The Cardinals and Miles Mikolas: Happy Together

At minimum, Miles Mikolas will be pitching for the Cardinals through 2023, and that’s a beautiful thing for the player and the team.

With such a ridiculous level of rancor swirling over the state of MLB free agency — with the owners and front offices squaring off against players and agents — it’s kind of retro cool to see a franchise and one of its most important performers find mutual peace and appreciation agreeing on a fair contract that benefits both sides.

Mikolas, now 30, wanted to be a Cardinal before the team recruited him in Japan in the pre-2018 offseason. When the Cardinals offered a two-year deal for $15.5 million, Mikolas was pleased by the terms and the team that made the pitch.

And as Mikolas turned in a superb season for the 2018 Cardinals, it merely reaffirmed what he already knew: he’d found his happy place. So what would be the point of Mikolas chasing the possibility of securing a larger contract? He’d already found what he was looking for.

In no particular order:

* Pitch for a consistently competitive and contending team? Check mark

* Pitch for a team that uses your hometown, Jupiter, as its annual spring-training base? Check mark.

* Pitch in St. Louis, the home of some of your extended family members? Check mark.

* Pitch in St. Louis, where the Cardinals have drawn at least 3 million in home attendance in 20 of the past 21 seasons? Check mark.

* Pitch in a rotation that regularly ranks among the top 10 in the majors? Check mark.

* Pitch with teammates whom you enjoy being around? Check mark.

* Pitch for a manager and pitching coach whom you like and trust? Check mark.

Mikolas had the intelligence and humility to know this: it’s virtually impossible to improve on a near-perfect situation. So why be a greedy, egomaniacal fool — consumed by the obsession of collecting every last dollar that could be found in his next contract?

Four years and $68 million is a lot of money. Perhaps Mikolas could have gotten more cash had he entered free agency after 2018. But how much would a relatively moderate flow of extra money enhance the quality of his life, or the pleasure of pitching for a team that provides an ideal setting for what he wants?

“Getting to play for a team that I came up rooting for, and going to watch at these spring training games, and now playing in front of some of my friends and family at home,” Mikolas said Tuesday, speaking with the media gathered in Jupiter, FL. “Sometimes I have to take a minute and take a breath — it’s usually once everyone is asleep once I get an extra minute — and look back over everything that has happened. I’m super grateful for how I’ve been blessed.”

Besides, next winter’s free-agent marketplace could potentially feature starting-pitching behemoths such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Strasburg (opt-out.)

Either way, Mikolas made the right call. He followed his heart and mind. He did not follow his wallet.

From the Cardinals’ standpoint, Mikolas provides stability. Look, there are no guarantees on pitchers. They break down, often without much warning. But Mikolas seems like a good bet here. He doesn’t rely on power pitching to be an effective pitcher. He doesn’t need to throw 98 to overwhelm hitters. He has an arsenal of four different primary pitches — that killer slider, a four-seamer, a sinker, and a curve — that uses at rates ranging between 21.3 percent and 26.6 percent.

There’s also a fifth pitch, the changeup, that Mikolas will utilize more often in 2019 after barely mixing it in (4.3%) last season. But if Mikolas needs to throw a heavier punch at hitters, he easily reaches 95 mph on his fastball.

Mikolas doesn’t beat himself by cluttering the bases. He had the lowest walk (3.6%) among the 56 qualifying MLB starting pitchers in 2018, and finished seventh in strikeout-walk ratio (1.07.) He commands the count, leading qualifying MLB starters in first-strike percentage (70.8%) and overall strike percentage (48%.)

By keeping hitters guessing — what pitch will he use, and when will he throw it? — Mikolas does a fine job of limiting hard contact (32.6%), ranking 21st among 56. And only five qualifying MLB starters had a better ground-ball rate than MM’s 56.3 percent in 2018.

You want innings? Well, Mikolas supplied 200.2 innings last season, 10th among qualifying MLB starters. His 2.83 ERA ranked seventh, his 3.28 FIP ranked 13th, and he came in tied for 13th with 4.3 fWAR. Mikolas and Max Scherzer tied for the National League lead with 18 wins.

Mikolas is a complete pitcher with smooth mechanics and a sleight-of-hand capability that messes with hitters’ minds. This all bodes well for the next five seasons. (This season, and over the four-year contract extension that begins in 2020.)

Dan Szymborski, who developed the ZiPS projection system, ran the numbers on Mikolas for the ZiPS version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR.) And the forecast looks pretty good starting this season:

3.1 WAR in 2019

2.9 WAR in 2020

2.6 WAR in 2021

2.4 WAR in 2022

2.1 WAR in 2023

The Cardinals would gladly accept such a return on their investment. And Cardinals ownership-management had no reason to be cheap here — and take the risk of losing Mikolas to free agency after the ‘19 season. He’s legit. And he’s on a roll. If we include his three years of reinvention in Japan, Mikolas over the past four seasons has a record of 49-17, with 2.39 ERA. Individual-pitcher wins can be extremely misleading and overrated, but 49-17 is substantantive.

Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright can become free agents after next season, and shoulder problems have turned Carlos Martinez into an uncertainty. Alex Reyes has pitched only four innings over the last two seasons; before we can talk about his place in 2020, it’s a good idea to see if he can pitch (much) in 2019. If necessary the Cardinals would be able to install some young arms; they have plenty. But Mikolas is — to use manager Mike Shildt’s term — an “anchor” for this rotation.

Mikolas and the Cardinals will go forward together for the next five seasons. Smart people, happy together.

Thanks for reading …

-B