Mike Soroka came into last season as an intriguing arm after the Braves selected him with the 28th pick overall in the 2015 draft. He had strong numbers in rookie ball, but for the most part other pitching prospects overshadowed him in the system partially because there was not a ton of coverage of the Canadian prep baseball scene.
That is not a problem any longer. Not long after Mike chatted with us last February, he was named the opening day starter for Rome on a rotation that was historically great. He did not disappoint as he posted a 3.02 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 1.13 WHIP, and striking out 125 batters in 143 innings in his first full season as a pro. His 2.01 BB/9 is comically low and he has given up a grand total of 3 home runs in his pro career so far. He is being slept on no longer as he started to creep onto top 100 prospect lists towards the end of the season and is now a mainstay in the top 8 or so prospects in the Braves organization by most outlets at this point.
I reached out to Mike and he graciously agreed to be interviewed again to talk about his breakout year at Rome, what he has been working on, and some of his goals for 2017. Enjoy!
Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us again. First things first….how has you offseason been going? Have you been working on anything in particular?
This offseason was a little different. We got my training and testing done earlier this year and we got home from instructs a little earlier, so that gave us time to plan out my training schedule in phases and whatnot. My last three offseasons of work have been solely geared around putting on weight, size, and strength. Now, it doesn’t make much sense to keep getting bigger and stronger until I can use the stuff I have built up. I found this past year that sometimes when I was out of sync that I felt like there was so much more left in the tank that I just wasn’t using.
This year I have been a lot more athletically geared instead of working on strict strength exercises. I have gotten a lot more speed and agility and a lot more fast twitch exercises...things like that for the upper body to help out as well. I’m hoping that this year I can come out and be a little more athletic and usable so I feel good on the mound. That’s my goal so far, but other than just starting to build up again and getting excited.
You started off in Rome in 2016 as the Opening Day starter in what would turn out to be one of the best minor league rotations in recent memory. What was it like having such highly talented guys starting almost every game? Was there a lot of friendly rivalries and exchanging of tips between you guys?
It’s fun for us to be able to chart, well...as much fun as charting can be, and getting to watch a guy every single time you are up there that is really talented and has got good stuff. It makes it a lot easier to stay into it. Like you said, one day after another it is also easier for us to get in a rhythm. I started the first game of the season and went four innings because of pitch count there and then Weigel went 5 innings the next day and it was just one up, one up and it just built on that. I think that is pretty awesome and I hope that we are going to stick together I am sure and we are going to have another good year coming up.
It is arguable that you were the most consistent starter on that vaunted staff from the start of the season until the end. You did so despite pitching the most innings of any prep first round draft pick in their first full season in at least 10 years and I can’t remember any full season debuts with that sort of workload. How did you adjust to the grind of full season ball and what adjustments do you need to make going into 2017?
I always go back to the fact that I have been throwing against these guys since I was 16. It was almost a head start in a way. My arm was well-rested since I took a couple months off every offseason for the last 3 or 4 years. It is almost like understanding where I am at as a pitcher and where I can be. I take my training very seriously and I also take my strength and mobility very seriously. Weigel makes fun of me all the time...he’ll be sleeping in and when he wakes up I will be stretching or something. It is just one of those things where I try to be my best every day. Chris Reitsma and I really hammered it in that I needed to be focused on every pitch and that is how it is. Being transparent with the coaching staff as well was important….I was very fortunate not to have anything that prevented me from taking the day off, so I just kept after it day after day and I think that is where it came from. Weigel and I got to 80 innings right at around the same time and said “Whoa...we are only just over half-way done here.”. After that, it just started to roll. For him, every time out after April was just 6 innings, barely any hits, a bunch of strikeouts, just time after time after time. It was the same thing for me, just being able to bring my best competitiveness to the table every single day. That is really the only thing you can really control.
Before last season when you and I first chatted, your name wasn’t coming up on top 100 lists and top 10 organizational lists. Obviously that has changed quite a bit with getting more and more notice nationally. Have you noticed the increased level of interest and do you think players pay much attention to rankings and the like in general?
A little bit, I mean we see it, but we don’t put much thought into it though because with the exception of some guys, a lot times those media types aren’t watching the games live watching a guy pitch. A lot of times it is a lot of hearsay, but coming out of high school the fact that media hadn’t really covered us was the biggest thing. Those who knew what was going on at the time weren’t surprised and it wasn’t for me either. It was just about getting out there and getting exposed. It wasn’t like I made any drastic changes in the last year and a half to get recognized. I just sort of came out of nowhere in the first place, that’s all.
You have mentioned a couple of times that your curveball was one of your most consistent pitches this past season. How did that pitch develop over the course of the season and where do you see room for improvement with it?
Oh, for sure. I have always been where I can throw it for a strike, but now it is about being able to locate it on sides just like my fastball. It changed a little bit here and there over the year. It had days where it was more just a curveball in that 79-81 range and then I don’t really know what happened...it wasn’t a mental adjustment or anything but towards the end of the year it started to form into a more true power slider at 84-86. It just kinda molded itself and that is probably where I see it. It is always fun to watch guys like Kluber or Arrieta with a power breaking ball if that is what you want to call it because it breaks a little too much to be a slider, but they are not curveballs. I am obviously not comparing myself to them, but in terms of that pitch that is where I want to get to in terms of a power breaking ball to mix off of my sinking fastball. I think those two would play hand-in-hand. I have worked on my changeup a lot getting it back to where it was and hopefully all of those three work together and be pretty special.
