By IAN WILSON
Perhaps the most telling predictor of Mike Soroka’s 2021 season cannot be found in glossy magazines, websites devoted to the Atlanta Braves, or online fantasy baseball tools.
Maybe baseball watchers should look to Frederic Horowitz, Margaret Brogan and Robert Herzog for answers.
If you’re unfamiliar with those names, they’re the arbitrators who awarded the Calgarian a pay raise earlier this year, boosting his salary from $583,500 to $2.8 million.
The Braves were hoping to limit his earnings to $2.1 million, but the arbitrators determined he was worth more than that.
Money talks and, in this case, it speaks of a belief in the 2015 first rounder’s pitching abilities.
Of course, Soroka is happy to let his pitching do the talking. He was ready to do that last year until a season-ending injury limited him to just 13.2 innings and denied him a chance to prove that his 2019 campaign was no fluke.
So, what will the 23-year-old do for a highly-anticipated but delayed encore?
We got a glimpse of Soroka’s form during the Atlanta Braves final spring training game against the Boston Red Sox on March 30th. He went two innings in that contest, yielding a home run and striking out two batters during the 5-3 victory, which also provided him with his first career save.
“You could tell he hasn’t pitched in a while. There were flashes that were really good. But it was just good to get him out there. To pitch against somebody else is important,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters after the outing.
We’ve scoured a few baseball magazines and looked around the interwebs to see what the expectations are for the Calgary Redbirds alum, who has made 37 regular season starts and pitched 214 innings since his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut on May 1st, 2018. To date, Soroka has put together a 15-6 record in the big leagues while posting a 2.86 earned run average (ERA) and recording 171 strikeouts.
Despite his success, prognosticators are cautious about what he’s capable of in 2021. Some of that is to be expected, given the major injury he’s recovering from, but baseball experts should have learned by now not to underestimate the 6-foot-5 righthander.
With all of that in mind, let’s check out the predictions for the 2019 National League (NL) Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award finalist.
NBC SPORTS EDGE FANTASY BASEBALL DRAFT GUIDE
“Soroka’s ability was a subject of much debate after a rookie season in which he posted a stellar 2.68 ERA with a modest 20.3% strikeout rate; was he a new long-term ace for the Braves or merely a good-but-not-great starter buoyed by some beginner’s luck? As it turned out, nothing much was settled last year, as he popped his Achilles tendon running to cover first base in his third start of the season. He struck out just eight batters in 13.2 innings before going down, but he also had a 61% groundball rate, which would have rated as the second highest mark among starters had it continued last season (Randy Dobnak came in at 62%). Since it was just 13.2 innings, it’s probably a bad idea to read into either figure. Soroka resumed throwing in November and is aiming to be ready for Opening Day this year. If he proves he’s healthy this spring, he’d be a great pick as a No. 4 starter in mixed leagues. He gets enough swings and misses to suggest his strikeout rate will come up some, and he still shouldn’t need to dominate there in order to be a valuable starter.”
The magazine is projecting a 12-7 record; 160 innings of work; 43 walks; 136 Ks; 3.44 ERA; 1.16 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched); and 15 home runs allowed (which would match the number he’s given up over the course of his career thus far).
ATHLON SPORTS 2021 MLB PREVIEW
“When righthander Mike Soroka went down for the season, all hope seemed lost, as Soroka had finally developed into the ace that Atlanta had been hoping to find over the past few years. In 2021, Atlanta will have Soroka, Fried and Anderson back and a bevy of other pitchers who have been long on promise although short on results so far in their careers,” reads the Athlon guide, which pegs the Braves as the top team in the NL East division.
The magazine ranks Soroka as the 53rd best starting pitcher, sandwiched between Adbert Alzolay of the Cubs and Zach Eflin of the Phillies. It gives Soroka letter grades of a “C” for wins and WHIP, and a “B” for ERA and strikeouts.
“As his recovery timeline from a ruptured Achilles becomes clear in the spring, this ranking could move considerably in either direction. He underwhelmed in the 13 innings he threw last year, but 13 innings is … 13 innings. He entered the year as a popular breakout pick, and none of the ingredients are any different entering his age-23 season. The whiffs aren’t top shelf, but most of the rest of the package is.”
LINDY’S SPORTS BASEBALL 2021 PREVIEW
Lindy’s also picks Atlanta to win the NL East, but offers few specifics about Soroka, instead focusing on the starting rotation as a whole.
“(Ian) Anderson and Max Fried top a rotation that will welcome back Mike Soroka, who made just three starts in 2020 before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon tear, and has added high-upside veterans Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly,” read the publication.
“They have a solid rotation with veteran stability and three young guns – Fried, Anderson and Soroka.”
Adds Lindy’s: “Make no mistake: Soroka/Anderson/Fried is not the second coming of Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine. But it’s a good place to start for an October run.”
Over at RotoChamp, their list of six different statistical models offers up good, but not great, numbers for the Bishop Carroll High School graduate. He slots in at No. 59 on their starting pitcher rankings, right after Sandy Alcantara and just ahead of Sixto Sanchez, both of whom pitch for the Miami Marlins.
Composite projections lists the following for Soroka this year: 9-6 record, 3.86 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 109 Ks and 38 walks through 133 innings. RotoChamp’s own crystal ball is similar, anticipating an 8-6 record, 3.66 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 107 strikeouts, and 39 bases on balls in 128 innings pitched.
Steamer Projections posts the highest K total (120) and the most innings (139) for Soroka, but they also forecast the worst ERA (4.19), WHIP (1.35) and walks (44) among their fortune-telling peers.
Other projection services (ATC, ZiPS, THE BAT) predict similar win-loss records, an ERA in the 3.71-3.81 range and anywhere from 95 to 112 Ks.
Eric Cole, a columnist at the Braves-focused Talking Chop website, offers up three outlooks for his followers, including optimistic, pessimistic and realistic takes on the road ahead for Soroka.
“Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Achilles tendon injury heals as well as possible and there is little to no rust in Soroka’s game. Yes, I know… getting all of that at this point is unlikely, but this is the sunshine and rainbows part of the article. What we saw from Soroka during the 2019 season seems pretty in line with what we could see if everything goes right. High 2.00s to low 3.00s ERA, miniscule walk rate, below average strikeout rate, a ton of groundballs, efficient innings, and good contact management by preventing hitters from elevating the ball. That is the guy he has been through the minors and that’s what the Braves hope he is …. That’s a hell of a pitcher and one that would likely be the best on the Braves’ staff,” writes Cole in his Feb. 20th article.
“On the flip side, we have to remember that this was a severe injury and there are a lot of things to watch out for with those, including rust, setbacks, other minor injuries as he gets stretched back out, and good ol’ fashioned fatigue. We can’t forget that while Soroka made that 174-inning campaign in 2019 look easy (especially after throwing just 56 professional innings the year prior), he did miss most of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury. That means that in 2018 and 2020 combined, Soroka threw just 39.1 major league innings. Not only would it make sense for him to miss time to start the season because of the baserunning concerns, but a significant rehab stint after that so he can get stretched out properly isn’t that unreasonable an expectation. That could mean a summer season debut and one where his innings are managed fairly aggressively.”
Cole concludes his story with this: “I’ve seen a lot of bets against Mike … I’ve heard it all. Betting against a guy with the drive, work ethic, and mental aptitude that Mike has has not gone well for those that have done that. Pitchers are a high risk category to be sure and some incredibly talented pitchers have gotten unlucky and not been able to stay on the mound… but count me among those that are gonna keep betting on the kid.”
What do you think? Should we keep expectations in check for 2021 or will Soroka defy the odds – and the oddsmakers – yet again?