The signing of Steven Matz was certainly necessary for the St. Louis Cardinals. The left-hander is not known for pitching deep into games, as he averaged just over five innings per start, giving him 150 2⁄3 innings in 29 starts. Despite this, he threw more innings than three of the starters penciled into the Cardinals rotation next season combined. Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas threw just 131 2⁄3 innings combined. With all three pitchers coming off of major injuries, their durability is a bit of a question mark.
Besides that, it remains to be seen if Mikolas will decline in his age 33 season. The pitcher has seen his velocity decline every year since signing a contract with the Cardinals, and after a stellar 2018, he became more of a back-end innings eater in 2019. That still made him a useful player. If he can maintain that level of production, then he should slot in nicely as the fourth or fifth starter on the team.
One of the effects of Mikolas’ diminished velocity is that his curveball has gotten slower and loopier. The pitch lost nearly two miles per hour since 2019, but it gained an inch of drop and a half inch of horizontal movement. This could be a benefit to Mikolas.
The right-hander throws a hard slider. It average 87.4 mph in 2021, 87.0 mph in 2019, and 88.0 mph in 2018. It has about average break in both directions, but it gets on hitters much quicker than the average slider (85 mph). The pitch was incredibly effective in 2018, but it has not been as effective since then. Having a slower, loopier curveball adds more variety to Mikolas’ arsenal and gives hitters two vastly different pitches to look for - a hard, sharp slider, and a slow, loopy curveball.
Mikolas needs to locate his curveball better, but it has still been an effective pitch for him. Of all his pitches, the 33-year-old puts his curveball on the edge of the plate the least. This was true in both 2019 and 2021. He also puts in the zone just 52% of the time, which is ahead of only his slider (38.5%). Still, when the pitch is in the zone, hitters do not swing at it very often, swinging just 52.3% of the time. This is by far the lowest in-zone swing rate of any of Mikolas pitches, with the next lowest being his four-seamer at 65.5%. The same pattern existed in both 2018 and 2019.
With hitters so reluctant to swing at Mikolas’ curveball, he could gain an advantage by throwing it first in an at-bat, or at least early in the count. This could help him gain more first pitch strikes and pitch from ahead, without overusing his fastball. The slower curveball could set up his fastball well and leave his slider available as more of a put away pitch.
This would be somewhat similar to how Adam Wainwright pitches. Wainwright threw his curveball in the zone just 49.4% of the time in 2021, almost 3% less than Mikolas. Hitters swung more often when the pitch was in the zone (57.7%), though that could be a product of more aggressive use of the curveball early in the count. Hitters still swung more at every other in-zone pitch besides his sinker.
Hitters chased Mikolas’ curveball just 23.3% of the time, but that number is likely to return to usual levels over the course of a full season. In 2019, Mikolas generated a chase rate of 34% with the pitch. It is possible that hitters will chase curveballs less in early count situations, but that is not necessarily true. Using Adam Wainwright as an example, Wainwright’s curveball chase rate stayed relatively constant despite its increased usage in recent seasons. Wainwright has one of the best curveballs in baseball, so it may not be a perfect comparison, but Mikolas’ curveball chase rate should not drop too much if he throws it more, and throws it earlier in the count.
With hitters more reluctant to swing at curveballs in the zone, and Mikolas’ ability to throw curveballs in the zone, he could help himself by getting ahead in the count, without the hitter even swinging. Hitters tend to look to do damage on the first pitch of the at-bat, but that changes when they go down 0-1. As a pitcher who pitches to contact and needs to limit hard contact as much as possible this is beneficial for Mikolas. He is not someone who pitches well when he is behind in the count. In 2019, Mikolas’ FIP was 2.85 after starting with an 0-1 count, but that FIP rose to 5.17 when starting with a 1-0 count.
With diminished velocity, Mikolas may need to lower the usage of his four-seamer and his sinker. This creates an opening that can be filled by his curveball, which was only his fourth most used pitch in 2021 at 17.7%. In 2019, he used it 21.4% of the time, but it was still his fourth most used pitch.
The pitch has excellent movement, above average in both directions, and an above average spin rate (2569 rpms, 66th percentile). Mikolas could turn this pitch into a weapon and use it to pitch backwards to hitters, especially as he gets deeper into the game.
Mikolas’ go-to breaking ball is currently his slider, but he has a good balance between all his pitches. Increasing his curveball usage to around 25% would bring it level with his slider, in terms of usage, and give him two unique breaking balls with which he can attack hitters. This would also allow him to ease of his fastball usage.
These changes could help Mikolas pitch effectively in 2022 and remain an innings eater for the Cardinals, which the team very much needs him to be. A strong year from Mikolas would go a long way to solidifying a pitching staff that looks good on paper but still has some question marks.