The Atlanta Braves have had their fair share of pitching greats in their long history. Warren Spahn, Phil Niekro, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Mike Soroka quickly come to mind.
Okay, perhaps the last name is a bit premature, but it is time to start realizing that Soroka’s ceiling is, well, let’s let Birmingham Baron's legend Michael Jordan explain it:
"The ceiling is the roof" pic.twitter.com/RtcKkVUQ1h— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) March 5, 2017
I saw Soroka pitch this past Tuesday in Gwinnett, his third start of the season. He was once again sharp, as he has been on his climb up the ladder. Soroka, of course, is coming off a stellar 2017, one that saw him skip right over High-A and dominate the Southern League of Double-A as one of the youngest pitchers in the league. The righty, who is a fearful presence on the mound standing at 6-foot-5, set career-bests in ERA and WHIP while posting very similar strikeout and walk rates to his full-season debut in Rome the season prior.
Soroka faced a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup on Tuesday whose youngest player was 23 and had the average age of 27.6. Soroka, of course, is once again amongst the youngest in the league, not turning 21 years of age until August. While the scoreboard may say he allowed three runs, it was in large part due to an unlucky third inning. Two playable balls (albeit one would have been a great play up the middle) were not played by the left side of the infield and Chris Stewart dropped a perfectly-played relay at home plate allowing the third run to cross.
I went to this game as a fan, so did not have a radar gun, but clearly, Soroka was on his game. He pitches quickly and fills the strike zone, not afraid to throw any of his pitches anywhere in the count. It has led to an increase in strikeouts this season, simply because the odds are greater for swings and misses when you put the ball where you want.
That’s Soroka’s biggest asset. It is not that he has elite stuff, nor is it thanks to an overpowering, high-velocity fastball. No, Soroka dictates the tempo of the game and can place a ball on a dime anywhere in the strike zone. He pitches quickly and has command of all five of his pitches. And, again, is only 20. This is where my Greg Maddux comps come into play. I am not necessarily guaranteeing one of the greatest careers of all time, but the way he sees the strike zone like Neo sees the Matrix is highly comparable.
Soroka came out gunning. He faced five batters in the first inning and each one of them immediately fell behind thanks to five first-pitch strikes. It is as good as over when he is able to get ahead like that. That was the tempo he established throughout the game, minus that extended third inning. He needed just 79 pitches to get through his five innings, landing 53 for strikes (that is 67 percent, his lowest of the season after landing 70 percent of his pitches for strikes the previous two outings). Soroka has always been a ground-ball-dominant pitcher thanks to sinking action of that fastball, but he split his outs evenly Tuesday, three on the ground, three in the air. Per usual, not much was hit very hard, which has always helped Soroka keep the ball in the park.
Now, the strikeouts. Soroka struck out two in the first, both swinging. While I enjoy watching a batter get completely fooled with the backward K, the fact that Soroka is getting stuff past more mature hitters at his highest rate yet is more than encouraging. Don’t get me wrong, watching him baffle a hitter caught looking is also a wonderful sight, as he did here in the second inning against Zach Zenner.
Hey @leprekhan #Braves pic.twitter.com/ofWHJ1jzQx— Wayne Cavadi (@UofDWayne) April 17, 2018
Soroka has struck out 20 (while walking just two, which is sick in its own right) in his first 15.2 innings, which comes out to 11.49-per-nine. That is nearly four better than any other stop on his brief climb up the big-league ladder. While some added velocity may be behind it, I think it has more to do with confidence in his pitches, and as previously mentioned, fearlessly controlling the strike zone. He is deceptive in that there is little to tip pitches in his smooth, repeatable delivery, and each pitch can move and serves a strikeout pitch. The curve and slider being similar to each other do not help matters for opposing hitters. While I would expect this number to come down a bit as he pitches deeper into games, I think a marginal increase in Ks-per-nine is fair to be expected.
Many looked at Soroka in the past and saw a middle-of-the-rotation, No. 3 arm with good stuff and the ability to go deep into ballgames. It is time to realize that Soroka has true ace potential the way he can limit baserunners and dictate the outcome of the game. His ability to generate ground balls will be a plus in SunTrust Park and the bigs in general, especially with the best defense of his young career behind him.
Earlier this season, I feared AA would keep Soroka down for the bulk of the season, perhaps teasing us with a September call-up. He may pitch his way into the rotation way before that.