Braves’ Mike Soroka to Miss Rest of Season with Achilles Injury

An exciting pitching matchup on Monday between the defending National League Cy Young winner and the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up turned grim in the third inning when 23-year-old Braves right-hander Mike Soroka suffered what appeared to be a leg injury while coming off the mound on a groundball.

The injury was rather apparent in zoomed-in, slowed-down videos shared on Twitter shortly after — I won’t link them here, you can find them yourself if you really want to — and within hours, the Braves confirmed the worst. Soroka tore his achilles tendon, which will cause him to miss the rest of this season and, depending on his recovery, possibly the beginning of 2021 as well.

Losing Soroka, 23, to a serious injury like this is awful. He was second in NL Rookie of the Year voting a year ago after throwing 174.2 innings and posting a 2.68 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 4.0 WAR. That ERA was good for fourth among qualified starters, while his FIP was 14th. He didn’t get many strikeouts — he had the 14th-lowest K/9 rate in baseball last year — but instead pitched to contact, and was quite successful at it. He had the sixth-highest groundball rate among qualified starters, and according to Statcast, was in the 84th percentile in barrel rate allowed, the 65th percentile in exit velocity allowed, and the 60th percentile in expected slugging percentage. Underlying data didn’t necessarily believe he was the Cy Young contender his ERA portrayed him as, but he was still rated as a solidly above-average pitcher across the board — no small feat for someone who pitched most of the year at age 21 while attempting to buck some of the game’s most popular pitching trends.

This year, however, there was evidence he might be falling more in line with what modern pitching instructors are preaching. Soroka was a sinker baller last year, throwing the pitch 44.6% of the time, while his four-seam fastball rate was just 18.7%. In a small sample of starts this season, however, those two had converged. According to Statcast, in his first 13.2 innings, Soroka had thrown exactly 59 sinkers and 59 four-seamers.

That change is the result of Soroka dramatically shifting the way he pitches to left-handers. Last season, he pitched to both sides of the plate with pretty much the same approach. He’s held fast to his old mindset with right-handed hitters this season, but when lefties are up, he completely flips which fastball he leans on:

That seems to be an intentional change. Last season, left-handed hitters had wOBA of .434 against Soroka’s sinkers. Against his four-seamers, they had a wOBA of .353 — not what you’d consider good, but certainly better than what the sinker was allowing. The shift in approach hadn’t yet transferred to results — lefties had a .321 wOBA against Soroka last season and a .331 wOBA in 29 PAs this year — but his overall numbers were still solid — a 3.95 ERA and 3.62 FIP, though with fewer strikeouts, more walks, and more groundballs than a year ago. It’s difficult to assign much meaning to a such a small sample, though, and we’ll need to wait a long while to learn whether Soroka’s change in approach is real and if he has more tweaks planned.

That wait is sure to be a difficult one for Soroka, and it’s no easy test for the Braves, either. The last 10 months have been terribly unkind to their starting rotation, which just a year ago looked like one of the deeper groups in the majors. Atlanta was 12th in the majors in rotation WAR last year, and 10th in FIP. It wasn’t so much a star-studded group as a large number of reliable big league starters, some of whom had serious upside. Less than a year later, though, and that group has been totally picked apart:

2019 Braves SP — Where Are They Now?
Name Innings ERA FIP WAR WATN?
Mike Soroka 174.2 2.68 3.45 4.0 Out for season
Julio Teheran 174.2 3.81 4.66 1.6 Angels
Max Fried 160.1 4.15 3.74 2.9 Braves SP
Mike Foltynewicz 117.0 4.54 4.97 0.8 DFA
Dallas Keuchel 112.2 3.75 4.72 0.8 White Sox
Kevin Gausman 80.0 6.19 4.20 1.2 Giants
Bryse Wilson 17.2 7.13 6.16 -0.1 ATL Player Pool
Kyle Wright 16.2 9.72 7.17 -0.3 Braves SP
Sean Newcomb 15.0 3.60 4.15 0.3 Braves SP

Gausman was already long gone after being placed on waivers in July 2019 and getting claimed by the Reds. Then Teheran and Keuchel left in free agency, and Foltynewicz showed up this season throwing three and a half ticks slower than he did last year. This group doesn’t even include Cole Hamels, who signed with the team after a strong year with the Cubs in 2019, then suffered a triceps injury in the spring that he still has no set timetable to return from.

