By IAN WILSON
Rising star Mike Soroka doesn’t ask much. He just expects to take the mound and dominate every single pitch.
If that sounds cocky, it shouldn’t. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Calgarian pretty much did that last season.
Over 153.2 innings in Double-A with the Mississippi Braves, Soroka went 11-8 with a 2.75 earned run average (ERA) and a rate of 1.09 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). He also struck out 125 batters, while issuing just 34 walks.
“I really couldn’t have asked for anything more,” said the 20-year-old right-hander.
“It’s the first year that I went out there with a clear head and pitched to dominate every single pitch.”
The focus on domination came out of a meeting the Bishop Carroll high school grad had with pitching coaches Chuck Hernandez, Derrick Lewis and Dan Meyer following his 2016 season with the Single-A Rome Braves.
“They’d come to me with an idea and it was an idea that I loved. They didn’t want me to just become a sinker guy,” Soroka told Alberta Dugout Stories following a January bullpen session at Calgary’s Coyote Den.
“In 2016, I had games where I struggled and I’d just rely on the sinker. I wasn’t throwing to get it by a guy, I was just throwing to get a strike and to get an out, really. You’ll run into outs that way, but longevity is a little harder to come by in the big leagues like that. It either needs to be an unhittable sinker or you need to be putting it on a dime, day in and day out, and that’s hard to do.”
Soroka’s pitching coaches observed intensity from Atlanta’s 2015 first-round, 28th overall selection during his time playing rookie ball with the Danville and Gulf Coast Braves. Entering the 2017 season, they wanted to see more of that.
“They told me: ‘We know you can pitch. We know you can throw a lot of strikes. We want you to get your stuff back. We want you to get a little more swagger back on the mound, instead of just going out there to get some ground balls.'”
The result was an award-winning season for Soroka. In addition to being slotted in as a Southern League All-Star, the Pro Baseball Force/Calgary Redbirds alum was named the Braves’ organizational pitcher of the year, and Baseball Canada honoured him with a special achievement award.
During a season full of highlights – including the delivery of a perfect game into the 7th inning on May 12th against the Mobile BayBears, eight shutout innings against the Biloxi Shuckers on June 5th, and a 12-strikeout effort, also against Biloxi, on July 19th – Soroka believes his best outing came in just his second start of the year.
“It was funny because you come into the season with lower pitch counts because you haven’t built up completely in spring training,” said Soroka, who limited the Tennessee Smokies to just three hits over 6 2/3 innings, while striking out seven batters on April 15th.
Soroka lost his shutout bid when third baseman Jason Vosler hit an opposite-field home run in the 7th inning, but he still earned the win in the 3-1 victory.
“I sat down with Derrick Lewis, our pitching coach, after the game and he said, ‘You know, honestly, how many pitches do you think that you missed on completely?’ I said, ‘Probably two. One, maybe two.’ Not that I dotted every single pitch. Every pitch had its purpose and I executed that purpose. It was probably one of the only games this year where I had full command of my changeup and really everything. It was just one of those days.”
Even more impressive than any one outing in 2017, was Soroka’s consistency throughout the campaign – he started 26 games and pitched five innings or more all but once.
“It was easy to maintain because I was having fun,” said Soroka, as the recurring pings of an aluminum bat striking stitched hide rang out from a nearby batting cage.
“It wasn’t a fluke. It’s not like I was going out and pitching great one day and then saying, ‘Wow I hope I can do that again,’ because I meant to do that. I’m going to do that again. I’m going out there to dominate. It’s just easier to maintain that level of compete, regardless of results. It’s a lot easier to think that way than, ‘I have to be perfect’ every single time out.”
PEANUTS AND CRACKER BARREL
Another highlight of the season came in the form of the Braves’ alumni that Soroka was able to rub shoulders with, including recently elected Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Jones visited Mississippi last year to work with third baseman Austin Riley. The career Brave, who played all of his 19 seasons in Atlanta, also spent some time talking to Riley’s teammates in the clubhouse, and ran into Soroka and fellow Braves’ pitching prospect Kolby Allard the next morning when the two were having breakfast at Cracker Barrel.
“You could feel the buzz in the restaurant when he was at our table,” said Soroka, who is currently Baseball America’s 27th ranked prospect.
“Everybody’s looking. It’s cool to see and he handles it extremely well.”
Fortunately, Soroka and Allard weren’t as starstruck as the other restaurant patrons and they were able to soak in some of Jones’ baseball wisdom.
