Mikolas knows why his slider let him down in '19

February 15th, 2020

JUPITER, Fla. -- Residing in his hometown of Jupiter every offseason has its perks for Cardinals pitcher , such as training at the Cardinals' facility and not having to travel once Spring Training starts.

But as the offseason goes on, Mikolas, who is dealing with a flexor tendon issue and missed his bullpen session Saturday, just wants to join his teammates, so they can get the season started. Manager Mike Shildt said the issue does not have to do with Mikolas’ UCL, but “it’s possible” this could delay his start in spring games.

“I’ve been down here in Jupiter waiting for everybody to get here,” he said prior to the setback. “Now all my friends are back. And we can hit the ground running.”

That’s exactly what Mikolas plans to do this season as he enters the first year of the four-year contract extension he signed with St. Louis last spring. After last year’s Opening Day start, a gig earned after an All-Star year in 2018, the 31-year-old will once again be looked at as a steady piece in the Cardinals rotation.

Mikolas' 2019 wasn't exactly the year he'd envisioned, posting a 4.16 ERA across 32 starts and 184 innings, but after a deep dive this offseason into what went wrong, he’s aiming for a season more like 2018, when he had a 2.83 ERA in 32 starts.

Mikolas looked at his mechanics, pitch shape, location and more this offseason, and what he found was a mix of league adjustment -- last year was his second year with the Cardinals after three seasons pitching in Japan -- and what had become somewhat of an ineffective slider. Eight of the 27 home runs Mikolas allowed in 2019 came off his slider, compared to just one in '18, according to Statcast.

He also lost some velocity on the pitch -- 87 mph in ’19 compared to 88 mph in ’18. And despite producing similar swing-and-miss results, it was hammered when put into play. Opposing hitters posted a .480 slugging percentage on the pitch last season, compared to a .245 slugging percentage in 2018. The home run-heavy season surely played a role in that, but Mikolas also said he changed the shape of the pitch in the spring last year to stay ahead of the league adjustment he knew might come.

Hindsight is 20/20.

“I was trying to add some more break to it, and it made it a little bit slower and gave it a different shape,” Mikolas said. “In an effort to make something better and constantly improve, I kind of shot myself in the foot and made it worse, is what the numbers would say.”

Numbers aside, Mikolas didn’t like the way it complemented and worked off his other pitches. Later in the season, he started locating it better and put an emphasis on shaping the pitch as he had in 2018. From there, he felt like the results improved.

Despite the flexor tendon issue to start his spring, Mikolas is still eyeing the season. He worked this offseason on adjusting his slider back to how he used it in 2018.”

“Sometimes you’ll see more of a cutter,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said about Mikolas’ slider. “Depends on what he wants out of it. Either horizontal movement or vertical movement, so it’s kind of a weapon to both righties and lefties. Once he honed in on the location, that’s where you got the results he was looking for and then got better as the season went on.”

The way he finished the season, as well as his postseason performance (two earned runs in 12 innings), left Mikolas encouraged for 2020 -- and reminded him to trust in the stuff that made him a fixture in the Cardinals' rotation in the first place.

“When people make the adjustment to you, start to swing early in the count with certain pitches, certain times, you have to figure out what that adjustment looks like without straying too far from your strength,” Shildt said. “We always work off our position of strength. I think he went through that process of what that looks like and is on the other side of it.”