By IAN WILSON
It’s a frightening scenario for opposing batters next season: an improved Mike Soroka on the mound in 2020.
In some ways, that hardly seems possible.
The towering right-handed pitcher from Calgary is coming off a storybook rookie season for the Atlanta Braves that saw him post a 13-4 record, 2.68 earned run average (ERA), and 142 strikeouts over 174.2 innings.
“It was a great year,” acknowledged Soroka after a recent Sidearm Nation pitching camp at the Coyote Den in his hometown.
“I think you think it through as it happens. There’s things like the All-Star Game that take a minute, but once you get your feet on the ground and running in the big leagues then it’s like everyday life. I feel very fortunate to have that opportunity to have that everyday life … it’s kind of crazy to think about that.”
That MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland, where Soroka pitched a three-up, three-down sixth inning, provided him with his biggest pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment of the season.
“Because that’s something that you don’t think of to start the year at all. I don’t know if many people do because it’s so dependent on your first half, right?” Soroka told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“And looking around at the talent in the league and realizing that you’ve got to be one of the best starters in baseball to be on that team is a little bit surreal, especially when you’re starting the season in Triple-A (with two starts for the Gwinnett Stripers of the International League). That’s tough and that’s something that kind of hit me a little bit and takes a couple weeks, but looking back on it, that’s just a reminder of what you can do when everything’s working.”
— Global Calgary (@GlobalCalgary) July 2, 2019
Everything most certainly was working for the Calgary Redbirds alumnus, who recorded 18 quality starts for the Braves and yielded just 14 home runs during the season.
“One thing that has always impressed me is his mental game and ability to make adjustments. Whether those adjustments were year-over-year or in-game, he is always acutely aware of what is working for him and what isn’t and reacts accordingly. He is loaded with talent,” noted Eric Cole, a reporter with Talking Chop.
“His ability to get the job done even without his best stuff is something else altogether … I’ve seen him pitch where all he had going for him was that he could throw his fastball for strikes, and he still made it look easy because he was in command and knew how to leverage his strengths.”
Those strengths were on full display in the postseason during Soroka’s Game 3 National League Division Series (NLDS) performance against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 22-year-old became the youngest Canadian to start an MLB playoff game and he set a team record by retiring 17 straight batters during Atlanta’s 3-1 victory. He also struck out seven Cardinals and allowed just two baserunners over seven innings of work.
Braves fans loved what they saw out of Soroka, but when Atlanta lost the five-game series some critics blasted the organization for not getting their young ace more involved.
Soroka expressed no issues with his playoff deployment, however.
“It’s something we talked about the entire time and, as a team, when you go out and buy a pitcher like Dallas Keuchel you’re expecting him – someone that’s been there before – to throw game one and he did that very well,” said Atlanta’s 28th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
“He did his job in game one. As a team, we didn’t get it done that game. Mike (Foltynewicz) threw maybe the best game of his life in the big leagues in the next game and then I tried to follow suit. Everything that happened in games one, four and five were things that did not matter who was on the mound. Things happened in that fifth game that you can’t explain.”
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) October 7, 2019
Game 5 saw the Braves surrender 10 runs in the first inning before eventually dropping a 13-1 decision at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. That loss followed a 10-inning, walk-off win by the Cards in Game 4.
“That’s baseball. Not to say that they didn’t get their hits, but sometimes baseball happens and hits fall when they shouldn’t, hits are doubles when they shouldn’t even be hits at all,” said Soroka.
“It seems like everything that happened that inning in the fifth game was just baseball.”
Soroka didn’t need that experience to help motivate him for next year. That comes to him naturally.
“There are tonnes of stories about how hard he works on his fitness, film study, and just being relentless on improving. One of my favourites is a story where in low-A Rome he was in the midst of a deep playoff run – they won the league title that year – and after a game where he had thrown another absolute gem, the coaches wondered where he went after the game. He had gone straight to the gym to get another workout in,” recalled Cole.
That eye on self-improvement remains, whether Soroka is on the mound or not. When he’s asked about his off-season plans, his answer isn’t surprising.
“Same as it’s always been, get better,” said Soroka.
“I feel like a lot of people nowadays are scared to change things because they see results and they say, don’t change, you know? But now that you see the best in the game you realize that change is a necessity to stay good. I’m excited to look at things that need improving and things that I know that I can get better at. And if that means I change my style a little bit, so be it. It’s all about getting better because, to me, if I’m not getting better than I’m getting worse.”
Such changes could come in the form of his mental approach or his mechanics. If certain adjustments have the potential to improve his game, Soroka plans to explore them.
