JUPITER, Fla. • As the Cardinals have sought ways to help Miles Mikolas take the success he had in Japan and translate that to a new dimension in the majors, pitching coach Mike Maddux had the idea Tuesday to eliminate one bothersome aspect of Mikolas’ recent outings.
No one was keeping score.
On a back field Tuesday morning, the Cardinals added a curious twist to Mikolas’ between-start work by having him throw live batting practice instead of a bullpen. He faced a handful of the Cardinals' minor-leaguers, including Dylan Carlson. The righthander swapped “innings” with Bud Norris just as he altered the sequence and use of his pitches. Out went one of his off-speed pitches, in (and down) came in sinker, and not once was the result of the pitch tracked. Just the reaction of the hitter.
“We wanted to get some feedback from the hitters to what we were doing,” Maddux said. “It was a good free run, dry look. There are no stats on it so you get to try things that maybe you’re reluctant to try in the game.”
“That is,” Maddux elaborated, “top secret.”
So, it’s the two-seam fastball.
In two appearances so far this spring, Mikolas had has a lot of contact, few swings and misses, and a ballooned ERA. He has allowed 13 hits and 10 runs while only collecting five outs. The Cardinals have expressed concern with the movement of Mikolas’ pitches, especially how flat his four-seam fastball has been when he tries to elevate, as Maddux is urging pitchers. Mikolas did not walk a batter in his most recent start, nor did he strike out a batter. He was able to get some weak contact on the split-change that he throws and tries to dive out of the zone.
That pitch was a reliable one for him in Japan, along with a slider that he could use to sweep out of the zone and a curveball for strikeouts. But he used them in locations abroad that have just been taken here in the Grapefruit League. He’s got to adjust his axis.
“I threw some curveballs out there, working more middle down as opposed to down and away,” Mikolas said. “Those are just the little things, some habits I really got into in Japan. You have to expand the strike zone, very largely, on a horizontal basis. Even if that ball is down around their shoes, they’re so contact-oriented that they’re trying to foul that ball off or putting it in play. And you have to go beyond their reach. Here, you’ve got a lot more room up and down. That is an adjustment that I’m making. Throwing sliders away at times, you can go right under the zone. You don’t need to go away from the zone. You can drop down under the zone. The game is very all-around (the strike zone) there. But the game here is a little more up and down right now.”
What Maddux was able to do by getting Mikolas against hitters Tuesday instead of just putting him on the bullpen was make a point.
He wanted Mikolas to rethink some pitch sequences.
He wanted Mikolas to look at how he uses pitches.
He wanted to see the sinker.
“We threw more two-seamers today, yes,” Maddux said. “There is room for the four-seamer and room for the two-seamer. So he wanted to introduce the two-seamer. Yes. Well, we had some positive results. Hence, our work today is still instill confidence in that pitch because you got immediate results.”
Mikolas has thrown a sprinkling of two-seamers in his first two outings, but often he’s turned to the four-seam up in the zone and that has been hit, often hard. It flattens out. The two-seam gives him a different look, one that he did not use all that regularly in Japan. Mikolas explained how in Japan the feel for the sinker – either the ball or his own – just wasn’t there and the movement wasn’t much.
It moves move here, and Maddux wanted Mikolas to see that.
“The two-seam is almost of a contact pitch,” Mikolas said. “You’re looking for something weak off the hands, or to a lefty you’re looking for something weak off the end of the bat. When you’re looking to go in and down in the count, they see that ball in and go, ‘Oooooo, that’s what I want.’ And then it just kind of keeps burying-in. That can be a really effective pitch.”
One he’ll use more often?
“I don’t want to give too much away for the opponents and visiting teams reading your column,” Mikolas said. “Just certain pitches work better off other pitches. Just you know certain sequencing. … Pitches that I can get away with throwing down in the count, or what I want to throw when I’m up in the count.”
One of the things that Maddux talked about at the beginning of spring training was getting a feel for his charges – and some of that had to happen in games. This is not the first time that he’s been Mikolas’ pitching coach – they were together in Texas – but it is the first time since Mikolas developed a few new toys and more control of those toys. Maddux wanted to see them in games before starting to make suggestions about how, when, and how much Mikolas should use them.
The Cardinals have even gone so far as to let Mikolas guide his own game, something usually done by the catcher. When Yadier Molina caught Mikolas in his most recent start, the catcher wanted to get a feel for how Mikolas liked to run games. Manager Mike Matheny said that would help Molina call games – once he saw how pitches worked, how Mikolas was comfortable using them, and, of course, how hitters reacted. Molina’s call might flip some of the script Mikolas used, but the Cardinals wanted to give Mikolas a chance before a rewrite.
In the live batting practice session, Mikolas threw more than a handful of curveballs, and in addition to the sinker there was a sense that he will start shifting his pitch preference. The curve plays off the elevated fastball, the elevated fastball changes eye level from the sinker, and the sinker could have the movement to get quick outs.
His start Friday will be a chance to see if the approach works as well when the teammates are removed as batters and the stats return.
The Astros will be keeping score.
He’ll probably throw more curves.
“Did I say that?” Maddux said. “I did not say that.”