By IAN WILSON
The 2019 Major League Baseball (MLB) campaign was a revelation for Calgary pitcher Mike Soroka.
A quick look at his accomplishments from last year shows that. He was a National League (NL) Rookie of the Year runner-up; he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting; he won the Tip O’Neill Award, which honours Canada’s best baseball player; he pitched a three-up, three-down inning in the MLB All-Star Game; and he was a finalist for the Lou Marsh Award, given annually to the nation’s top athlete. Those are just the Coles Notes on a season filled with impressive firsts for the young man.
Last February baseball prognosticators forecast a right-hander who would battle it out for the fifth spot in the Atlanta Braves starting rotation. What a difference a year makes – 29 major league starts, 13 wins and a 2.68 earned run average (ERA) later and Soroka now enters Spring Training as the team’s ace.
So, what can we expect from the 22-year-old during his sophomore season?
Despite his take-the-world-by-storm campaign, the projections for the Calgary Redbirds product are cautious, with many of the experts predicting regression for the 2015 first-round pick.
We have collected a summary of the online and magazine analysis of Soroka. Here’s a roundup of the baseball world’s view of the 6-foot-5 hurler, who is entering just his second full MLB season.
Andrew Simon, a writer and researcher for MLB.com, recently released his top 10 predictions based on Steamer projections. Among them was this stunning observation that Soroka might not even be the best starting pitcher in Atlanta’s rotation:
“At age 22, one might expect Soroka to just keep trending upward. But Steamer is skeptical, as Soroka doesn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts and had a large gap between his ERA and FIP (3.45). For 2020, the projections have lefty Max Fried as the Braves’ No. 1 pitcher instead, with an ERA roughly half a run lower than Soroka (3.60 vs. 4.12) and down quite a bit from his 4.02 mark in ‘19. Perhaps Soroka will defy the projections and maintain his spectacular run prevention, but this also could be Fried’s time to shine.”
Simon’s colleague, columnist Will Leitch, was slightly more bullish on the Cowtown kid, ranking him 15th out of the MLB’s 30 anticipated Opening Day starters.
“Another young pitcher who could zoom up this list once he gets some more innings under his belt,” wrote Leitch.
Not surprisingly, the contributors over at Tomahawk Take – a Braves-focused website – are taking an optimistic view of the emerging star.
“Conventional wisdom tells you that hitters will usually get to a pitcher the third time through they see him in one game,” wrote Seth Carter in an article entitled Mike Soroka will progress – not regress – in 2020.
“Soroka was one of the few who was able to take three trips through the order and progressively get better the more he faced opposing hitters. Was he just unbelievably lucky or is he a cerebral assassin? Speaking of luck, he actually had about a .100 point difference in batting average against when the shift was on. It worked to his detriment. Opposing hitters had a .242 average against Soroka without the shift. When the Braves employed the shift, opposing batters had a .340 average against him.”
Continued Carter: “He changes locations and speeds so deftly that batters look visibly confused at times when facing Soroka. Soroka has great stuff, but he controls it and beats the zone. His goal is to throw strikes. It works so well for him because of the movement. Soroka isn’t just a sinker-baller, he’s a puppeteer. The plane of a two-seam, sinkerballer is supposed to match up well with the upward launch angle of the modern home run hitters. Soroka can tail balls east and west as well as north and south. His two-seamer has a pretty sharp slice that goes down and away from lefties and rapidly buries in on righties with late action. He was pretty good against lefties but he was downright unhittable to righties.”
Carter concluded by taking aim at projection models that reward pitchers who strikeout a lot of batters over those with smarts.
“Not only does he keep their timing off with multiple speeds, but the ball has a tonne of life to keep them guessing. Combine that with his cerebral location mixing and you have a recipe for success,” he said.
“Soroka is an artist and we are lucky to be watching him paint his masterpiece in Atlanta. It should take years to complete, so sit back and enjoy the process.”
Fellow Tomahawker Jake Mastroianni also liked what he saw out of Soroka and called on manager Brian Snitker to stop handling him with kid gloves moving forward.
“There were several games last year where I thought Soroka could have gone deeper into the game, and should have gone deeper, but Snitker didn’t allow that to happen. He only threw over 100 pitches in a game three times last year (twice he threw exactly 100 pitches) and he never threw more than 109,” noted Mastroianni.
