A Conversation with Atlanta Braves Prospect Mike Soroka

When Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel released FanGraphs’ 2018 Top 100 Prospects list in February, Mike Soroka was described as “polished.” That’s especially meaningful given that the right-hander in the Atlanta Braves organization won’t turn 21 until August. And it’s far from his only attribute. Augmenting the aforementioned plaudit was an equally praiseworthy note that “everything he does is above average to plus.”

Add in the fact that Soroka dominated Double-A last year as a teenager — he had a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts at Mississippi — and it’s understandable why he ranks No. 34 overall on our list. Among pitchers (including two-way stalwarts Shohei Ohtani and Brendan McKay), he comes in at No. 14.

Drafted 28th overall by Atlanta in 2015 out of a Calgary, Alberta, Canada high school, Soroka is continuing his fast-track ways in the early stages of the 2018 campaign. In four outings with the Gwinnett Stripers, the 20-year-old has allowed just five runs in 22.2 innings against Triple-A competition. On Monday, he held Pawtucket scoreless through seven efficient frames.

Soroka discussed his have-fun attitude and the optimization of his repertoire this past weekend.

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Soroka on switching his focus from hockey to baseball: “I was a hockey player growing up. That was my main focus. When I was 12, I went to the Cal Ripken World Series, which is about the same age as the Little League World Series with a few differences. I represented Canada there. That’s when baseball got a little more serious, although it was still only in the summer months. A year or two later, I found that I just liked baseball better. I never went to a baseball practice, or to a game, that I didn’t want to be at.

“Hockey became more of a chore. It was so structured. I was a goalie, and I started to not love working my crease — skating around that little six-by-four crease — for two hours a day. Your movement and positioning is what’s going to get you to the next level — and it’s not as though structure isn’t good — but, at that age, you have to be having fun.

“Had I enjoyed it, I probably could have taken it somewhere. I grew the year that I quit, and tall goalies are kind of in now. But at the same time, I was in bantam when I quit, so it’s not like you can base too much off of that. Regardless, I didn’t love it as much, so I got more into baseball.

“I went to a winter academy with Pro Baseball Force. My two coaches there were Jim Lawson and Chris Reitsma. Again, baseball was fun. I was always pitching for fun. I never had a care in the world about what the numbers on the gun were saying or what people thought. I was having fun, and that’s how I developed a love for baseball.”

On embracing fun and emulating idols: “Obviously, it got to a point where I realized people cared and that scouts were watching. But it was still easier to go out there and have fun and compete, rather than have it be, ‘I have to do this, this, and this to get to the next level.’ Baseball is a game and it should be played that way. That’s how some of the best players in the world play. Your quality of reps get better if you do that. If you’re out there every day thinking it’s a job, and forcing yourself to be focused, you’re going to burn out.

“If you watch [Ronald] Acuna, he has fun out there. I’ve talked to him a little and his little brother is down in Venezuela, going out there and having fun. A lot of young players are like that. They’re trying to be like the people they’re watching on TV, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason you can’t go out there and try to be like your idols.

“For me, Max Scherzer is the most fun pitcher in the game to watch. A lot of that is because of his competitiveness. The guy’s got nasty stuff and he uses it really well, but he doesn’t take a pitch off. No matter what day it is, he’s out there to dominate. That’s a lesson anybody can apply to their game.

“If you watch Scherzer pitch, he’s got that rise ball, but he’s also got a two-seam he’ll run under the hands. Or a Rick Porcello. Classifying guys as just a sinker guy is… it’s kind of true, but it’s also kind of outdated. Guys are learning to re-weaponize and use all of their weapons instead of just focusing on one.”

On evolving and weaponizing: “I’ve kind of started growing into my body. I’m about 220 [pounds] now, and you grow into your strength. I feel that I can overpower hitters — I wouldn’t call a mid-90s sinker underpowering — and while I think people maybe overvalue velo, it’s not like I don’t have [power stuff]. So many times, guys who are 17-18 get labeled out of the draft as, ‘This is who you are.’ In Low-A, I kind of tried to be a sinker guy. That was a mistake.

“I didn’t go out there and have fun with, and develop, my stuff. I did learn, but at the same time, a bunch of our pitching coaches met with me in instructs that year and said, ‘We want you to go out there and let it eat; you have the stuff and we want you to use it.’ So I stopped listening to the labels that were being thrown at me. Instead, I started going out there trying to be the best that I can possibly be.

“We looked at it from a developmental standpoint. If you throw a lot of sinkers — same thing for a cutter — you’re teaching yourself to put it in places. You’re not necessarily teaching your arm to have the best arm speed. And at 18 years old, you’re not done developing. I was very fortunate to have pitching coaches take me aside and tell me they wanted me to keep developing. It was, ‘You’re 93-94 right now, but one year down the road you might be 95-96.’ That’s where we’re at.”

“Am I [a power-sinker guy]? Yes and no. If you were to go one, two, three, four, my sinker is probably my best pitch, but it’s not my only pitch. I have four. My four-seamer is mid-90s with ride, I have a power curveball, and I have a petty good changeup. The ability to have multiple weapons, that are good weapons… what else could you ask for?”

On working all four quadrants and throwing front-hip sinkers: “If you throw a good four-seamer at the bottom of the zone, and then a two-seamer off of it, you don’t need to throw it for a strike. The hitter is going to think it’s going to ride in through the zone. It’s all about looks. That’s where I go back to re-weaponizing — using as many weapons as you can.

“In and out is probably even more important for me. Especially with my power curveball. There’s no reason to limit yourself to one or two spots, because then you’re falling into patterns. I mean, we’re looking at analytics more than ever and if a team determines that you’re only going to throw certain pitches in certain counts, and also in a certain location — that’s giving hitters a lot to go off of. If hitters know you only throw your two-seam arm side, they can cheat. You get beat up that way.

“I think [throwing a sinker front-hip to a lefty] is the hardest pitch for anybody to execute. That’s a work in progress for me, but it’s getting a lot better. It’s about consistency. This goes into mechanics. You have to stay on top of the ball so much longer to get to your glove side and bring it back over the plate. Arm side, you can be late, early, whatever, and it’s going to do something because it’s easier to come off that side of the ball. But you have to be so perfect glove side. If you watch Corey Kluber and how long he stays on the ball with that front-hip to lefties… he’s one of the best — if not the best — at that.”

On his breaking ball and his changeup: “I find it tough to put a classification on my [breaking pitch]. A lot of people call it a slider. I’ve heard it referred to as a curveball, as well. I like to stay between the two. There’s no reason it has to find a classification. As long as it’s my good breaker and it’s getting bad swings, bad reactions at the plate, there’s no reason it can’t be somewhere in between. The best ones I throw are 84-85 and have depth like a curveball, but they’re a little shorter like a slider.

“The changeup is a pitch I came into pro ball with, but then lost a little bit. It’s at a point where I just have to keep throwing it and keep getting more confident with it. It’s a tough grip. It’s kind of a deep circle change. When I throw it properly, it’s really good; it’s just that there’s a low margin of error with it. There’s no point in changing the grip to have an okay changeup all the time, instead of working toward having a really good one all the time. That makes sense, right? We’re always trying to get better and be the best we can. That’s it.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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vslyke
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Its unfair for a 20 year old pitcher to have this stuff and to know this much about pitching. As a Braves fan, I am super excited for him to make it to the bigs.