While so much of pitching is about being able to execute your pitches in the strike zone, first-year Yomiuri Giants right-hander Mile Mikolas has been immersing himself in Japan’s art of working outside the zone.
Mikolas, who pitched in the majors with the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers, came to Japan this spring with a reputation of a man who pitched to contact and who could be successful without striking out many batters. But in Japan he has made it a mission to learn how to expand the strike zone and thus become an effective strikeout pitcher.
After striking out 6.1 batters per nine innings over his brief major league career, Mikolas spent some time in the minors this spring and returned able to carry out his plan. In his last two starts he has struck out 19 batters, while allowing one run in 15-plus innings.
“I was never a big strikeout guy, but I think that’s one of the things I really wanted to work on this year, learning to expand the zone,” he told Kyodo News. “Sometimes I throw too many strikes. I get two strikes and I give up, maybe, a groundball to shortstop when I could have expanded the zone a little more and probably got a strikeout.”
Although he began his career as a reliever with the Padres, Mikolas got a chance to start for the Rangers last season. There he was a teammate of former Central League strikeout leader Colby Lewis, one of several pitchers who had their greatest success in the States after learning how to adjust to Japanese ball.
“(Lewis) always said — and I’ve heard it regardless time and time again — no matter how well you do over here, you’re always a better pitcher when you go back to the States because of the things you learn here,” Mikolas said.
The problem for guys who like to pound the strike zone is that many Japanese hitters excel at fouling off good pitches until they see a mistake. Mikolas said one solution to that is to use their eagerness to make contact to get them out of the zone until they’re lost.
“The coaches stressed that when I have one strike or two strikes, I can make pitches closer to the edge of the zone,” he said. “The hitters here are so good at making contact, fouling off 12 pitches in an at-bat. When you want to get a swing and miss, when you want to get a strikeout, you may need to go a little further out of the zone than you would back home. You have to set up those pitches and lead them out further and further, start on the outside corner and then just off it. And if you need a swing and miss, you have to go even further out there.
“Because the hitters here are so good at making contact you have to get them off the plate or down in the zone to get those swings and misses.
“It’s a thing I work on in the pen with simulated counts, ‘Throw a curveball with one strike, now throw one with two strikes,’ working on getting it further away from the zone.
“You can teach an old dog a few new tricks I guess, just learning to dig in your back pocket and make that adjustment. Learning to make any adjustment between starts is huge no matter where you’re playing. (Whether) you’re here or you’re in the States, they’re hitting this, they’re on that, you make an adjustment. Coming over here and just learning to make those adjustments on a whole ‘nother level, making bigger adjustments can make it easier to make those smaller adjustments when you go back to the States.”