Mikolas retooling in hopes of better 2024 season

February 28th, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- An avid fisherman and golfer in his native Jupiter, Fla., Miles Mikolas usually doesn’t have many bad days during the offseason.

This past offseason, however, proved to be a tad different as Mikolas was unable to fully shake the bitter memories of a 2023 season where both he and the Cardinals finished well below expectations. Rather than fish or golf as much as past years, Mikolas mostly spent his downtime with his wife and four kids and rethinking his pitching plans for 2024.

“I was trying not to think too much about [the 2023 season] because I want to enjoy my offseason and feel good, but I did watch a lot of video of me doing things right, and I know now in my head what I did wrong,” said Mikolas, who threw two scoreless innings on Wednesday in the Cardinals’ 3-0 loss to the Mets at Clover Park. “Last year kind of stunk for me and the team in general so I know me being the best version of myself, that’s going to help the team going forward.”

An All-Star in 2018 and 2022 and a two-time double-digit winner at the MLB level, Mikolas got off to a poor start, steadied himself briefly in May and never found the success he had been accustomed to when things went off the rails. His 35 starts and 860 total batters faced were the most in MLB, but he also finished first in MLB in hits allowed (226) and first in the National League in earned runs allowed (107).

Some of the underlying metrics also painted an ugly picture for the 35-year-old Mikolas, who admirably kept taking the ball and topped the 200-inning plateau for the third time in his career. A crafty pitch-maker who relies more on throwing any of his five pitches for strikes instead of overpowering stuff, Mikolas saw his whiff rate (16.7 percent) plunge to the bottom one percent in baseball, per Baseball Savant. Also, foes’ average exit velocity on Mikolas pitches jumped to 90.4 mph and his hard-hit rate climbed to 43 percent -- both career-worst numbers.

All of that proved frustrating to the affable but highly competitive Mikolas -- who was 9-13 with a 4.78 ERA -- and he expressed as much to manager Oliver Marmol during their offseason chats.

“It didn’t sit well with him, he wrestled with it all offseason and he wants this year to be different,” Marmol said following Wednesday’s Grapefruit League loss that dropped the Cards to 2-2-2. “Miles is putting in the work in order to [improve in 2024].”

Mikolas is working especially hard on his slider and the sequencing of his pitches. Unable to rely on pitching to contact as much with MLB’s restrictions against defensive shifts, Mikolas is trying to make his slider sharper and tighter so that he can better put away hitters with whiffs. In Tuesday’s game against the Mets, Mikolas threw nine sliders out of 27 pitches. He got swings, but only two misses (both on changeups).

“I’m working on some different breaking balls and working with some other stuff and so far, so good,” said Mikolas, who allowed a wind-blown double among two hits in his two innings of work on Wednesday. “Maybe not so much [changing] the shape as I am mixing things up more. The mix I had last year wasn’t overly successful, so maybe it bodes better if I am mixing things up better.”

One thing new for Mikolas in 2024 might be his willingness to not throw so many strikes. Because his command is stellar -- his walk rate (4.5 percent) ranked in MLB’s top four percent -- hitters tended to be much more aggressive against him. One issue in particular was when Mikolas would get to two strikes, he ultimately allowed 89 hits and a .225 opposing batting average -- both the highest numbers in the Majors in 2023.

Mikolas knows that as hitters have adjusted against him, he must now mix some things up in his pitching arsenal to regain the upper hand.

“Depending on the count and hitter, absolutely [I must pitch off the plate],” said Mikolas, who also surrendered eight two-strike home runs in 2023. “I got a lot of good swings and misses in the zone early in counts, which is what you want. Then, with two strikes, I need to get more weak contact on pitches that are out of the zone or on the edges.

“You don’t want to tip your hand too early [in Spring Training] where guys are thinking, ‘Oh, he’s just going to throw me the same old thing and do what he always does.’ It’s always a game of cat and mouse out there.”