“Soroka, who is great at getting ahead and limiting his pitch count, should be able to consistently go seven innings and more regularly work into the eighth …. If you take into consideration the 9.1 innings Soroka threw at Triple-A last year while rehabbing and the brilliant seven-inning performance in the postseason, he actually threw 191 innings in 2019. That means he could certainly blow by 200 innings in 2020 if he stays healthy.”
STREET & SMITH’S FANTASY BASEBALL
The gang at Street & Smith’s are calling on Soroka to produce another 13-win campaign. The publication also anticipates 27 starts, 163 innings pitched, 137 Ks, a 3.42 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) in 2020.
According to their crystal ball, that would put him on par with Yu Darvish and Julio Urias, and slightly behind teammate Max Fried.
“After missing time in 2018 with shoulder soreness, Soroka had a similar issue that delayed his first start in Atlanta last year until April 18. He was well worth the wait, however, allowing no more than one earned run in his first eight starts. His full campaign would have won Rookie of the Year in almost any other season,” read the magazine’s analysis.
“Soroka produced an excellent 51-percent groundball rate, helping him keep the ball in the park at a league-best rate. However, his so-so 7.3 K/9 led to some more pedestrian ERA metrics with a 3.45 FIP and 4.28 SIERA. A regression from last year’s .280 BABIP seems likely, though the 22-year-old certainly has time to develop an ‘out’ pitch to help him miss bats …. While there’s regression likely, Soroka’s groundball rate and great control give him a high floor and a bright future.”
LINDY’S BASEBALL PREVIEW
A rather glowing picture of the “baby-faced Canadian” emerged in the 2020 Lindy’s Baseball Preview.
“Few pitchers had a better 2019 than Mike Soroka. Pitching most of the season at 21, he befuddled hitters with precocious pitchability and a sinker/slider mix that is not en vogue around the sport, tossing darting daggers with pinpoint command. In the most homers-happy season in MLB history, Soroka prevented them more effectively than all but one other qualifying starter (Charlie Morton). He seemed to tire at season’s end, but going forward his mature feel for his craft seems set to sustain him as a No. 2 starter at worst,” stated the magazine.
“Nominally the ace after a 2019 season in which he posted a 2.68 ERA, Soroka is better suited to a slightly less demanding role. He’s a sinker-ball pitcher, and one of the most effective ones left in a game that has gone four-seam crazy. He blossomed into a true four-pitch man last year, and found conviction throwing each offering against both lefties and righties. But Soroka’s success still hinges on the consistency of the sinker and the deftness of the infield defense behind him.”
Lindy’s also selected Soroka as the best pitcher in baseball for inducing weak contact, saying his 2019 rookie campaign drew comparisons to Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux.
As well, he was featured as the key building block in the Braves organization.
“Long, strong and durable right-hander possesses the attributes of a frontline starter, including a sound high-3/4 delivery and impeccable command of a quality three-pitch mix,” said the analysis.
“Builds around a nasty two-seam fastball (92-94 mph) with heavy sinking life … complements his sinker with a power curveball with tight late bite and a change that gets better every year … reminds some of the late Roy Halladay.”
LINDY’S FANTASY BASEBALL
Lindy’s sister publication, which focuses more on fantasy baseball results than real-life play, views Soroka as the 33rd best starting pitcher in the game.
“Soroka’s rookie season was one for the books,” said the glossy-paged yearbook.
“His proclivity for inducing weak contact could make him a constant overachiever, but maintaining a low ERA seems improbable with his unimpressive strikeouts rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step backward.”
THE FANTASY BASEBALL GUIDE
This magazine pegged Soroka as the 15th best starting pitcher, in line with such big-name talents as Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. Their projection: 12-7 record, 4.31 ERA, 175 innings pitched, 17 home runs against, 45 walks, 148 strikeouts and a 1.37 WHIP.
“Quite a bit of hype surrounds Soroka after his marvelous season, but be cautious. He had a shiny ERA and WHIP last year, but he was lucky on batted balls and had an 80 percent LOB% (stranded base runners). Both suggest some regression in the future. His ERA estimators hovered around 4.00 and his ERA could move in that direction, limiting his value in his sophomore season,” surmised RotoGraphs writer Jeff Zimmerman.
