Braves Lose Mike Soroka for 2021 and Likely Beyond

On August 3, 2020, J.D. Davis hit a hard grounder between second and first, fielded cleanly by Freddie Freeman for a simple force out of the runner heading to second. This routine play might have been forgotten if not for the fact that Mike Soroka, the Braves’ consensus ace after a sterling rookie campaign in 2019, took an awkward step while trying to cover first base and limped out of the game. Nearly a year later, Soroka has not returned to a pitcher’s mound, and now, it’ll likely be at least another year until he can do so again, as a torn Achilles tendon — a repeat of the injury that knocked him out last season — will shelve him for the rest of ’21 and probably into ’22.

Last August, Soroka was immediately sent off for an MRI, which revealed that he had torn his right Achilles tendon. You know an injury is serious when a team’s rivals are offering their condolences nearly instantly.

“It kind of makes you sick, honestly,” Mets outfielder Michael Conforto said. “I can tell you a lot of us felt that way, just the way he went down and what we were hearing it was. … We heard it was the Achilles. He’s a bright young star, and we know he’ll come back and be the same guy.”

This wasn’t Soroka’s first major injury setback. After debuting in early 2018, shoulder inflammation shut him down quickly, costing him the rest of that season. He showed few signs of that malady in 2019, throwing 174 2/3 innings with a 2.68 ERA and 4.03 FIP for an even 4 WAR — good enough of a year to rank him highly among other young pitchers in Braves history.

Top Braves Pitchers Under 25, 1901-2021
Year Player W L ERA FIP WAR
1999 Kevin Millwood 18 7 2.68 3.53 5.5
1993 Steve Avery 18 6 2.94 3.26 5.1
1913 Lefty Tyler 16 17 2.79 2.78 4.7
1914 Bill James 26 7 1.9 2.84 4.3
1989 John Smoltz 12 11 2.94 3.15 4.0
2019 Mike Soroka 13 4 2.68 3.45 4.0
1917 Jesse Barnes 13 21 2.68 2.21 3.9
1942 Al Javery 12 16 3.03 3.1 3.8
1965 Tony Cloninger 24 11 3.29 3.25 3.8
1991 John Smoltz 14 13 3.8 3.52 3.7
2015 Shelby Miller 6 17 3.02 3.45 3.7
2010 Tommy Hanson 10 11 3.33 3.31 3.7
1990 John Smoltz 14 11 3.85 3.64 3.6
2009 Jair Jurrjens 14 10 2.6 3.68 3.5
1992 Steve Avery 11 11 3.2 3.37 3.5
2014 Julio Teheran 14 13 2.89 3.49 3.4
1914 Lefty Tyler 16 13 2.69 2.86 3.4
1998 Kevin Millwood 17 8 4.08 3.63 3.4
2008 Jair Jurrjens 13 10 3.68 3.59 3.3
1917 Art Nehf 17 8 2.16 2.17 3.2

I was an NL Rookie of the Year award voter in 2019, and though I gave my first-place vote to Pete Alonso, I wasn’t too far from giving it to the young Braves hurler instead. As you might expect, ZiPS was also a huge fan of Soroka going into the COVID year.

ZiPS Projections – Mike Soroka (pre-injury)
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 11 7 0 3.41 31 31 177.0 162 67 17 48 148 125 4.1
2021 11 7 0 3.29 32 32 183.3 166 67 16 47 153 129 4.5
2022 11 7 0 3.25 31 31 177.0 159 64 16 44 150 131 4.4
2023 10 6 0 3.27 29 29 165.3 148 60 15 41 140 130 4.1
2024 10 6 0 3.25 28 28 160.7 143 58 14 40 139 131 4.0
2025 10 6 0 3.20 27 27 154.7 136 55 14 39 136 133 3.9
2026 9 5 0 3.24 25 25 147.3 128 53 14 37 131 132 3.7
2027 9 5 0 3.25 24 24 138.3 119 50 13 35 124 131 3.4
2028 8 5 0 3.25 22 22 130.0 113 47 13 33 118 131 3.2
2029 8 5 0 3.33 21 21 121.7 107 45 12 31 111 128 2.9
2030 7 4 0 3.39 20 20 114.0 101 43 12 30 104 125 2.6
2031 6 4 0 3.41 18 18 105.7 94 40 11 29 96 125 2.4
2032 6 4 0 3.54 17 17 96.7 88 38 11 27 88 120 2.0
2033 5 4 0 3.59 15 15 87.7 80 35 10 25 79 118 1.8
2034 5 3 0 3.72 14 14 77.3 73 32 10 23 69 114 1.4
2035 4 3 0 3.86 12 12 67.7 65 29 9 21 59 110 1.2
2036 3 3 0 4.01 10 10 58.3 58 26 8 18 50 106 0.9
2037 3 2 0 4.22 9 9 49.0 50 23 8 16 41 101 0.6

That rest-of-career projection is nearly the maximum you’ll get in ZiPS for any young pitcher. For the record, this put Soroka at No. 2 among pitchers for rest-of-career WAR in ZiPS entering 2020.

ZiPS Rest-of-Career Projections, Pre-2020
Player WAR Left
1 Jack Flaherty 53.2
2 Mike Soroka 49.0
3 Shane Bieber 45.0
4 Lucas Giolito 44.2
5 Gerrit Cole 41.3
6 Germán Márquez 39.5
7 Walker Buehler 38.9
8 Zac Gallen 37.8
9 Noah Syndergaard 33.7
10 Aaron Nola 33.5
11 Chris Paddack 30.0
12 Luis Castillo 28.6
13 Chris Sale 28.6
14 Stephen Strasburg 28.3
15 José Berríos 27.6

Even post-Achilles injury, there was reason to be optimistic past 2020. One study showed 62% of baseball players successfully returning from tears, and though the injury was to the leg Soroka pushes off of, his game wouldn’t have the same speed requirement as a position player.

