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Miles Mikolas: Almost Back (Or Almost Gone?)

Miles Mikolas performance hasn’t been good. But his rate stats are within range of normal. Is he “almost back” or “almost gone”?

Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Michael B. Thomas /Getty Images

Miles Mikolas is back. Well… almost back.

The good news is that he is pitching again. That’s a pretty significant feat. Let’s run through the history here, just because it’s so much fun.

Mikolas reported pain following the 2019 postseason run in this right forearm. The Cardinals’ doctors prescribed an offseason of rest. When February of 2020 rolled around, Mikolas was not recovered and he was quickly shut down. The club gave him a platelet-rich injection in his forearm.

At the time, he believed that would be the end of it. “If I’m a couple weeks late to the season,” he said, “I think that’ll be the end of it. I’ll be back just like normal.”

Narrator: that was not the end of it. And nothing was normal about 2020.

The season was shut down, which I (at the time) interpreted as a blessing-in-disguise for Mikolas’ recovery efforts. More time off the field could only do him well and let his platelets do their work.

They didn’t. When the Cardinals resumed action in late July following the COVID shut down, Mikolas was still experiencing discomfort. With non-invasive options exhausted and a wasted season ahead of the club, Mikolas opted for surgery on his right flexor tendon.

That pretty much brought an end to his forearm troubles. But not to his overall arm health.

In early spring of this season, Mikolas opened up his repertoire too early. Torquing breaking balls had an ill effect on his shoulder, causing renewed irritation. Back to the IL he went.

He returned to action in late May for one aborted start before heading to the IL AGAIN, this time with more forearm irritation.

I don’t blame anyone who thought Mikolas was done then. I certainly did.

But it proved to be a minor issue. He started throwing in July and returned to the Cardinals rotation in August. He is now (presumably) pitching pain-free. He has 6 starts this season for the Cardinals, 5 since returning from the IL, and has 26.1 innings total.

Mikolas’ recovery bears watching. Closely. The Cardinals, you see, have invested heavily in the oft-injured starter. Mozeliak and company inked him to a 4-year $68M deal following his exceptional return to MLB in 2018. They have him under contract for another two seasons at $15.75M per.

That’s starter money. That’s a salary the Cardinals cannot unload if that course of action suited their fancy. That means, in all likelihood, Mikolas will be one of the five starters that the Cardinals count on for next season.

Is that a good idea? By injury history alone, the answer has to be a big capital “NO”.

What about by performance? Is the old Mikolas back?

If you use base stats, the answer is also a big capital “NO”. His ERA is a depressing 5.47. That’s coupled with a discouraging 4.91 FIP and 5.10 expected (x)FIP. That’s not the kind of production that fans searching for improved pitching in 2022 (count me in on that) will want in the rotation.

‘Round here, we don’t evaluate pitchers based on those basic stats, though. We certainly don’t put stock in things like ERA or FIP for starters recovering from long-term injury after just 26 innings. While that’s a tiny sample for any stat we want to use, rate stats can stabilize a bit faster than ERA or FIP and therein we find a little bit (a very little bit) of encouraging news for Mikolas’ future.

Before I dig into that data, let me make public a bias that I’m going to assume for the rest of this article. That bias is simple: a pitcher who is in the early stages of return following a lengthy absence due to multiple injuries should not be expected to immediately perform as he has in the past.

That’s just common sense, right? When you haven’t pitched in nearly 2 years, it’s going to take some time to shake the rust off, even if you’re healthy and hearty.

At the same time, rust doesn’t always shake off. Especially when you’re 32 – Mikolas’ current age – and have an injury list that takes up half of my gosh-darn word count.

My query, then, is whether or not Miles Mikolas’ rate stats present something that resembles the old Mikolas. Is he “almost back”? We’ll look at that while acknowledging that “almost back” might also mean “almost gone” if the rust proves permanent.

Let’s start with BB and K rates. Here’s what we have so far:

Mikolas’ BB and K rates - 2018-2019, 2021

Year BB Rate K Rate
Year BB Rate K Rate
2018 3.60% 18.10%
2019 4.20% 18.80%
2021 6.90% 15.50%
Data from Fangraphs.

