There might not be a more intriguing storyline in the Braves bullpen than the emerging Chad Sobotka. When Sobotka received the call last it year, it left most Braves fans saying, “Cha-who?” But I don’t imagine many were complaining when they saw a 6’7″, 230-pound behemoth jogging out to the mound, especially when he began painting the corners with high-90s fastballs.
Sobotka’s rise to major league relevance in 2018 is nothing short of remarkable. He began the year in high-A ball with the Florida Fire Frogs and was viewed as a low-probability prospect with some upside. 2080 baseball’s Adam McInturff had this to say regarding Sobotka in April of last year – before Sobotka’s rise to prominence.
“He’s an intimidating presence on the mound, with a 6’7″, 225-pound frame that’s reminiscent of Josh Johnson (RHP, Padres). Throwing exclusively from the stretch, he has difficulty controlling his long limbs and often falls off-line after release. The fastball sits at 94-to-95 mph (T97), featuring heavy bore down on hitters with downhill angle. Sobotka’s mid-80s slider flashes average at best, though the noise in his delivery causes lots of variance in the quality of the pitch.
Sobotka’s frame and flashes of two raw big-league pitches give him the ceiling of a low-leverage bullpen piece, but his control and consistency will have to come a long way to get there. He falls into the “extreme risk” category and should be viewed as a low-probability prospect. Sobotka likely will open 2018 in Mississippi’s bullpen.”
While it’s easy to say in hindsight that McInturff is wrong, there were not many signs pointing to Sobotka breaking out last year. The South Carolina Upstate product was drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Injuries prevented Sobotka from playing that season. When he finally did toe the rubber in 2015, he went 1-6 with a 7.31 ERA in 12 appearances (9 starts) for the Rome Braves.
The organization opted to move him to a full-time reliever’s role the following year, and he experienced much more success over three levels of the minors. However, Sobotka followed it up with a dreadful 2017, recording a 6.09 ERA in 34 appearances for Florida and Mississippi, leaving no reason to believe he was going be able to make the jump to the majors last season.
To say Sobotka broke out last year is an understatement. He became nearly unhittable, allowing only 4.7 hits per nine innings in the minor leagues before being called up. The year before he gave up 9.5 hits per nine innings, and in his career, he had never given up less than 8.1 hits per nine innings.
His strikeout numbers also shot up to a career-best of 12.0 per nine innings, and he improved in both those categories once he got to the major leagues. In 14.1 innings for the Braves, Sobotka had a 13.2 K/9 rate and a 3.1 H/9 rate. His success is even more incredible when you consider his walk rate remained absurdly high, showing that he could be even more dominant if he ever could fully harness his control.
Sobotka can attribute his breakout campaign to the development of his slider, which became more of a go-to selection rather than a pitch he would forcefully throw to mix things up. It runs from the mid to upper-80s and has a nasty bite with a lot more drop than your typical slider. Take a look.
Even after his stellar 2018, there is no guarantee Sobotka has a spot on the Opening Day roster in 2019. The Braves have added a few names to the mix in the form of Darren O’Day and Grant Dayton, and that does not include the multiple pitching prospects that might transition into bullpen arms like Max Fried, Touki Touissant and Luiz Gohara.
For Sobotka to stay in the mix, he’s going to have to show better command. There is no questioning the legitimacy of his stuff. He showed he has the potential to be one of the most unhittable arms in baseball, which is why the Braves took a risk on him in the fourth round. But he will not continue to have similar results as last year while walking close to five batters per nine innings.
We saw how that could come back to bite him when Sobotka appeared during Game 4 of the NLDS. Trailing by just a run; the Braves needed Sobotka to come through with a shutdown inning. After walking two batters, Manny Machado put a nail in the Braves coffin by launching a three-run homer over the left field wall.
There’s an off-chance that Sobotka can take over the closer’s role. That would require him to continue to show off his lights out repertoire, and Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter to hit some bumps in the road. On the other hand, there is probably an even better chance that he finds himself back in AAA for the majority of the season. He’s been that inconsistent. Of course, the Braves are hoping Sobotka indeed cracked the code and that they found a diamond in the rough in the 2014 draft.