Miles Mikolas Upside “Comps”
Season Name Team GB% K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2015 Jose Quintana White Sox 47.1% 20.5% 5.1% 15.4% 3.36 3.18 3.51 4.7
2016 Kyle Hendricks Cubs 48.4% 22.8% 5.9% 16.9% 2.13 3.20 3.59 4.5
2014 Cole Hamels Phillies 46.4% 23.9% 7.1% 16.8% 2.46 3.07 3.21 4.3
2013 Homer Bailey Reds 46.1% 23.4% 6.4% 17.1% 3.49 3.31 3.34 4.1
2013 Patrick Corbin Diamondbacks 46.7% 20.7% 6.3% 14.4% 3.41 3.43 3.48 3.5
2017 Michael Wacha Cardinals 48.0% 22.5% 7.9% 14.7% 4.13 3.63 3.88 3.2
2016 Gio Gonzalez Nationals 47.6% 22.4% 7.7% 14.6% 4.57 3.76 3.80 2.9
2016 Jeff Samardzija Giants 46.5% 20.1% 6.5% 13.6% 3.81 3.85 3.96 2.7
2017 Jon Lester Cubs 46.2% 23.6% 7.9% 15.7% 4.33 4.10 3.85 2.7
2013 John Lackey Red Sox 46.8% 20.7% 5.1% 15.6% 3.52 3.86 3.49 2.4
20% < K% < 24%
5% < BB% < 8%
46% < GB% < 50%
Among qualified pitchers from 2013 to 2017

(Ah, yes, there’s Quintana, Sullivan’s anecdotal comp, right at the top. Perhaps Sullivan does have a projection system in his head.)

I’ve certainly seen worse lists, but let’s remember this is probably closer to Mikolas’ upside than his median performance. If Maeda is 6% better than league-average, then maybe Mikolas is roughly league-average. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and, as Derek Carty suggests, Mikolas’ league/team/ballpark context should help his skills play up. But that brings us right back to ZiPS’ 4.10 ERA, doesn’t it? Floating nebulously between “better than Arrieta” and “a 5.55 ERA”… great.

I read somewhere the Cardinals plan to insert Mikolas directly into their rotation, suggesting the organization already has a lot of faith in what he can do. It’ll be interesting to see where his ADP (average draft position) eventually settles. My early guess is he’ll go in the mid-50s to mid-60s among start pitchers — aka among the last few starters off the board in 10-team mixed leagues. While it’s easy to imagine him going higher, guys like James Paxton, Aaron Nola and Robbie Ray barely went higher last year, so I’m having a hard time believing Mikolas will have more helium than they did. We’ll see, I guess.