On Tuesday here at SportsTalkATL, Chase Irle relayed ESPN’s newly-released Top-100 list for the upcoming season, a ranking that featured outfielder Mike Trout at the top and four Braves’ players scattered within, including 22-year-old righty Mike Soroka at No. 42. Here’s a portion of Chase’s excerpt regarding Soroka:
“Some may believe he’s in store for some regression because he’s not your prototypical high strikeout guy that sits atop a rotation, but his poise and control on the mound are unmatched, which are much more critical to long-term success than punchouts.”
It’s true. Soroka isn’t a guy that’s going to blow away opposing batters. Generally, an average of a strikeout per inning (9.0 K/9) is the common threshold between a contact-inducer and a power-pitcher, however, the Canadian has never reached that mark during his pro career (minors included), at least in seasons where he made more than six starts. Punchouts just simply aren’t what Soroka is shooting for while he’s on the mound.
But I want to get back to what Chase said there at the end of his comments pertaining to Soroka’s poise and control, for those characteristics have been the bread and butter of his game since he was taken 28th overall in the 2015 MLB Draft by the Braves.
Consider the 2017 season. Soroka was just 19-years-old and coming off a dominant year in Single-A Rome in 2016 in which he posted a 3.02 ERA in 24 starts and 143 innings. Destined for Double-A Mississippi and ranked by FanGraphs as the 9th-best prospect in the organization (5th-best pitcher) to begin the ’17 campaign, the scouting report on Soroka makes absolute perfect sense now. FoxSports.com ran a profile on the minor league star, filled with comments that included comps to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and Cardinals’ great Adam Wainwright:
“Soroka has a delivery that would make Greg Maddux proud, with slow, steady movements early and a quick, consistent arm movement at the end.”
“From the time he returned from his surgery, Adam Wainwright could have been a mirror image of Soroka’s pitching on the mound, working down in the zone with everything.”
These types of pitchers don’t come around very often — ones that can flourish with precise command and consistent control while consistently lacking high strikeout rates. Of the top 30 starting pitchers on FanGraphs’ 2019 WAR leaderboard (without counting ties), only the Mariners’ Marco Gonzalez (no.25) — who finished the year with an ERA almost 1.5 runs higher — had a lower K rate than Soroka’s 7.32 K/9 last year, a perfect illustration of how a pitcher can perform like one of the best without racking up huge strikeout numbers. And speaking of ERAs, last season Soroka finished the year with the major’s fifth-lowest ERA (2.68). The four guys ahead of him (Ryu, deGrom, Cole and Verlander), combined to average roughly four more strikeouts per nine (11.3 K/9) — a strikeout rate roughly 11% higher altogether. Imagine a version of Soroka with that kind of strikeout stuff, to go along with the traits he already possesses.
But Soroka is showing us all that it doesn’t take high K totals each and every night to be an elite major league pitcher, and that in this high run-scoring environment the sport currently finds itself in, contact and home run suppression is what it’s all about. I’m sure you’re aware of just how good Soroka was at limiting homers in 2019 — we’ve talked about it here plenty, but perhaps a little perspective is needed to really drive home just how amazing Soroka is at limiting dingers. It’s still early in his career of course, but in the last 10 years only two Braves have ran a lower homer rate than Soroka’s thus far, among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings.
- Shelby Miller — 0.57 HR/9
- Aaron Harang — 0.66 HR/9
- Mike Soroka — 0.67 HR/9
- Tim Hudson — 0.67 HR/9
- Alex Wood — 0.68 HR/9
But can Soroka continue like this…?
The short answer is yes, though frankly it’s fair for now to remain somewhat concerned. All-in-all we’re talking about one breakout season, and there’s an assortment of setbacks bound to occur. In fact, just 2 seasons ago we were criticizing Soroka’s durability due to shoulder issues. Even more, the former first-round pick doesn’t have the power stuff to fall back on when the occasional poor game comes along, perhaps making him more susceptible to longer droughts of poor pitching in the long run.
However, if the 2019 season showed us anything about Soroka it’s that his style of pitching should actually warrant optimism regarding his future; that his success couldn’t have stemmed from just plain luck, especially considering his entire three-pitch repertoire (fastball / slider / changeup) rated as top-15 offerings in the majors last season, via FanGraphs Pitch Values. And the projections agree. Consider Soroka’s 3-year ZiPS predictions, calling for even better results in the near future:
- 2020: 176 IP, 3.32 ERA, 4.0 WAR
- 2021: 181 IP, 3.23 ERA, 4.4 WAR
- 2022: 175 IP, 3.19 ERA, 4.2 WAR
I don’t have his homer rate listed above, but for the three seasons combined ZiPS has Soroka at a strong 0.88 HR/9 — just a hair higher than his rate in 2019.
This regression everyone is calling for really shouldn’t be anything drastic, if anything at all. No, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a sub-3.00 ERA and the second-best HR rate in baseball every season from here on out, but there’s no reason to anticipate anything all that noticeable from season to season. Sure, Soroka will have his off years and there will undoubtedly be stretches of poor pitching throughout what should be a long big league career. But I’m almost certain Soroka is on to something here, and it appears the industry has caught on as well.
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