“Everything. Everything … physical, mental, whatever it is,” he said.
This off-season promises to be a busy one for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound hurler. His on-field success has led to the growth of his celebrity status away from the ballpark.
In addition to the pitching camp he assisted with, Soroka is booked to speak at a Little League Alberta coaching and leadership conference in Calgary, as well as Baseball Alberta’s annual general meeting and convention in Edmonton.
The former Calgary West Little League player said he’s excited to give back to the sport he loves, but – just as he is with each pitch that he delivers – he plans to be deliberate in what he does while he’s home over the winter.
“I had that example in Chris Reitsma,” said Soroka, referring to the former MLB pitcher from Calgary who helped mentor him.
“There’s some things that can be done to kind of be that role model and be present. There are some times where I’m going to have to step back and say, ‘Look, I need some time for myself,’ and try to not feel selfish about that because, ultimately, just like anybody else your life needs to come first when you’re 22 years old. I feel like being active is important, but definitely taking those as they come and choosing which ones to be present at is going to be important. But being here for these little guys and showing them what can be done from here is important to just kind of spark that interest.”
Soroka has also noticed a lot more Atlanta Braves gear in Calgary this year, and he hopes to see more of it in the years ahead.
“That’s nice to see. Just knowing that it’s so close for a lot of these kids. It was six, seven, eight years ago that I was in their position and they can relate to that a little better than some guy who had done it so long ago,” he said.
“To be that for them is pretty cool. I know how important it was for me to have a guy like that. So, if I can be that for them, or whatever is getting them piqued into high school baseball or college baseball or professional baseball or whatever it might be that lets them love the sport, that’s what’s important to me.”
Awards buzz is also putting a bigger spotlight on Soroka, who wears No. 40 for the Braves.
He was named a finalist for the National League (NL) Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award, along with Mets slugger Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres. Selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), the winner will be announced on Nov. 11th.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) November 4, 2019
Soroka was also nominated by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) as a finalist for the NL Outstanding Rookie Players Choice Award, which was won by Alonso, and the NL Outstanding Pitcher Players Choice Award that was captured by Jacob deGrom of the Mets.
“It’s cool, especially the players awards stuff. The players awards stuff means a lot because it’s among your peers and it means they’re taking notice, especially as a rookie,” said Soroka.
“Typically, as a rookie you’re kind of under the shadows until you’ve been there for a while. That kind of recognition from my peers right away has been an honour. To be able to look back at the end of it and see my name next to some of the names I grew up watching, that’s pretty cool.”
But the Bishop Carroll High School grad knows that – despite putting in an elite 2019 campaign – he must maintain a relentless work ethic to cement his place among baseball’s superstars.
“I think a lot of that’s only motivation for next year, to be able to go out there and do it again and be even better. I don’t think, just like any other year in my life, I don’t think I’m as good as I’m going to be. Taking that attitude forward and understanding that there’s a lot of work to be done gets me excited,” said Soroka.
BETTER THINGS AHEAD
Braves fans are excited, as well.
“The fans in Atlanta love him … he reminds some of Greg Maddux in how much he commands any game he is in,” said Cole.
“If he stays healthy, I fully expect him to be at the top of the Braves rotation for a long time. He has the stuff, approach, and aptitude to be as good as anyone in this league. It is important to not take health for granted, but all signs are pointing straight up for him.”
Bruce Walton, who coached at the Sidearm Nation pitching camp with Soroka, likes what he’s seen from the young star. Walton – a pitching coach with the Miami Marlins’ Double-A affiliate Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp – spent 17 seasons coaching in the Toronto Blue Jays system, where he worked with a long list of talented hurlers, including Hall of Famer Roy Halladay.
“He’s in a great organization and the one thing that they’ve done over there is that they haven’t changed him. He has his own style of pitching and he does it very well and he’s very confident in the style that he pitches. He does just a fabulous job of handling himself on the mound during some really important games,” noted Walton, whose MLB pitching resume includes brief stints with the Oakland Athletics, Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies in the 1990s.
“He’s got a very good head on his shoulders. He understands what it takes to be a premier pitcher in the major leagues. I don’t think that he’s the kind of kid that’s going to sit on this year and go, ‘Well, I did it.'”
Added Walton: “I think he’s got goals in his mind of being a really solid major league pitcher for years to come and he’s going to prepare for it the right way – he’s going to stay healthy the right way. He’s very in control of his baseball career right now.”
If the predictions of Cole and Walton materialize next season, that’s exciting news for Soroka and Braves followers. It’s also a terrifying thought for hitters in the National League.