“He threw plenty of ground balls his freshman year, limiting some home runs. Keeping your ERA under 4.00 with a sub-7.5 K/9 strikeout rate is tough these days, let alone an ERA under 3.00. Praise for what he did … but be careful not to pay for it this year.”
Dave Adler, a New York-based writer and researcher for MLB.com, expects similar results.
“Look, I love this guy – solid control, keeps the ball on the ground. But … he won’t blow batters away, and the ERA won’t be that low again,” remarked Adler.
Mike Podhorzer – the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Baseball Writer of the Year – had this to say about Soroka: “Reasonable skills, but certainly not strong enough to merit a sub-3.00 ERA. Without a big strikeout rate, you’re relying on good fortune once again to keep his ratios low, which is not something I ever recommend doing.”
The braintrust at FantasyPros, meanwhile, feel that Alberta’s best baseball export to the U.S. since relief pitcher Jim Henderson is more than capable of duplicating his 2019 success.
“Truth is, Soroka absolutely profiles as a guy who can outperform his xFIP consistently. This is due to the insane amount of ground balls he induces,” declared their website.
“If you get this many ground balls, you are not going to allow many home runs. That was true for Soroka … it would be irresponsible to say he can’t repeat those numbers this year.”
ATHLON SPORTS BASEBALL PREVIEW
Athlon rates Soroka as the 20th best pitcher in baseball, ahead of Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Jose Berrios, Tyler Glasnow and Trevor Bauer.
“Outstanding command of two very good fastballs and two more very good off-speed pitches gives Soroka a deep arsenal to work with,” reads the summary on the former member of Canada’s Junior National Team.
“He’s been fastball-dominant to date, but both the slider and especially the change have been above-average bat-missers, and there’s a path to more whiffs if he chooses to walk it. His stuff held effectiveness deep into starts, and that means solid W potential on top of strong ratios as a baseline.”
ROTOWORLD FANTASY BASEBALL
On their 2020 Top 300 list, Rotoworld Fantasy Baseball slotted Soroka in at 63rd overall, just ahead of George Springer and Stephen Strasburg.
“Soroka was limited to 55 innings by shoulder soreness in 2018 and didn’t pitch in the second half of the season, so when he experienced a recurrence of shoulder soreness last spring, it seemed like the reddest of red flags,” observed the magazine.
“Soroka ended up getting optioned out without ever appearing in an exhibition game, but he was able to take the mound for Triple-A Gwinnett on April 6 and threw five hitless innings. Two weeks later, he was in the majors, and he went on to allow one or zero earned runs in his first eight starts. By season’s end, he had put together a campaign that would have won Rookie of the Year honors the vast majority of the time, just not in a year in which the league home run leader also happened to be a first-year player.”
Looking ahead, Rotoworld anticipates a 15-8 record, 186 innings pitched, 165 Ks, 17 quality starts, a 3.39 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP for Soroka in 2020.
“Soroka has some Greg Maddux in him with the way he’s able to move the ball around. His 91-94 mph sinker is consistently pounded into the ground, and both his slider and changeup are excellent pitches. Health isn’t a certainty and he won’t get as many strikeouts as the rest of the top starters, but he should remain an elite pitcher.”
Mike Schwarzenbach with the website Roto Baller sees a young pitcher with plenty of upside.
“As a prospect, Soroka was known for excellent control and extreme ground-ball tendencies which he brought to the Major League level. Soroka’s 51.2 percent ground-ball rate was sixth in baseball while only walking 5.9 percent of batters. Like most ground ball pitchers, Soroka relies heavily on a sinker, throwing it 45 percent of the time while pairing it with a plus-slider that generates an impressive 15.9 swinging-strike rate. Soroka mixes in an above-average four-seamer and changeup that keeps batters off balance and back up his excellent batted ball data,” observed Schwarzenbach.
“His ERA won’t be quite as good as it was but a 200-inning season with 13-15 wins and a low-mid 3’s ERA is a reasonable expectation for Soroka.”
HAVE YOUR SAY
In talking to Soroka, his plan is not just to match his results from last year. He expects to be even better this season. We’re excited to see what 2020 has in store for the promising pitcher.
That’s it for our roundup of predictions. What do you think? Will Soroka remain an elite pitcher this season? Will he even be the best arm in the Braves starting rotation?
Sound off in the comments or on social media!