The St. Louis Cardinals answered one of their long-term rotation questions Tuesday afternoon, signing starting pitcher Miles Mikolas to a four-year, $68-million extension that keeps last year’s 6th-place NL Cy Young finisher from hitting free agency until 2023.
Bringing in Mikolas was one of the league’s best free-agent signings last year, as St. Louis reeled him in from Japan on a two-year, $15.5-million contract. At the time, both my computer and I saw him as a slightly above-average innings-eater who would solidify the middle of the team’s rotation. This was an especially crucial need for the team with Alex Reyes needing Tommy John surgery, Adam Wainwright declining, Mike Leake traded to Seattle, and Lance Lynn a free agent.
The Lizard King was better than that, going 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA, a 3.28 FIP, and 4.3 WAR for the Cardinals in an All-Star campaign. Mikolas’s return to the United States resembled in many ways the career path of Colby Lewis, a struggling Rangers prospect rapidly declining into journeyman-player status found his way to Japan before coming back as a pitcher with much improved command of his pitches. Lewis had a nice little career after his return, with four two-WAR seasons in Texas before joining the front office last year.
Time was crucial for the Cardinals in signing Mikolas. Even though he only has two years worth of service time, he signed with the team as a bonafide free agent from overseas, and as such, had more leverage than most players with his service time might; his original deal would have made him a free agent after 2019.
Just from his basic stats, the natural comparison you’d want to draw is Bob Tewksbury, but Mikolas isn’t really that type of pitcher. He hits the mid-90s very comfortably, and that fastball has more than one look. But that’s not the money pitch for Mikolas, nor is it his changeup, which wasn’t a significant part of his 2018 arsenal (though he’d like to use it more in 2019).
What powered Mikolas was his slider, rated the third-best in baseball in 2018 in terms of wSL and second-best on a per-slider basis. This may be the place Mikolas most leverages his excellent command. Even against left-handed hitters, Mikolas isn’t afraid to keep those inside sliders painted just on the inside of the strike zone, and he’s not just fishing for a swing on a down-and-in pitch. As an example, 46% of Mikolas’s sliders against lefties were in the strike zone. Compare that to Trevor Bauer and Patrick Corbin, two other pitchers who get a lot of value from sliders, who were both at 28% zone for their sliders against the platoon advantage. A pitcher with poor command can get destroyed doing that sort of thing.
ZiPS unsurprisingly, already having seen Mikolas as a legitimate mid-rotation starter going into 2018, isn’t going to see him as a worse risk in 2019 after a legitimately excellent season. And there may be more strikeout upside here than one would see from his 6.5 K/9 in 2018. He went from 6.6 K/9 to 8.2 to 9.0 while in Japan, and going down to a 6.5 is a much larger-than-expected drop than you would think from his NPB stats.
With continual questions around Carlos Martinez and his shoulder, now shut down for at least two weeks after a platelet-rich plasma injection, this was a good additional motivation for the team to close a deal for a currency-rich salary injection into Mikolas’s bank account. For a conservative, careful organization, the thought of going into 2020 with too many open questions about the rotation likely amounts to heresy.
At four years and $68 million, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable risk for either side, even though ZiPS projects an extension a little pricier at four years and $83 million. Remember that while it’s possible that Mikolas would have seen that in free agency, there are additional factors that a projection system won’t take into account: a deep supply of quality aces in free agency next winter, the fact that some teams don’t hold Japanese translations in the same esteem as ZiPS does, and the fact that Mikolas is already 30 and doesn’t have $80 million in career earnings to fall back on.
Both sides get fair value and some certainty in their lives, so there’s not much for me to complain about on this one.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.