The big question mark about this year’s Atlanta Braves was supposed to be their pitching staff. Since the Braves started their most recent rebuild after the 2013 season, Atlanta has poured an incredible amount of resources—draft picks, international bonus money, assets in trades—into the acquisition and development of a new core of young starters. By the end of 2018, elements of that core had reached the majors and the team as a whole had returned to the playoffs. Mike Foltynewicz, once a hard-throwing project acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis deal, was a particular bright spot: Last year, at age 26, he looked like a genuine ace, striking out 202 in 183 innings with a 2.85 ERA on his way to earning a few Cy Young votes.
But by the eve of the 2019 season, the Braves’ rotation was as green as it was talented. It wasn’t until Dallas Keuchel signed in June that a player older than 28 started a game for the Braves, and the army of aces in waiting that Atlanta has been developing has still yet to arrive in earnest. Top-five pick Kyle Wright allowed 11 earned runs in his first three trips through the rotation, got sent down, and then gave up seven more in 2 2/3 innings when the Braves gave him another shot to start last week. First-rounders Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint are in the bullpen, which is more than the Braves can say for Foltynewicz. Atlanta’s incumbent ace missed Opening Day with elbow soreness, then posted a 6.37 ERA in 11 starts. He was last seen a month ago, headed for Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’s posted a pedestrian 4.57 ERA in eight starts.
As the presumptive aces of this generation have taken their lumps, a surprising candidate has emerged to lead the rotation: 21-year-old Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher on the Braves’ big league roster. The 2015 first-rounder was supposed to be a steady, safe, mid-rotation workhorse, someone who could fill out the rotation behind some combination of Wright and Foltynewicz. Instead, Soroka leads the Braves with a 2.46 ERA and became the first Braves pitcher since Craig Kimbrel in 2011 to make the All-Star team as a rookie.
This winter, Baseball Prospectus ranked right-hander Ian Anderson as the Braves’ top pitching prospect and the 29th-best prospect overall. Soroka, Wright, Toussaint, and Bryse Wilson all fell between 53 and 70, essentially a dead heat in prospect-ranking terms. Unlike his confreres, Soroka’s lofty prospect ranking was a testament to his high floor, rather than ace-level potential. The Calgary native lacks Wright’s power fastball-slider combination or Toussaint’s dramatic off-the-table curve, and while four of those five pitchers were first-rounders, there’s a difference between a top-five pick (which Anderson and Wright were) and 28th overall, which Soroka was.
Wright, Anderson, and Toussaint were all viewed as potential no. 1 starters, while Soroka profiled as more of a Doc Medich than a Doc Gooden, with a lower ceiling but a higher probability of reaching it, and doing so relatively quickly. That kind of player has value—Soroka was, after all, a first-round pick and a consensus top-100 prospect—but safe isn’t sexy.
While the rest of the pitchers in his cohort have spun their wheels, Soroka has not only reached the majors with astounding speed; he’s made himself at home. After a five-start cameo in 2018, Soroka got his first extended look at big league competition late this April, when he got his first call-up of the 2019 season. He didn’t allow more than one earned run in any of his first eight starts, and ended May with an ERA of just 1.07. Since then, he’s been touched up a few times but has never pitched badly enough to knock the Braves out of a game. In fact, even as Soroka’s regressed since the start of June, his ERA is 3.83, which if it were his full-season ERA would still be better than any Braves starter except Keuchel and Julio Teheran. And Soroka’s most recent start, in which he allowed four runs in six innings to the Nationals, was the first since May 25 that the Braves lost.
Soroka’s fastball sits around 93 miles per hour, and rather than exhibiting the springy, explosive motions of someone like Chris Paddack, Soroka is more languid on the mound. Even though he’s young enough that his 6-foot-5 inch frame is still filling out, Soroka spreads his arms slowly through the early stages of his windup and takes his time getting rid of the ball.
