No MLB Team Wanted Miles Mikolas for 3 Years, Now He's an Ace

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas delivers during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tim Spyers)
Tim Spyers/Associated Press

If success is the best revenge, consider Miles Mikolas avenged.

After three years in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, apparently unwanted by all 30 MLB clubs, Mikolas is back in the big leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals and pitching like he belongs.

Check that—he's pitching like a bona fide ace.

First, some background: Mikolas broke into The Show in 2012 with the San Diego Padres and posted a 3.62 ERA in 32.1 innings out of the bullpen. By 2014, he'd bounced to the Texas Rangers and posted an unsightly 6.44 ERA in 10 starts. 

He never eclipsed a middling 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings in a single season at the highest level. He looked, threw and quacked like an easily discarded fringe arm.

In 2015, Mikolas crossed the Pacific and caught on with the Yomiuri Giants.

"I went to Japan because I was going to have a little bit of a leash," Mikolas said in May, per Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You can work through things."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Work through them he did. In three campaigns with the Giants, he put up a 31-13 record and 2.18 ERA and got extensive experience as a starter. 

It was enough to catch the attention of the Cardinals, who inked him to a two-year, $15.5 million contract in December 2017.

He was 29 years old and hadn't tested his mettle against major league hitters in years. Cards fans could be forgiven for yawning. 

Nine months later, Mikolas is an integral piece of a St. Louis team that's fighting for a postseason berth. 

In 173.2 innings with the Red Birds, Mikolas boasts a 3.06 ERA and 14-4 record. He made the National League All-Star team. Since Independence Day, the Cardinals have won 10 of his 12 starts.

His 94.8 mph average four-seam fastball velocity is slightly above his MLB career average of 94.4 mph, per FanGraphs. Yet, he's throwing it 27 percent of the time compared to a big league career average of 31 percent and leaning more heavily on his breaking balls.

"It's a high percent of off-speed stuff for strikes early and that's not easily done by pitchers," Padres manager Andy Green said of Mikolas, a former Friar, per Jeff Sanders of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "A lot of guys have trouble doing that and he's proved so far he's very effective at that this year." 

"Learning to pitch rather than throw" is something of a cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason.

"We count on all our starters, but Miles has been an anchor for us," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said, per MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch. "He's been able to separate worlds and still compete. Tough guy."

Morry Gash/Associated Press

He's not a strikeout machine with an average of 6.2 per nine. But he's walked an NL-low 1.4 per nine. There is room in the game for command artists. Not every successful pitcher needs to blow hitters away.

In many respects, Mikolas' improbable journey mirrors that of now-retired right-hander Ryan Vogelsong.

After the San Francisco Giants traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001, Vogelsong suffered injuries and endured inconsistency. He ended up in Japan, rediscovered his groove, ultimately returned to the Giants on a flier contract in 2011 and wound up making an All-Star team and winning two titles with San Francisco. 

It's unclear if Mikolas will reach similar heights. This much we know: Entering play Wednesday, the Cardinals narrowly held the NL's second wild-card position despite making no significant trade-deadline additions, trading outfielder Tommy Pham and firing manager Mike Matheny. 

Mikolas isn't the only factor. Infielder Matt Carpenter is putting together an MVP-quality season. Rookie outfielder Harrison Bader and rookie right-hander Jack Flaherty have made significant impacts.

Mikolas is the X-factor, though, the delightfully unexpected ingredient.

For a guy who was recently pitching in anonymity an ocean away, this must feel pretty damn good.

                

All statistics current entering Thursday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

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