This was a mess, then, even before Soroka went down with an injury. Our Depth Charts now predict just eight teams will have a less valuable rotation the rest of the way than the Braves, who will be asking a lot from inexperienced arms:

2020 Depth Charts Projections – Braves SP
Max Fried 57 9.2 3.2 0.9 3.63 3.66 1.1
Kyle Wright 51 8.6 4.0 1.2 4.47 4.49 0.6
Sean Newcomb 47 8.4 4.1 1.3 4.63 4.74 0.5
Touki Toussaint 40 9.5 5.0 1.2 4.54 4.71 0.4
Bryse Wilson 28 8.4 2.9 1.3 4.19 4.28 0.4
Cole Hamels 17 8.4 3.2 1.3 4.28 4.42 0.2
Mike Foltynewicz 11 8.3 3.4 1.6 4.84 4.91 0.1
Jhoulys Chacín 11 7.4 3.7 1.5 4.98 5.08 0.1
Ian Anderson 11 8.9 4.7 1.3 4.66 4.79 0.1
Josh Tomlin 9 6.9 1.3 1.9 4.92 4.88 0.1

To put it delicately, this isn’t ideal. Wright, Toussaint and Wilson — now three of Atlanta’s top five projected starters — have made a whopping 17 combined starts at the major league level. Wright and Toussaint are each former first round picks while Wilson pitched very well as a 21-year-old in Triple-A last year, so they’re certainly guys you would like to see afforded opportunities. They just aren’t the guys you necessarily want headlining a contending rotation, simply because of their inexperience. Newcomb, meanwhile, has been a capable big league starter in the past, but has been hit hard in his first two outings of 2020.

The ace of the staff is now unquestionably Fried, who broke out last year for a 3-WAR season and has looked quite good in his first two starts this year. In 11.2 innings, he’s allowed three runs on just five hits, with 12 strikeouts and three walks. He ranks highly in a host of Statcast metrics early on, and has continued his increased emphasis on his lights-out breaking stuff that I touched on last season.

Fried will be fun to watch in the Braves’ rotation for as long as this season continues, but his success alone won’t be enough to get the team through an difficult schedule against the AL and NL East squads. The team’s 7-4 start is a big help in a shortened season, and our playoff odds still give them better than a four-in-five shot at making the postseason, largely because of how productive the offense and bullpen should be. But a lot of young starters are about to be tested in a way pitchers don’t always respond well to. Removing Soroka from the picture adds even more innings to a pile that the Braves already seemed a bit unsure they knew what to do with.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Antonio Bananas
3 years ago

I’m thinking a lot of tandem starts. Pair 2 guys with complementing stuff and give each 70 pitches.

Longer term, could this sink or swim season actually help some of the other young pitchers?

3 years ago

Not sure Braves are organizationally interested in tandem starts. Young pitchers getting innings will help them develop, but Braves view themselves as contenders. Will they reprise the Glavine/Smoltz early learning years?

Connor Grey
3 years ago
Reply to  pepper69fun

Plenty of contenders use tandem starts. Just because a team’s trying to contend doesn’t mean they’ll shy away from tandem starts.

3 years ago
Reply to  Connor Grey

Jesus. I made two separate points and you mixed them together. First, Atlanta has zero history of using tandem starts. Totally irrelevant if it is wise, but this team doesn’t do it. There’s no reason for that to change. Second, running out the young guys to let them get blooded would likely help long term, but it doesn’t help Atlanta this year. Atlanta believes they are contenders this year and will want more competence than letting the youngsters take a beating so they can learn. I literally never said Atlanta will not do tandem starts because they are trying to contend. Reading is fundamental, people.

Jason Bmember
3 years ago
Reply to  pepper69fun

Well at least you didn’t overreact…