Most of the admittedly overly-puffy chested predictions before the season that had the Cardinals running neck and neck with the Cubs and Brewers were based on their rotation. It contained promising neophytes (they always are with the Cards) Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. As always, there was hope that this would finally be the season that Michael Wacha didn’t shoot himself in the face repeatedly. And hey, maybe Adam Wainwright wouldn’t decompose on the mound…as quickly. And of course they returned scrapheap salvaged/hero Miles Mikolas, whom Phil Rogers definitely knew would work out better than Yu Darvish and he’ll tell you that again and again.
Well, the Cards are under .500, barely holding off the Reds in last, only one member of the rotation has an ERA under 4.00, and Mikolas’s is nearing 5.00. How could this clearly established rock of a rotation go off the boil?
It’s actually pretty strange. Mikolas’s numbers, almost uniformly, are pretty much the same as they were last year. Look for yourself:
K/9: 6.55 (2018), 6.65 (2019)
BB/9: 1.30, 1.44
WHIP: 1.07, 1.17
Left-on-base %: 76.2, 71.1
BABIP: .279, .274
Line-drive rate: 22.2%, 22.1%
Hard-contact rate: 32.6%, 35.9%
So the numbers this year are a smidge worse, except for the strikeouts, but no major changes. Is that enough to explain an ERA going from 2.83 and an outside Cy Young candidate to 4.76 and a FIP from 3.28 to 4.85? No, it’s not.
The big difference you’ll find is how the fly balls he’s giving up are turning out. Last year, he was about league-average in the percentage that became something that went over the mantlepiece for some red-clad palooka. This year, it’s 20.6%. That’s double the league-average (or at least the normal league-average, as this year with the golf balls being used it’s 14.6%). The flies that Mikolas is giving up are being hit harder this year, a 43.3% hard-contact rate on them as opposed to 37% last year. Still, a fifth of them landing out beyond the walls is a touch unfair.
There’s another issue Mikolas is facing. His slider, a definite weapon last year, is getting murdered this season. Last year, hitters managed only a .184 average and a .245 slugging against that pitch. This year it’s .302 and .561. That might be a reason he’s backed off of it this year. but that only results in more fastballs, which hitters will time up. Another problem Mikolas is facing is that his slider has lost about half of its tilt from last year to this one, making it more flat. He’s still getting the same amount of whiffs per swing when it’s offered at, but there’s a lot more loud contact on it, leaving Mikolas pretty much a fastball-curve guy. It’s hard to get by on two pitches alone. You can tell from the swing rates by zone that hitters are either recognizing it better, he’s having to start it outside the zone more, or both, because he’s not getting the swings down to his glove side that he did last year:
Mikolas will probably even out before too long. Even in this souped up era, that HR/FB rate is unjust. The Cardinals will need him to, because Wainwright and Wacha are too old to be saviors, and Flaherty and Hudson might be too young.