There’s Another Starting Pitcher Coming Over From Japan

Given how popular the game of baseball is overseas, we do a surprisingly poor job of keeping track of it. That is, the average baseball fan, and the average baseball writer, have little idea of who’s performing very well in Japan or South Korea. Obviously, there are reasons; those leagues aren’t in front of us every day, there can be a language barrier when trying to read about them, and there’s just already so much Major League Baseball to think about. Then you can throw in the fact that MLB is the highest-level league there is. Baseball in Asia is distant, and it’s perceived to be inferior.

It’s hard not to hear about Shohei Ohtani. Everyone’s been talking about Ohtani, because he’s something unusual. He’s like some sort of rare bird, and teams have pursued him for years, so he’s worked his way into public consciousness. He’s too extraordinary to ignore. Yet Dennis Sarfate’s success has taken place off the American radar. Few people know how good he’s become. Sarfate, however, will not be returning to the majors this offseason. Then there’s Miles Mikolas. Mikolas’ success, too, has taken place off the American radar. Unlike Sarfate, though, he’s available. It’s probably time to learn who he is.

Mikolas has pitched in the majors, as a reliever with the Padres and as a starter with the Rangers. He started 10 games for Texas in 2014, and then he went overseas in pursuit of some playing time and job security. He’s now fresh off three years with the Yomiuri Giants, and this most recent season was his best. I’ll let Ken Rosenthal deliver the critical message:

At 29, Mikolas is a true free agent, not subject to the same restrictions as Ohtani. This isn’t a great market to search for starters, so you’d think Mikolas might have a higher profile, but he’s been out of sight and out of mind. And, unlike Ohtani, he doesn’t have mind-blowing stuff; to my knowledge he’s never thrown a fastball 102 miles per hour. What Mikolas has to offer is the trait of being steady. And, I suppose, if everyone’s drooling over Ohtani’s ability to hit a ball out of the yard, I can’t just not include this.

Ohtani’s not the only available pitcher with pop. But anyway, Mikolas is a starter, and he won’t be asking to bat between appearances. He’s a righty who, officially, stands 6’5, and even though Mikolas was good in both 2015 and 2016, this past year he took it to another level. He missed a chunk of time in 2016 with shoulder discomfort, but he did successfully put that behind him. And then, in 2017, Mikolas found himself throwing harder. Across the board, all of his pitches were thrown with an extra couple ticks. Nothing about Mikolas’ repertoire is overpowering, but instead of throwing a fastball around 88-90, now it’s more like 90-92. Mikolas also just threw one of the best sliders in either Japanese league, and he complements his best pitches with a mid-70s curve.

For reference, here are some curveballs:

Meanwhile, here’s a painted fastball:

Let’s talk painting. As noted, no one would see a Miles Mikolas fastball and think it was thrown by Aroldis Chapman. Mikolas’ arm strength is fine — better than yours! — but his real standout skill is command. He’s not a swing-and-miss pitcher as much as he’s a get-ahead-and-stay-ahead pitcher. With the help of stat resource DeltaGraphs, I’ve plotted Mikolas’ 2017 percentile rankings among starters in Japan.

Mikolas just threw more innings than anyone else. That’s a great way to put to rest any potential durability concerns. And while Mikolas’ contact rate was only a little bit better than average, he still had a relatively high strikeout rate, and a terrific rate of walks. Only Takumi Akiyama finished with a lower walk rate, and only Takahiro Norimoto and Yusei Kikuchi finished with a higher K-BB%. You can see that Mikolas excelled when it came to pounding the zone and getting ahead early. Hitters were immediately put on the defensive. It’s also worth adding that Mikolas wound up with a high ground-ball rate, although it’s less clear how that would translate to pitching in the bigs, given the differences in league-average swing paths.

When a pitcher is getting swings and misses, it’s clear evidence that he’s overpowering. That’s not Mikolas. That’s Sarfate, but that’s not Mikolas. Still, this sort of profile does exist in the majors, where a pitcher gets strikeouts without getting all that many whiffs. Jose Quintana didn’t run a low contact rate this past season. Neither did Jameson Taillon or Rick Porcello. I’ll always remember how Cliff Lee was a strikeout pitcher without being a swing-and-miss pitcher. Which is not to suggest that Miles Mikolas is going to take after Cliff Lee, but he does have major-league-caliber stuff. The only question is whether he’d keep throwing quality strikes stateside.

He appears to be healthy now. I can’t find evidence of a meaningful platoon split, and he has three quality pitches. When Ryan Vogelsong came back from Japan, he resumed pitching in the majors at 33 and he was worth about four wins over his first two years. When Colby Lewis came back from Japan, he resumed pitching in the majors at 30 and he was worth about nine wins over his first three years. Lewis, in Japan, pitched similarly to how Mikolas has. And Lewis’ 2010 major-league fastball averaged right around 91. In one sense, you might be inclined to suggest it’s lazy to compare Mikolas and Lewis, but it actually works. That’s probably a decent approximation of where Miles Mikolas is.

Between 2010-2012, Lewis — according to our numbers — was worth almost $60 million. Since then, only more inflation has taken place. Lewis didn’t sign for nearly that much, and neither will Mikolas. He’s out there as a free-agent starter, and he could be anything from a No. 2 to a fringe No. 5. I see plenty of reason to buy him as a No. 3, which means he ought to be in demand, since nearly every team would be able to afford him. He’s no Ohtani, and he’s no proven ace. Mikolas will never attain that sort of profile. Yet he seems to have turned himself into a quality starter. His is a name to monitor in the coming weeks ahead.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Captain Tenneal
6 years ago

There’s something so weird about when he starts to bring his arm forward. It’s like he has this weird little hitch and is trying to aim the ball, but then it goes 90+ still!

Bobby Ayala
6 years ago

Small sample size with just two videos, but noticeably slower delivery on the curveballs.