I am not a bit surprised that Mikolas’ walk rate is up quite a bit from 2018 and 2019. That’s what I would expect from any pitcher who missed nearly two and a half seasons with injury. “Up” for Mikolas is still better than the vast majority of starting pitchers in the league. If his 2021 rate qualified for the league leaders among starters, he would rank 26th. He’s still exhibiting the ability to dramatically limit walks, even if he’s not quite as elite at it as he used to be.

The same thing applies to his strikeout rate. A 15.5% K-rate is not good. No way to sugarcoat that. Compared to his previous, though, it’s not all that off. And our timing is bad. In his last start, a particularly rough 5 inning outing where Mikolas gave up 2 homers, he only struck out one hitter. If we remove this one outlier, Mikolas’ K rate jumps from 15.5% to 17.9%, which is in range of his performance in healthy seasons.

Did that start happen? Yes, it did. Is that start more indicative of who he is than his previous outings? No, it isn’t. The takeaway is that this sample size is tiny and one outing – heck one inning – can dramatically shift the numbers.

So far so good. Mikolas is not exactly the same pitcher as he was before. He is, however, not that far off in K’s and BB’s.

What about batted ball data? When he’s not BB’ing or K’ing batters, what’s happening to the ball?

First, his home run rate is up a little. This was a real strength in 2018. In truth, he earned himself a lot of money by limiting home runs allowed in a way that he wasn’t going to duplicate. As expected, his HR totals regressed in 2019, but probably further than they should have. His 16.1% HR/FB rate was higher than historical expectations from Busch starters.

Fast-forward now to 2021 and we’re seeing bothg of those somewhat normalize. His HR/FB rate is more in line with what we might expect from a player like Mikolas at Busch – 12.5% — but his overall HR rate is steady with 2019.

2018: .72
2019: 1.32
2021: 1.37

Astute readers might notice that there is only one way for an HR/9 rate to stay even when an HR/FB rate has dropped. That’s right; he’s allowing more fly balls overall.

Batted ball data over this kind of sample size will fluctuate quite a bit but, so far, Mikolas has a 36.5% fly-ball rate, up from 28.5 and 29.6 in ’18 and ’19 respectively. That’s coming at the expense of groundballs – Mikolas’ specialty – which are down to 42.5% from 49.3% and 47.4% in the previous two years.

Fewer ground balls. More walks. Fewer K’s. About the same amount of homers. All of that would lead to a higher than desired ERA and FIP.

The rates of change, though, aren’t so far off his norms that they are overly worrisome.

We could stop there, but let’s look at one more place for data, just to make sure I covered all possible bases. What about Mikolas’ spin rates, velocity, and pitch-type data?

You could probably guess that his fastball velocity is down. We would expect that from a pitcher in Mikolas’ situation. In ’18 he threw his 4-seamer at 94.1 MPH. That fell .4 the next season. It’s down to 92.9 right now.

There’s good news here, believe it or not. His season data includes that one start in May where he had to leave early with injury. His fastball velocity that game? 90.2 mph. That’s dragging his whole season down. Throw that out and his fastball velocity climbs to 93.2. Still down from his healthy seasons but like everything else, well within the range of his previous performance.

Lastly, I don’t see much change in his spin rate data, which is a good sign. No spider tack for the Lizard King. He hasn’t dramatically changed the rates that he is throwing his repertoire either.

Where does that leave us? Exactly where we began. Mikolas’ performance hasn’t been particularly encouraging so far. At the same time, he’s not that far off from his well-established rates.

Those differences – all down – can be partially explained by normal rust and recovery. We could conclude that Mikolas is “almost back” and with time, he could be all the way back.

Or he won’t. And the slight downward trend we are seeing could be indicative of what happens to 32-year-old pitchers who have a lengthy injury history. We could conclude that Mikolas is “almost gone” and with time, he could be all the way gone.

I’m opting for the first of those. I didn’t expect good results this season. In truth, I expected the data to be a lot worse than it is. That leaves me a bit encouraged. And since I think the Cardinals will rely on Mikolas next year regardless of what he does this season, I would prefer to be a bit hopeful that some more pitching and a full offseason will only help him. He likely won’t be what he was in ’18 ever again. He might not even be what he was in ’19. But he could still be an effective starter in 2022.