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Is it Legit? Miles Mikolas' Breakout Season

Welcome to the second edition of our new weekly column "Is It Legit?" that will discuss breakout performers from the 2018 MLB season and how they should be valued heading into 2019.

With so many players seemingly becoming fantasy baseball darlings overnight, it can be challenging to sift through the multiple hype trains and determine which players are actually expected to produce similar, or even better, numbers the following year.

One of the most intriguing "breakout" performances last season was Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas, who returned to the big leagues after four years in Japan. He immediately stepped into the starting rotation and finished 2018 with an 18-4 record, a 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 146 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings pitched.

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Can Mikolas Repeat in 2019?

Mikolas did not have anywhere near this level of success in his first go-round in the big leagues when he appeared in 37 games from 2012-2014 with the Padres and Rangers. So yes, it is fair to question the validity of this breakout. However, his success in the NPB did give some indication that he may have figured things out. Plus, a lot of what he accomplished last season looks not only sustainable for 2019, but it could actually even be improved upon.

Looking at the 2.83 ERA, Mikolas backed that up with a nice 3.28 FIP but a slightly concerning 3.93 SIERA. Still, hitters only managed to hit .241 off Mikolas, thanks to a 32.6% hard-hit rate allowed and an 18.8% soft hit rate. So while Mikolas was not an elite strikeout artist, he managed to force hitters into making weak contact. Plus, his command of the zone was incredible, with microscopic 1.30 BB/9 and an absurdly high 71% first-pitch strike rate.

That high rate of first-pitch strikes is actually a big factor in his lack of strikeouts. His 9.6% swinging strike rate and 36.6% chase rate (the percentage of pitches out of the zone that hitters swung at) paint the picture of a hurler with more strikeouts than Mikolas' rather pedestrian 6.55 rate. However, hitters eventually realized how much he attacks the zone early in the count, which caused a lot more swinging early in the count, which obviously leads to fewer strikeouts. It does, however, lead to more quality starts as Mikolas is able to get deeper into games if he is forcing batters into quick outs.

Looking a bit deeper, Mikolas allowed a .279 BABIP - which is lower than the league average but doesn't seem unsustainable considering his ability to induce soft contact. His 76.2% left on base rate is roughly league average as well. All this means that his ability to repeat an ERA similar to his 2.83 from last season is actually pretty good. I'd expect something closer to the 3.28 FIP - but that would still make him an extremely valuable fantasy arm.

Plus, if he is able to nibble on first pitches a bit more often next season, we could see his strikeout numbers start to match the whiff rates that he already posts. This could lead to a K/9 of around 7.5 or 8.0, which would give him more like 160-180 strikeouts over 200 innings. There's no doubt he has the arsenal to be an elite strikeout artist. His curveball and slider were both elite pitches last season, with his slider posting an astounding .184 average against and a 39.5% chase rate.

All this to say: Yes, Mikolas' 2018 numbers were legit. I think he will go into 2019 around the 25th ranked starting pitcher, which makes him a nice target between rounds 7-9 in 12-team leagues.

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