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2019 Atlanta Braves season in review: Mike Soroka

Soroka had a break-out 2019 season and looks to be a big part of the Braves’ plans going forward.

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Mike Soroka’s path from a high school pitcher in Calgary to front-end starter in the major leagues was a stunningly short one. After being selected 28th overall by the Braves in the 2015 draft out of high school, Soroka shot through the ranks in the minors and made his big-league debut in 2018 at the age of 20. While his major league career was off to a good start, Soroka suffered a shoulder injury that forced his 2018 season to end just as it was beginning to take off. Soroka then experienced a setback with his shoulder in Spring Training which delayed the start to his 2019 campaign. However, once healthy, there was no looking back.

Soroka was the Braves’ best pitcher in 2019 and gave the feeling that we are witnessing the beginning of a great career. He was properly recognized by being named an All-Star at the age of 21 this season. While many young pitching prospects come up with huge arms and nasty junk but have to learn how to pitch effectively, Soroka seemingly has done the opposite. While he has a nice repertoire of pitches and enough velocity to be effective in the majors, Soroka has displayed the pitching wisdom of a battle-tested veteran well beyond his years. To put it another way, it’s far more common to see a young pitcher with tons of talent that must learn command, whereas Soroka already has incredible command and is learning how to best use his talent.

Soroka was one of the best pitchers in MLB this season at inducing soft contact and suppressing home runs. He gave up the second-fewest home runs per nine innings (0.72), ranked sixth in groundball percentage (51.2%), and 14th in barrel percentage allowed (3.7%). While this would be impressive any season, Soroka, who turned 22 midway through the season, did so in a season of unprecedented home runs where veteran pitchers had major problems suppressing power due to a juiced ball.

His ability to avoid big flies and his cooler-than-the-other-side-of the-pillow approach made Soroka impeccable at giving his team a chance to win each time he toed the rubber. In 29 starts this season, Soroka allowed more than three earned runs only four times and allowed more than four earned runs only once (when he allowed five).

Soroka earned runs allowed by start

2019 0-1 ER 2-3 ER 4-5 ER 5+ ER
2019 0-1 ER 2-3 ER 4-5 ER 5+ ER
Total (% of starts) 15 (51.7%) 10 (34.5%) 4 (13.8%) 0

Another feature of Soroka’s calm demeanor on the mound is that he’s unflappable on the road. His 1.55 ERA on the road was easily the best of any starter in MLB this season (the second-place finisher had a 2.33 ERA). On the road this season, Soroka allowed more than two earned runs only two times out of 16 and did not allow multiple home runs in any start. Simply put, he was a dominant outside of Atlanta.

However, on the flipside of this split are very pedestrian splits at home. Soroka had a 4.14 ERA at SunTrust Park despite the park being middle-of-the-pack in terms of being hitter friendly. (Additionally, Braves’ pitchers as a whole had a higher ERA away even with Soroka’s splits included.) For whatever reason, Soroka was not as effective at home at avoiding hard contact. He allowed an xwOBA of .288 away versus .324 at home, for example. Whether this is a statistical anomaly based on a relatively small sample size or a mental hurdle in terms of preparation and comfort, expect Soroka and the Braves to focus on how he can pitch at SunTrust Park more like he does on the road over the offseason.

Another area where there is room for improvement for Soroka is his sinker. Soroka used his sinker more than another other pitch (44.6% of the time), yet it had the lowest put-out percentage (13.8%) of any of his pitches. Not only was he not getting outs effectively with the sinker, batters made better contact against it than any other pitch, as a .346 xwOBA against it demonstrates. He gets very good movement on his sinker, though, so this might be an issue of how he mixes it with other pitches. Might I suggest more slider so that we can see more of this:

With his command and baseball IQ, the sky is the limit for Soroka going forward. Although his results outpaced his peripherals a bit this season, there is no reason to think that his stellar 2019 campaign was any kind of fluke. Look for the Braves to take the training wheels off a bit more in 2020 in terms of limiting his innings. And if he stays healthy, I expect to see lots of All-Star and Cy Young ballots cast with Soroka’s name in the future.

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