Let’s talk about your sinker for a minute. You used it to great effect in getting groundball outs when you needed them and it has some deception in that it fooled scouts (myself included) that it was a changeup sometimes. Tell us about the pitch and what having a good sinker in your arsenal does in setting up your other pitches.
Well I mean, I always threw it...it was my two-seam fastball but now we are calling it a sinker because that is what it does consistently. When I throw my four-seam right, it does have ride and it is a true fastball and it was just a grey area at some points because some days my four-seamer would be sinking and other days my two-seamer wouldn’t. Now we are getting to the point where they are each definitely two different fastballs. That is something I worked with Chuck Hernandez and Dan Meyer was to make those two different pitches to be able to come in on lefties with a true four-seamer and away to righties and being able to run it in on their hands with the sinker. Having those two...Kolby actually laughs at it all the time because sometimes I get in a hitter’s count and I just giving it to them. Aiming down the middle and letting it run to a corner and maybe taking a little bit off of it. They get geared up 2-0, they want to hit the ball hard, and it ends up running off the plate a little slower than they think it is coming in and it’s a ground ball. That is definitely one strong suit of my abilities is to revert to that pitch and also keep guys off of it at the same time. I definitely notice sometimes when we got really comfortable with it some days that guys were waiting for it and trying to slap it the other way. That is where I need to do a better job this year of being able to keep them honest to where they can’t just sit on that pitch. It will help with the changeup back as well, because then they will really have to sit back on it. When I am just throwing fastball/curveball for most of the game, it is breaking one way or the other and it is just one speed and one reaction. Being able to show that changeup is going to make those guys stay off my two-seam so I can keep throwing it in hitters’ counts.
A quick question about your changeup. You have said that you think it has the chance to be your best pitch when it is going but that it came and went a bit last season. Has that been a focus of yours this offseason and going into 2017 or did you get it working the way you wanted it as the season ended?
The problem with a changeup is that you can’t think when you throw it. It is just like your fastball but it just a different grip. It isn’t an entirely different pitch like your curveball is. When I lost it, it was still really good but I just couldn’t throw it for a strike. I would throw it and it would be landing on the plate, landing on the plate and it was just kind of at the point where I needed to throw it for a strike or they weren’t gonna look for it. If I couldn’t throw it for a strike, they were just going to write that pitch off. It was also something that we got to thinking too much about it and then we were changing grips and I started thinking about having to do something with my arm to get it in the zone. It got away from just throwing it. So, that was one of the things we worked on at instructs by gaining confidence with it. With any other pitch, it’s the same thing...but especially with your changeup. You have to have confidence that you are going to throw it and you are gonna throw it right and where you want it. It is going to be a pitch that comes and goes, it does for every big league pitcher. There are going to be weeks where they don’t have their curveball and it comes back the next week, but I think that a changeup is something for me that if I get that working and I can play it off my two-seam that it is a game-changer.
One of your calling cards has been your command and your control and you have spoken about taking a bit off of your fastball at times so you can get it where you want. Do you think that has been a large part of your success as a pro and do you think it would serve players well to learn to change speeds more and focus less on throwing super hard or with a ton of action?
Well, everybody can use it but it is a point you have to get to with your comfort level and your conviction level. I don’t have to take anything off to throw it where I want, that is not the issue. It’s about taking some off when the hitter is already geared up to swing at something faster. If you want to talk about changing speeds, you look at Patrick Weigel. I used to laugh in Danville and at the beginning of this past year when guys didn’t know who he was. He would come out and be 93-94 occasionally and then two strikes and then here comes 97-99 and the other team would be slapping their radar guns because they would think that it misread. He had guys all year because then they would be scared of 98 coming in, get their hands going, and he would whip in 92-93 and they would be ahead. After that, they would think that he was a little gassed out in the 6th inning and here comes 97 again. So, having two different speeds with your fastball is just like having two different pitches...it really is. It is just something that you really learn how to do. You can’t just decide to do it one day, you really can’t.
It’s really a fine-tuned thing, we are only talking about 2-3 miles per hour and that makes a big difference….it isn’t like throwing 93 and the next one at 85 mph. It is just enough to get the hitter to mishit it. I mean yeah...strikeouts are awesome and it’s fun, but the most taxing game for me this year was my 9 strikeouts in Greenville. I had seven through 3 innings and I came in and it just felt like I was out there for so long and I didn’t realize I had thrown a lot more pitches. I mean yeah...it was a fun game, one of my favorite games...but at the same time I might throw more innings as someone else who might have thrown 20 innings less by the end of the year. Being able to get contact when you need it is a little underrated sometimes.
You were at instructs this past fall with a slew of highly talented players including some that were brand new to the organization and to professional baseball. What did you take away from your time in instructs and did any players stick out from your time there?
My time in instructs was mainly bullpens and it was truly a month where I could just clear my mind and just try things. Trying throwing this one day and just work on things like….okay let’s throw a 40 pitch bullpen at 80%-ish, but every second pitch is a changeup. Fastball, changeup, fastball, changeup and that is the kind of stuff you don’t get to do during the year because you are always working on everything. For me, instructs was good that way in getting repetitions on things I needed work on and so I can solidify it this offseason and through spring training. Seeing some of these guys at instructs, I don’t have a bad word to say about any of them. They all work hard, they all love the game, they all love being there...it is going to be another special year for everyone. They all compete hard and they love being there and that is a sign that you don’t see many guys that do. You can tell they are going to be successful as well.