I just completed a pretty major change in my life this week. I moved from New York to San Francisco (very cliche, I know) and changed jobs (or more precisely downgraded from working to mostly working). There are innumerable things that you could think of as the biggest stressor in my life right now: learning a new city, packing, moving, unpacking, the crippling uncertainty of going from a career I’ve had my whole life to essentially goofing around and writing about baseball sometimes. All of those things have been stressful, at least a little bit, from time to time. You know what’s been the worst, though? The sheets at my AirBnB.
You see, my wife’s work gave her temporary housing while we looked for a place and then moved our stuff from New York to here, but they gave it to us in the form of an AirBnB stipend. That sounds pretty awesome, and for the most part it was. We got to live, if only briefly, in several neighborhoods before deciding where we would actually rent. Here’s the thing, though. We stayed in one AirBnB for a month, the longest stint of our temporary housing, and it didn’t have bottom sheets. Not a single one in the entire place. Every night, with a non-fitted sheet haphazardly folded to the bed, I’d hope against hope that the sheet would stay attached until the morning. Spoiler alert: it never did. All these other things I could worry about, but every morning I’d wake up with half of my body on an uncovered mattress and just seethe.
Now that I’ve written two paragraphs about something that, even if we’re being generous, has no connection to baseball, you’re probably wondering why I chose to lead the article this way. First, I kind of just wanted to vent. Sheets are important! Sleeping is no fun without them. More importantly, though, it’s a metaphor for the Cardinals, kind of. There were a lot of things I was worried about coming into the year with the Cardinals. Marcell Ozuna’s shoulder was high on the list. Dexter Fowler was one of the worst everyday players in baseball last year. Would the bullpen hold up? Would Adam Wainwright be an anchor on the team’s rotation?
Not all of those concerns have gone away this year, not exactly. Wainwright still looks sketchy from time to time, and Fowler always feels like he’s one pitcher adjustment away from disaster, though he’s continued to skate by. Still, I was mostly wrong about what would grate on me. No, the AirBnB sheet situation of the Cardinals season is the top of the rotation. Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas were tremendous in 2018. Flaherty had a 3.34 ERA and a 26% strikeout rate in his rookie season, and he looked the part of an ace — intimidating mound presence, BFF’s with Bob Gibson, confidence for days. Mikolas was different and quite possibly better — his 2.83 ERA was backed by a 3.28 FIP, and he groundballed and soft-contacted his way to being legitimately one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Now, I didn’t expect the two of them to be as good this year as they were last year, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what’s happened. Flaherty has put up league-average numbers so far this year — ERA and FIP in the low 4s. That’s not as bad as it sounds, what with the offensive explosion across baseball and all, but it’s a step back from the promise of 2018. Mikolas has been even worse — his ERA and FIP both hover around 4.75, and he’s striking out less guys than he did last year while walking more. His soft contact magic seems to have disappeared as well — he’s allowing home runs on nearly 20% of his fly balls this year, and when opponents put the ball in the air, they’re hitting it 3 mph harder on average than they did in 2018.
I’m not actually that worried about Flaherty. He’s been a little worse this year than last year, but he still looks like a beast to me. Pitchers have bad stretches sometimes, but his stuff still plays, he’s still getting his strikeouts, and his granular pitch-level data looks just as good as before. No, today I want to talk about Mikolas. He’s looked worse this year, and not just in a “well gosh the other team is getting hits” way. I’ve never been comfortable with the way Mikolas succeeds, and this year’s results have illuminated why I was so uneasy.
One of the defining characteristics of Mikolas’ 2018, to me, is that he was a wizard at getting batters to swing at bad pitches. He got the third-highest rate of out-of-zone swings in 2018, which is really impressive for a guy who doesn’t have a standout breaking pitch. He didn’t convert those out-of-zone swings into gaudy strikeout numbers, and he didn’t get an amazing amount of swings and misses, but out of zone swings are still incredibly valuable for a pitcher. Consider this: in 2019, when hitters put the ball in play when swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone, they’ve produced a .296 wOBA. That’s really bad — putting the ball in play is supposed to be a good outcome for a hitter, but a .296 wOBA is anemic.
In contrast, putting a ball in the strike zone in play is exactly what batters want to do. Balls in play there have produced a .403 wOBA. wOBA is normalized to be on the OBP scale, so 107 points of wOBA is a serious amount. Want to know why Mikolas was good last year? He was tremendously effective at hitting his spots and getting swings. When you look at it this way, Mikolas’s penchant for soft contact makes a lot more sense. He was getting swings in bad areas, and the poor contact was a natural result.
In 2019, something is different. Mikolas’ out-of-zone swing rate declined from 36.6%, which again was third in baseball, to 31.1%, which is essentially average. Batters are swinging less at his in-zone pitches, too, but that tradeoff hasn’t worked out for Mikolas. Without a great way to end at-bats, there isn’t a huge penalty to taking a strike — if a pitcher isn’t going to throw something past you, you can always take a strike or two. Though Mikolas throws five pitches, he doesn’t really have anything that racks up the whiffs: the only pitch he throws that gets a better-than-average whiff rate is his sinker, and a sinker is no one’s idea of an out pitch. To wit, his sinker gets nearly as many whiffs per swing as his slider.
This isn’t just random speculating, either: hitters are swinging at 5% fewer pitches in non-two-strike counts this year against Mikolas. In two strike counts, their swing rate has hardly budged. In other words, batters are implementing the very strategy I was talking about: they’re being more selective until two strikes, hunting for the choicest cuts, and then reverting to their normal plan with two strikes, confident in the fact that Mikolas probably won’t blow one by them.
Now, this doesn’t explain all of Mikolas’s struggles, and in fact, I think that a decent amount of his effectiveness is still there. He’s been really home run prone, sure, but that’s a really unstable metric. He’s allowing balls in the air to be hit much harder than he did in 2018, but he’s still basically league-average there. Batters are getting the barrel on more pitches, but again — still league average. The 2019 version of Miles Mikolas isn’t bad, by any means. He gets fewer than average strikeouts but allows fewer than average walks. He has a good contact profile — he gets a lot of grounders, which is particularly valuable in this era of home runs. If he had a 4.17 ERA (to match his xFIP), I don’t think that would be particularly surprising. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection was for a 3.83 ERA coming into the season, and given the higher-than-expected run scoring environment, that’s within hailing distance of 4.17.
What’s frustrating about Mikolas’s season, though, is that there’s nothing to point to. His stuff looks pretty much the same. His pitch mix is almost exactly identical from year to year. He hasn’t moved much on the mound, and it doesn’t look like he’s tipping pitches. In fact, if I showed you two clips of Mikolas pitching at home, one from each year, the only way you could tell them apart would be the hair and the camera angle. That sameness sucks, though. Miles Mikolas last year was a treat. He was good and it was just completely inexplicable why he was so good. Now he’s worse, and he didn’t even do anything different.
At the end of the day, I don’t have anything super constructive to say here. Miles Mikolas might not be much better than an average pitcher going forward. If his stuff slides a little, he might even be worse than average. That’s probably not much of a hot take, but I’m not much of a hot take guy. When a pitcher’s entire game is built on getting hitters to be just a little bit suboptimal, he’s going to be prone to setbacks. I hope Mikolas is going to be a beast again, but I’m skeptical it will happen. Now, has it made my life worse as much as those darn sheets? Absolutely not. Those will stick with me forever. It’s still sad, though, and I hope I’m wrong about the cause of his regression.