St. Louis Cardinals

Lizard-eating Miles Mikolas can also be the innings-eater the Cardinals need

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, April 22, 2018, in St. Louis.
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, April 22, 2018, in St. Louis. AP

For the Cardinals, the biggest risk in letting Lance Lynn walk away in free agency was the uncertainty of how, exactly, they would replace all of his innings on the mound.

The big right-hander has averaged 192 innings over six seasons and was rugged enough last year to throw 186, even coming off Tommy John surgery.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations, acknowledged that it would be tough to expect that kind of reliability from his stable of young fireballers. His solution was Miles Mikolas, a 29-year-old castoff of both the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers who has spent the past three seasons in Japan.

He'll be the starter when the Cardinals open a three-game series in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Mikolas was the Cardinals' biggest free-agent signing of a highly anticipated offseason, one that even Mozeliak called "a little curious to some of you who don't do what we do for a living."

The curiosity extends beyond Mikolas' willingness to eat a live lizard on a bet during a stop in the Arizona Winter League. His more recent big-league season — 2014 with the Rangers — produced a 2-5 record with a 6.44 ERA. And he lasted just 57 innings, a career-high in the U.S.

But the Cardinals liked his toughness, his four-pitch arsenal and the potential of reuniting him with new pitching coach Mike Maddux. So they gave him a two-year deal worth $15 million. They also liked his 31-13 record in three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.

Still, how does this translate to the big leagues? Can the "Lizard King" replace Lynn's lost innings?

Well, so far, so good. Mikolas is 3-0 with a 3.46 ERA and averaged more than six innings in his four starts.

One could argue, of course, that he has feasted on the Cincinnati Reds' anemic offense, which ranks 21st in baseball in team batting and 23rd in runs scored. He's beaten them twice in the past two weeks, allowing them just two earned runs while striking out more (10) than hits allowed (nine).

Whether that's because Mikolas is that good or the Reds are that bad remains to be seen. It's probably a little of both.

Nevertheless, Joe Schwarz, a technology-assisted pitching analyst and regular contributor to "The Athletic," sees a good fit to the Cardinals innings-eating needs.

Schwarz goes deep into the numbers and pitching charts to flesh out the trends that tell you what a pitcher can be at his best (or worst). He also preaches the gospel of pitch "tunneling," which is a pitcher's ability to throw different pitches on the same trajectory until that point where the batter has to make his decision to swing or take.

Schwarz finds that Mikolas has returned from Japan with a significant increase in velocity to both his fastball — which now reaches 95 mph with consistency — and his breaking pitches. He's also able to tunnel his slider, fastball and sinker, which makes all three pitches harder for batters to pick up.

Mikolas' slider garners a 42-percent swing-and-miss rate, and 82 percent of his pitches put in play have been hit on a ground ball, which is the highest rate in baseball by a wide margin.

“Pre-Japan, I was mostly fastball-curveball and would mix the slider in a little bit. I could be a little wild at times,” Mikolas said. “Post-Japan, I feel like I’m a little bit more of a complete pitcher — fastball, curveball, slider for strikes, mix in a changeup, change speeds better and work the count a little better. ... I thought it would translate (in the U.S.)."

Indeed it has. Mikolas has struck out 20 batters so far this season and walked just two.

Lynn, by the way, has struggled since signing a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins. In four starts, he's 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA and has worked just 18 innings. He's also walked 18.

None of this says Mikolas is the new ace of the Cardinals' staff. It can, however, translate to efficiency and innings, Schwarz writes.

"If he gains command of his fastballs going forward," Schwarz concluded, "he should be a viable innings-eater for the Cardinals."

Which is all the Cardinals are looking for.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at (618) 239-2540 or teschman@bnd.com.
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