Here’s something that won’t surprise you. The number one starter in all of baseball last year, when it came to getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, was Patrick Corbin. Of course it was Patrick Corbin! Dude threw 95% sliders last year, and that’s only a little bit of an exaggeration (it was a little over 41%, if you’re intent on checking my math). The second guy on the list, a minuscule 0.1% of out-of-zone swing rate behind Corbin, was Jacob deGrom. I mean … yeah. DeGrom had a 1.7 ERA last year and struck out 32% of the batters he faced. People swung at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone.
At number three, though, the list takes an unexpected turn. The third-highest chase rate in baseball last year belonged to Miles Mikolas, and it’s hard to think of a pitcher who resembles Corbin and deGrom less than Mikolas does. While the aforementioned duo both had top-10 strikeout rates among qualified starters, Mikolas was in the bottom ten. Corbin and deGrom were exemplars of the new three-true-outcome direction baseball has taken (mostly one true outcome, in their case), while Mikolas had essentially the lowest three true outcome rate in all of baseball. What does it mean to generate a ton of swings outside the strike zone but few strikeouts?
Making sense of how Miles Mikolas operates is difficult. He’s kind of a unicorn — you probably think you can name pitchers like him, but none of them fit. Is he Kyle Hendricks, the pinpoint control artist with a preposterous changeup? Mikolas doesn’t even throw a changeup. He also sits around 94.5mph with his fastball, top 20 among qualified starters in 2018. Hendricks has the slowest fastball in that group. Is he a rich man’s Mike Leake, perplexingly effective despite never striking anyone out? That’s not it either — Leake never generates swings and misses, and never is barely an exaggeration here. He’s had a bottom-10 swinging strike rate every year he’s been a qualifying pitcher. Mikolas, meanwhile, is around league average. Leake also, somehow, throws significantly fewer strikes than Mikolas — Mikolas put the ball in the strike zone a league-leading 48% of the time last year.
Zone percentage also ruins my most off-the-wall comp, Jake Arrieta. People think of Arrieta as wild, and he certainly doesn’t have Mikolas-esque control. He throws a similar pitch mix, though, and at points in his career has generated a ton of swings without a crazy amount of whiffs. The problem with a straight comparison is that Mikolas absolutely pounds the strike zone. With Arrieta, you got the sense that he and the batter both didn’t know where the ball was going, and that he made that work. With Mikolas, there’s little doubt that he knows where the ball is going. When your best approximation of a guy with one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball is a Cy Young-winning pitcher who ran one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball, it’s safe to say your comparisons aren’t very close.
How, then, should we evaluate Mikolas? The go-to move of finding a similar pitcher doesn’t seem to work. ZiPS pegged his number one comparable as Frank Sullivan, an effective 1950s Red Sox starter who is absolutely no help to us as a mental comp in 2019. Modern pitchers make imperfect matches for various reasons. Looking at it from a fielding-independent standpoint doesn’t help as much as I’d like either — thinking of him as a pitch-to-contact guy feels a little hollow considering how many whiffs Mikolas generates, and he’s extreme in so many ways (zone rate, chase rate, ground ball rate, walk rate, etc.) that extrapolating results from a few component parts of his game is always going to be hard.
Instead, let’s just look at one thing — one remarkable thing. Miles Mikolas is one of the best pitchers in baseball at one of the best things a pitcher can do — get batters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. Despite that, he strikes out very few batters. Despite that, he’s tremendously effective — he finished 12th among pitchers in WAR last season. That’s sufficiently weird to be worth investigating for its own sake.
First, consider this. “Inside the strike zone” and “outside the strike zone” are pretty blunt descriptors. As an example, think of a swinging strike that the catcher blocks. That pitch isn’t near the strike zone, and the batter probably isn’t close to hitting it with his swing. That isn’t really the same as a pitch that missed the outside edge of the strike zone by an inch. At the same time, a pitch right down the heart of the plate isn’t the same as a pitch that hits the lower inside corner, even though they’re both in the strike zone. To figure out why Mikolas is generating so many swings outside the zone but so few whiffs, we need to zoom in. As a visual aid for the following section, here’s a 10×10 graph of Mikolas’ pitches in 2018:
Let’s first focus on the pitches just outside of the strike zone. We have a lot of data to work with when it comes to MLB as a whole — 143,609 pitches were thrown to that rough area last year. This is an area where you’d expect to generate a decent number of swings and a few misses, and that’s exactly what happened. Batters swung at 43% of pitches thrown just off the plate last year, comfortably higher than the 31% of out-of-zone pitches they swung at overall. Here are some relevant metrics for both Mikolas and the league as a whole:
|Exit Velocity||81.7 mph||77.4 mph|
There are some interesting trends to unpack here. Batters did indeed swing more at Mikolas’ pitches, as you’d expect from his high chase rate. They also whiffed less, though they hit a ton more foul balls. In fact, batters put the ball in play on only 30% of their swings against Mikolas, basically the same as league average, despite missing outright less often. When they did put the ball in play, the real fun began — at least for Mikolas. He allowed a minuscule .247 wOBA on balls put into play (methodological note: I included home runs here). That wasn’t some small sample size fluke, either — the 77.4 mph average exit velocity he allowed was the lowest in the majors among pitchers who had 75 measured exit velocity results, and still third-lowest (out of 110 pitchers) if you drop the minimum to 50 results. Opponents only recorded two barrels (a Baseball Savant stat that essentially denotes hits that are extremely likely to go for extra bases) out of the 89 times they put the ball in play. Mikolas induced weak contact in a measurable way.