“Just to hear some of his stories and some of his takes on approach was pretty amazing,” said Soroka.
“He’s kind of the epitome of not letting anybody beat you, any pitch. He took his game seriously, but he had fun doing it. I think he was one of those ultimate competitors and you hope someday that you could be a role model like that.”
With all the excitement and success he experienced in The Magnolia State, Soroka found it hard to shut things down completely when he returned home to Calgary.
He took two weeks off at the end of the season – “didn’t do anything, golfed a little bit” – but he couldn’t unplug completely.
“It’s hard to shut off baseball when playoffs are going on, and I’m watching and I’m almost putting myself in those shoes there. Watching Verlander pitch this offseason was pretty special,” said Soroka, who contemplated what the 2017 American League Championship Series MVP was experiencing “so hopefully one day when you are in shoes like that it’s not something that you haven’t thought of before.”
After his brief break this offseason, Soroka got to work with trainer Jeff Osadec at Calgary’s Canadian Sport Institute, with the goal of becoming more athletic.
— Jeff Osadec (@jeffosadec) January 25, 2018
He also took part in a number of offseason bullpen sessions in advance of spring training at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
“I’ve got to slow myself down right now and not try to do too much,” said Soroka, who typically throws 25-30 pitches during each session.
“And also making sure I get the most out of every pitch … you don’t have time to waste pitches.”
Ramon Valdez, who caught several of Soroka’s bullpen practices, didn’t see a lot of wasted pitches from the former Canadian Junior National Team member.
“He is exceptionally good. His dedication and maturity level is unmatched,” said Valdez, who has known Soroka since 2010.
“I expect him to keep progressing with his dominance on the mound. He’s got top-notch stuff and where you see a lot of guys lose that is on the walk from the bullpen to the mound. You definitely don’t see that in Mike.”
Valdez, a graduate of the Okotoks Dawgs Academy who went on to be a starting catcher at Barry University in Miami before working as a coach, is impressed by Soroka’s relentless pursuit of perfection when it comes to pitch adjustments and his patience.
“His mental ability to dial in and not let outside factors affect him is what really sets him apart from others, in my opinion,” added Valdez, who would not be surprised to see Soroka make his MLB debut this season.
“There are a lot of guys that can throw 95-plus miles per hour, with good changeups and breaking stuff, but there’s only so many of those that can throw those pitches where they want, and only so many of those that can do it under pressure in a game. Mike is one of those few guys.”
Drew Miller, program director/coach at the Coyote Den, also noted Soroka’s mental strength.
“The talent he has physically might only be trumped by his understanding of the game and mental toughness. He is so young, but he understands so many aspects of the game that took me a while to even comprehend,” said the former Calgary Viper.
“He isn’t satisfied with making a good pitch … he’s always wanting to make a great pitch every time he throws. I can’t wait to follow the path he is on and see how far he can take it.”
It won’t be long before we all find out how far Soroka can take things.
Many baseball analysts expect Soroka to start the year with the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers, but his performance during spring training could dictate otherwise.
“Obviously, I have some expectations of where I want to be, hopefully having the opportunity to pitch in Atlanta at some point this year,” said Soroka, who wore No. 45 last season.
“It’s not a rush to get there, because that’s when you get antsy and that’s how you start looking ahead, but that’s the goal every single day. If it happens in April, if it happens in September, or if I put the work in and it doesn’t happen this year, the goal remains the same.”
All he has to do to get there is dominate every single pitch. And he’s already shown he can do that.
ASK THE EXPERTS
Here’s a look at what baseball forecasters expect out of Soroka in 2018:
“Expect at least one of Soroka, Koby Allard or Luiz Gohara to cement themselves in Atlanta’s rotation this season. Soroka gets the nod here because he has the highest floor, even if he may also have the lowest ceiling.”
– Lindy’s Sports Fantasy Baseball 2018, ranked Soroka at 24th on their top prospects list
“Soroka handled his Doulbe-A assignment with aplomb, which is no surprise since he seems advanced beyond his age. Soroka has multiple above-average pitches but it’s his ability to locate and stay a step ahead that is most notable.”
– Athlon Sports 2018 MLB Preview, ranked Soroka 26th among top prospects
“Soroka is probably first in line for an opportunity in 2018 given his advanced stuff and above-average command. Over the long term, he’s at least a No. 3 starter.”
– Street & Smith’s Fantasy Baseball, ranked Soroka 17th on their top 50 prospect list