Braves

Can Mike Soroka be a rookie Cy Young candidate?

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It’s barely mid-May, and the Braves top pitching prospect has already emerged as an early candidate for the Cy Young award – quite a turnaround considering two months ago we didn’t even know if Soroka was going to pitch this season. Well, he is, and he’s already making light work of the competition.

Through six starts, the new Ace of the Braves already has a WAR of 1.6. His ERA is a minuscule 0.98, and his WHIP is not much higher at 1.01. Soroka has yet to allow more than one earned run this entire season; which is even more incredible when taking into account that he surrendered a run in the first inning of his first three outings. In his last three starts, he’s thrown 20 innings allowing just a single earned run. These are eye-popping numbers from a 21-year-old rookie, and while he won’t finish the year with a sub-one ERA, he does have the wherewithal to stick around in the NL Cy Young race for the whole season.

Beyond the numbers, Soroka has the mental makeup of a pitcher who can do this every time he toes the rubber. The Braves had no qualms sending him out to make his debut in June of last year when he was only 20 years old. All Soroka did was quietly toss six innings of one-run ball in a win over the division rival Mets. The word around this kid is that nothing phases him, and it’s pretty evident when looking at the speed bumps he has already faced.

A few starts after his masterful MLB debut, Soroka was shut down for the entire regular season with shoulder inflammation. No surgery was necessary, but he was still forced to watch the Braves magical playoff run from the couch. Then, before he even made his first appearance in spring training, a similar shoulder issue popped up. Soroka was forced to miss spring training and a large chunk of the first month of this season.

Finally, he returned on April 18th against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The snakes greeted him with a couple of base hits in the first inning and scored a run. That has to have a rookie pitcher, who has not made a major league start in ten months, thinking negatively, right? Wrong. Soroka took a deep breath and did what he does – force soft contact. He got out of the inning with minimal damage and pitched the next four innings scoreless.

Soroka’s repertoire revolves around his handy dandy sinker. He’s throwing it 48% of the time – up nearly 10% from last year – according to FanGraphs. That pitch is made for hitters to pound baseballs into the ground, and it’s what gets Soroka out of the majority of his jams – like the one last night in the third inning versus the Cardinals with the bases loaded and only one out. Even if it isn’t desperation time, Soroka has no problem sitting there all day and tossing sinkers. It’s the primary reason as to why he’s in the top 10% of the league in barreled balls and top 6% in exit velocity allowed.

What Soroka has that most sinkerballers don’t is 96 in his back pocket. He doesn’t often go to his straight four-seam fastball, but it’s an effective pitch for him that he can paint the corners with. Soroka pairs those pitches with a slider (his only breaking pitch) and a changeup that he throws less than 10% of the time. The movement on all of his pitches, even his fastball, is admirable, but the Canadian native wouldn’t be the pitcher he was without tip-top control.

Mike Soroka hasn’t even been at his best so far this year. It’s almost ludicrous to say because he’s been outstanding, but it’s true. Another staple of Soroka’s game is his pristine ability to throw strikes and avoid walks. Throughout his entire minor league career and last year in the majors, he’s never recorded a BB/9 innings of more than 2.5. So far in 2019, it’s at 3.4 per nine innings, and he’s somehow managed to hit six batters in six starts. Soroka’s been much wilder then his track record suggests, and I would expect those numbers to only improve as the season goes on.

Here’s a little history lesson for you: Since 1913, when the MLB officially started keeping earned runs, Soroka is the only pitcher to allow one earned run or less in eight of his first ten major league starts. Yesterday, he made himself the only one to do it in nine out of his first eleven starts – breaking his own record. You can say he’s too young, a rookie won’t ever win the Cy Young again (It’s only happened once, Fernando Valenzuela, 1981), or it’s too early – those are all valid points. They are also obstacles that aren’t going to slow down Soroka. This kid is as cool as they come, and when you have his tool kit, why wouldn’t you be?

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