Atlanta, meanwhile, survived the loss of its ace, with Max Fried and Ian Anderson making up for the loss of one of the rotation’s heavy horses; the former went 7–0 with a 2.25 ERA, enough for 1.5 WAR in just seven starts. Even this was barely enough, with the non-Fried starters combining for a 6.44 ERA over 140 innings. To the benefit of the Braves, Anderson was able to stand up and give the team six terrific starts (and four more in the playoffs) thanks to a heavy fastball that seemed thick as a brick.

As for Soroka: After a number of setbacks in recent months, general manager Alex Anthopoulos was cautiously optimistic that he would be able to return in late August.

We’ve gotten good news on Soroka. He was re-examined and he doesn’t need, at this moment, any more surgical procedures and he’s rehabbing and strengthening. He still has a long road to go. But we’re optimistic — we don’t have a timeframe specifically. But sometime, we think by the end of August, he could be back with us. We’ve always tried to be respectful of not putting times on it because we don’t know how guys are going to heal, but he’s doing well. He’s throwing off a knee. He’s progressing. And if you’re projecting two to two and a half months from now, d’Arnaud and Ynoa as well. I expect all three of those guys back before the end of the season.

That bit of good news was short-lived; walking into the clubhouse on Thursday, Soroka felt a pop in his Achilles, and an MRI revealed that he had again torn the tendon, necessitating another surgery and probably at least another year on the shelf. It’s definitely a nasty surprise; studies have placed the percentage of Achilles tendon re-ruptures after surgical intervention in the single digits.

As for the rest of the rotation, Fried isn’t matching his 2021, but the rotation as a whole is only a middle-of-the-pack one, currently ranking 16th in the majors in combined WAR. Offseason addition Charlie Morton has been as solid as anybody could hope for, but Drew Smyly’s contributions have been rather inconsistent. Combined with the offense dropping from third in wRC+ last year to 12th, the Braves find themselves below .500 as we approach the halfway mark.

Add that all up, and ZiPS has the Braves down to a 19% chance to make the playoffs in 2021, far below the 76% they were projected at back in March. Soroka didn’t make the list of my ten most irreplaceable players that month, but even with the assumption (at the time) of him not coming back until June, he ranked 21st. Our rest-of-season projections are slightly more optimistic, pegging the Braves’ rotation as 14th in WAR (ZiPS also says 14th), but needing to make up ground, Atlanta would be smart to explore a significant addition this deadline.

The Braves were one of the best in the majors at developing interesting pitching prospects during the rebuilding years, but at this point, most of those names have either graduated to the majors, regressed, or headed to other teams. Once you get past Bryse Wilson, it’s light on likely reinforcements for the starting pitching. Now that Soroka’s injury woes are guaranteed to carry into 2022 at a minimum, it makes the team’s thinning rotation depth an even bigger issue. Tracking pitchers projected to have 10 WAR remaining in their careers in ZiPS, you can see the rise and decline in that depth.

ZiPS uses injury data, but on a general level, and considers Soroka’s injury as “full season, ankle/heel/foot, pitcher.” The newest projection lops about half of his projected WAR.

ZiPS Projection – Mike Soroka (6/28)
Year W L S ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2022 3 3 0 4.14 11 11 63.0 63 29 8 17 47 109 1.0
2023 8 6 0 3.96 23 23 131.7 132 58 16 33 98 114 2.4
2024 8 5 0 3.92 22 22 126.3 125 55 15 31 97 115 2.4
2025 7 5 0 3.93 21 21 119.0 118 52 14 30 91 115 2.2
2026 7 5 0 3.89 20 20 115.7 113 50 14 29 90 116 2.2
2027 7 5 0 3.88 19 19 111.3 108 48 14 27 88 116 2.2
2028 6 5 0 3.91 18 18 106.0 102 46 13 26 85 115 2.0
2029 6 4 0 3.97 17 17 99.7 95 44 13 25 81 114 1.8
2030 6 4 0 3.94 16 16 93.7 90 41 12 24 76 114 1.8
2031 5 4 0 4.00 15 15 87.7 85 39 12 22 72 113 1.6
2032 5 4 0 4.17 14 14 82.0 80 38 12 21 68 108 1.3
2033 4 4 0 4.26 13 13 76.0 75 36 11 20 63 106 1.2
2034 4 3 0 4.39 12 12 69.7 70 34 11 19 57 103 1.0
2035 3 3 0 4.43 11 11 63.0 64 31 10 18 51 102 0.9
2036 3 3 0 4.69 10 10 55.7 58 29 9 16 45 96 0.6
2037 2 2 0 4.83 9 9 46.3 50 25 8 14 37 93 0.5
2038 2 2 0 4.97 7 7 38.3 42 21 7 12 30 91 0.3
2039 1 2 0 5.39 5 4 25.7 29 15 5 8 20 84 0.1

While there’s no good news here, it’s at least a silver lining that Soroka is 23, not 33. It’s going to be a long road back, but the Braves will no doubt give him every opportunity to make 2019 happen again.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

There have been a lot of injuries this year across the league. Is there a way to quantify these losses by team? Say, by taking the number of days on IL weighted by a projection or something? Something I’ve been thinking about is that about two dozen teams can claim they’ve been unlucky with injuries, but not all of those teams have been equal with the losses.