When the ball leaves Soroka’s hand, it acts like an expensive yo-yo: heavy, fast-spinning, and controlled as if at the end of a string. Many highly touted pitching prospects who achieve success at Soroka’s age storm into the big leagues chucking hellacious fastballs and eye-popping breaking pitches. This is true not just of power arms like Noah Syndergaard and Max Scherzer, but pitchers like Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, who would eventually age into top-notch finesse pitchers.
Soroka’s fastball and slider aren’t poor, but they’re more average-to-above-average than plus. What he brings to the table instead are exceptional late movement and command of all his pitches, allowing him to fool hitters without blowing them away, and a better handle on a sinker and changeup than one would expect for a pitcher as young as he is.
Once Soroka gets that yo-yo spinning, he can walk the dog, using the six- or seven-inch difference in lateral movement between his four-seamer and sinker to keep the ball off hitters’ barrels. He can ride the elevator, making hitters cover the entire height of the strike zone as he throws his fastball, changeup, and slider within the same vertical plane.
Mike Soroka, 93mph Fastball, 81mph Slider and 82mph Changeup, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/cHE1aspmxT— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 21, 2019
Or he can rock the cradle, tossing a front-door changeup or sinker to left-handers that backs up over the inside corner as the hitter is trying to get out of the way. No individual component of Soroka’s game is as impressive as the way his four pitches interact with each other, which demonstrates unusual polish and on-mound maturity for someone who’d be packing for his senior year of college if he had decided to pursue a more conventional line of work.
Soroka’s finesse act hasn’t ever resulted in gaudy strikeout numbers even at the minor league level, and unless something about his body or repertoire changes, that will probably remain the case. Of 71 starting pitchers who are on track to qualify for the ERA title this year, Soroka is 47th in strikeout rate, and despite his good command, he’s just 20th in walk rate.
But making contact with Soroka’s pitches doesn’t guarantee that a hitter will do damage. Among those 71 qualified starters, Soroka has the third-highest ground ball rate and the lowest HR/9 ratio. According to Baseball Savant, Soroka has the second-lowest barrels-to-plate-appearance ratio of the 100 pitchers with at least 250 batted ball events this season. He’s easy to hit, he’s just not easy to hit hard.
One drawback to pitching this way is that having overpowering stuff is a defense mechanism against hitters making adjustments. Justin Verlander’s thrown more than 20,000 four-seamers in big league games, so the book is out on him, but it’s such a good pitch that batters still can’t hit it. Soroka doesn’t have that kind of fastball, or any out pitch of that caliber, so he has to get one step ahead of hitters and stay there.
Even in this strikeout-heavy period of baseball, there is precedent for a sinkerballer with good command enjoying sustained success. This year, 48.2 percent of Soroka’s pitches have been sinkers, the 10th-highest figure among the 138 pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 pitches this year. One spot behind him is Kyle Hendricks, who doesn’t throw as hard as Soroka or have quite the same repertoire (Soroka’s a little more reliant on his changeup and throws a slider instead of Hendricks’s curveball), but is a living testament to the power of command and late movement.
Another example is Keuchel, Soroka’s new teammate. The two have almost nothing in common physiologically or biographically—the mind boggles at the possibility of the cherubic Soroka trying to grow a beard like Keuchel’s—but both are extreme ground ball–heavy sinkerballers who know how to keep the ball off opponents’ barrels.
Keuchel and Hendricks were both top-of-the-rotation starters on World Series champions, but it’d be naïve to assume Soroka’s game will translate to the postseason, let alone to assume that he’ll continue to stay ahead of the competition for the next five or even 10 seasons. But not only is Soroka the only Braves wunderkind to succeed against MLB competition for any extended period of time, at this moment the big Canadian is Atlanta’s best starting pitcher. The Braves have so many flashy young starters that odds are at least one of them will put it all together and become the ace the team can count on. If that happens, Soroka has already cemented his status as a no. 2 or 3 starter, and shown potential for more and better just in case it doesn’t.