ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Even with thousands of Cardinal fans milling around on three floors of the Hyatt in downtown St. Louis, Miles Mikolas likely could move through the crowd with ease.
Perhaps his snappy suit jacket would give him away, or maybe his build- too broad-shouldered and muscular to fool anyone into thinking he’s an average office worker- would clue the observers in to who he was.
But for most attendees at 2018’s Winter Warm-Up, Mikolas was just a face in the crowd.
For the Cardinals, he’s the lone external addition to the rotation; the piece replacing Lance Lynn and Mike Leake and the only arm the front office felt it needed to remain competitive in the NL Central.
“Adding somebody like Miles Mikolas is probably a little bit curious to some of you who don’t do what we do for a living, but we think what he brings to the table, especially when you look at the depth of starting pitching we have coming, signing somebody for two years makes a lot of sense,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Saturday.
Mikolas, 29, spent parts of three seasons in the majors from 2012 to 2014 and left little impression. 4-6 record, 5.32 ERA and a 1.430 WHIP in 91.1 innings pitched. By that measure, the signing was curious. Here is a pitcher with middling MLB stats inked to a two-year deal and charged with replacing the reliable production of Lance Lynn.
But what happened after that stretch, when Mikolas went to pitch in Japan, makes the deal start to make sense.
“Pre-Japan, I was probably mostly fastball, curveball and mixed in the slider a little bit. I could be a little wild at times. Post-Japan I’m a little more of a complete pitcher. Fastball, curveball, slider for strikes, mix in a changeup, change speeds better, work the count a little better,” Mikolas said.
He talks like a man with perspective, answering questions directly and speaking with a genuine quality that seems to suggest he’s asked himself many of the same things.
“I feel like I got more consistent with my curveball. Being able to work it on both sides of the plate. Keeping it down, throwing it for strikes more often. Also my slider, moving that back and forth as well,” he said.
Overseas, as a member of the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo, Mikolas found his stride.
He started 62 games and went 31-13. His ERA in three seasons was 2.18. He struck out 5.48 hitters for every one he walked.
He was developing into the pitcher he should have been three years prior, and he was having fun doing it.
“I was probably a little more nervous my first time up [in the majors]. Then my first time starting, that walking on eggshells kind of feeling,” he said. “I probably should have tossed that aside back then and I kind of tossed it aside over in Japan. Just go out, have fun and do my thing, because that’s when I’m at my best.”
He knew things were coming together at the end of his first season with the Giants. Last year, he found that groove again, and when he stayed in it all season, he knew he could make it back to The Show.
“The way I was pitching was really the way I wanted to pitch,” he said. “Everything kind of kept rolling and my body felt great, my arm felt great. I thought it would translate and I’m looking forward to see how it does.”
MLB teams thought it might translate as well, and the calls started coming in. A handful from the American League, a handful from the National League. One suitor stood out from the start.
“The Cardinals were kind of my choice,” Mikolas said. “My mom grew up here before she moved down to Jupiter and I grew up in Jupiter going to the spring training games. I was telling someone the other day I actually pitched at Roger Dean Stadium in a Cardinals uniform in high school. They do the local all star game there, north vs. south and they do the Marlins and Cardinals. I was on the Cardinals side. So it’s kind of come full circle. I get to wear the uniform for real and it’s just really exciting for me.”
Again donning the Birds on the Bat, Mikolas will get to test all the progress he made overseas. MLB hitters are the best in the world, but Mikolas has learned a great deal from facing their NPB counterparts.
Hitters in Japan are relentless with two strikes. Many abandon their previous approach and revert to survival mode to avoid the strikeout, making the final strike hard to earn efficiently.
“You got guys over there fouling off curveballs at their feet and then fastballs at their chin. They really shorten up,” Mikolas said. “A lot of those guys get to two strikes and they’re no longer trying to do any damage, they’re just trying not to strike out. They’re trying to put the ball in play.”
It’s like facing Matt Carpenter in every at bat.
Putting such hitters away creates a challenge, and Mikolas learned to set up the pitched he needed in advance to save himself from throwing 15 pitches per batter.
In the U.S., where the strikeout is more accepted, that training will pay off. More and more, MLB hitters treat 0-2 the same as 0-0, and look to do damage rather than just survive. A pitcher like Mikolas, who had to earn strike three against a batter desperate to avoid it, can exploit that.
“I know you have a lot of guys here that get to two strikes and they still have that big swing, so hopefully that will play up a little bit,” he said.
Soon, the hypotheticals will be immaterial and Mikolas can rewrite his MLB story, starting back in his home town and in the stadium where he grew up watching guys like him play. He’ll wear the jersey again, this time as a key member of a contender’s rotation. Maybe this time he earns a lucrative, long-term stay in the bigs. But that’s down the road. Right now, he just wants to win, and prove he’s got what it takes.
“One of the things I learned in Japan and that I’m carrying here is I love to compete. I’m going to go out there and pitch my ass off for five, six, seven, eight, nine innings. However long I have the ball I like to leave it all out there on the field. Do anything I can to win, whether it’s pitching, laying down a bunt, fielding my position, cheering guys on from the dugout. I want to win,” Mikolas said. “It’s up to me to show them I’m the guy they went out and got. I’m going to show them that.”