The above table does a good job pointing out the trade-off Mikolas is making in his pitching. He was phenomenally effective at getting soft contact. It shows up in pretty much every number — the huge foul ball percentage, the weak exit velocity, the low wOBAs across the board. The downside of all this soft and foul contact is a marked decrease in swinging strikes and therefore strikeout rate, which (along with walk rate) feeds into overall wOBA on plate appearances ending with one of these pitches. That’s how Mikolas is miles better (sorry, I had to) at limiting damage on contact but outperforms the league by less on overall wOBA.
On pitches further outside the strike zone (all pitches outside the strike zone minus the ones we just looked at), Mikolas exhibited a similar, though less pronounced, pattern:
|Exit Velocity||75.4 mph||75.7 mph|
Take the wOBA results in this table with a grain of salt, because we’re getting into extreme small sample size territory — 30 balls in play for his wOBA/BIP. He still generates more swings and fewer whiffs per swing, though in this case the increased swings prop his swinging strike rate up above major league average. His overall wOBA still beats MLB average comfortably due to his tiny walk rate. Essentially, Mikolas is in the business of trading takes for foul balls, a business that all pitchers would love to get into. It’s about time to get to conclusions and takeaways, but for the sake of completeness, here’s the same table for pitches in the strike zone:
|Exit Velocity||89.6 mph||87.4 mph|
Here, the extra swings aren’t really generating many extra foul balls, but Mikolas is still suppressing exit velocity, leading to a marked outperformance overall.
What’s the upshot of all this data? Well, first things first: Mikolas is generating a ton of foul balls, and that’s feeding both his high chase rate and batters’ high contact rates on pitches outside the zone. That works quite well for him on the whole, as he’s able to generate swinging strike rates that are around league average while throwing fewer pitches that hitters take for balls. That feeds his absurdly low walk rate. Second, Mikolas is able to live in and around the zone because batters just can’t square him up. His overall exit velocity allowed was more than 2 mph lower than the major league average, and opponents barreled him up only 5% of the time that they put the ball in play, roughly 2% lower than the league as a whole.
Can Mikolas repeat this skill in 2019? Well, a 2017 study by Craig Edwards found a small but meaningful year-over-year correlation in exit velocity allowed. I repeated the study for pitchers with at least 400 batted ball events in 2017 and 2018 and found a marginally higher r-squared of .21. To be as accurate as possible, I’d want to control for the batters each pitcher faced, but hey buddy, this is the concluding section of an article about Miles Mikolas, not an article about exit velocity allowed. We’ll have to save that study for another day.
I did find, however, that an estimate of 50% year-one EV allowed and 50% league average EV allowed performed better at estimating year-two EV allowed than year-one EV alone, so it might be worth tempering your expectations for Mikolas’s contact management skills in 2019 a smidge. Indeed, Mikolas allowed three home runs in his first start this year. Even if that’s the case, though, there’s reason for optimism about Mikolas’ ability to sustain a high level of performance. His pitches outside the zone are tremendously productive — he generates so many swings that he’s rarely walking anyone, and he runs a league-average swinging strike rate as a result of all those swings, even with all the foul balls. When batters do make contact, it’s the kind of contact you want — batters were putrid when putting the ball in play against Mikolas. Even if you think he’s going to regress towards league average contact management, pitchers as a whole did quite well when they got batters to swing at pitches off the plate. If he keeps that performance at the periphery of the strike zone up, everything else will fall into place.
What did we find in all this? Well, Miles Mikolas is weird, but you knew that already — the dude eats lizards, for crying out loud. He’s weird in the way he pitches too, though — weird in a way that’s hard to appreciate on the surface. No one works the area just outside of the strike zone the same way Mikolas does, fishing for swings and dodging hard contact. Next time you watch a Mikolas start, take a moment to appreciate the mistimed swings and just-can’t-square-him-up foul balls — you’re watching a truly unique pitcher at work.
Ben is a contributor to Fangraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.