You will be hard-pressed to find a Braves fan whose heart didn’t drop when Mike Soroka fell to the ground with an apparent injury on August 3, 2020. This wasn’t a situation where he walked off the field because of discomfort or as a precaution. The replay clearly showed one moment where his calf visibly shifted and down he went. It was heartbreaking, not just for the Braves who very much needed their young rotation cornerstone, but also from a baseball fan’s perspective of one of the game’s bright young stars going down. It was one of those injuries that everyone knew was going to end Soroka’s season, even before the announcement was made.
Flash forward to now... the prelude to 2021 season. The one good thing about Achilles tendon injuries for baseball players is that while they are severe, they don’t have the same lengthy timetable for return as some shoulder injuries or Tommy John surgery. There is a good amount of optimism that Soroka could be available early in the 2021 season. However, the question now is what can we realistically expect from Soroka, both from a total production standpoint, as well as in terms of the workload that he will shoulder.
For the optimists
Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Achilles tendon injury heals as well as possible and there is little to no rust in Soroka’s game. Yes, I know... getting all of that at this point is unlikely, but this is the sunshine and rainbows part of the article. What we saw from Soroka during the 2019 season seems pretty in line with what we could see if everything goes right. High 2.00s to low 3.00s ERA, miniscule walk rate, below average strikeout rate, a ton of groundballs, efficient innings, and good contact management by preventing hitters from elevating the ball. That is the guy he has been through the minors and that’s what the Braves hope he is. That player was worth 4.0 fWAR over 174.2 innings on his way to some Cy Young votes in 2019. That’s a hell of a pitcher and one that would likely be the best on the Braves’ staff.
However, even if all of those things are true, it’s still unlikely that Soroka starts the season with the team on Opening Day and we can thank Rob Manfred and the league for that. If the universal DH was in place, how Soroka looked on the mound would be all that matters and while pushing off and/or planting one’s foot after a pitch is important, it is not the same level of strain that running the bases regularly is. There are some 99th percentile outcomes here where he is completely healthy and can bat and run for himself, but even for the optimists... expect him to miss at least the first couple of weeks of the season to build up the flexibility in that tendon so that he can run without fear.
For the pessimists
On the flip side, we have to remember that this was a severe injury and there are a lot of things to watch out for with those, including rust, setbacks, other minor injuries as he gets stretched back out, and good ol’ fashioned fatigue. We can’t forget that while Soroka made that 174-inning campaign in 2019 look easy (especially after throwing just 56 professional innings the year prior), he did miss most of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury. That means that in 2018 and 2020 combined, Soroka threw just 39 1⁄3 major league innings. Not only would it make sense for him to miss time to start the season because of the baserunning concerns, but a significant rehab stint after that so he can get stretched out properly isn’t that unreasonable an expectation. That could mean a summer season debut and one where his innings are managed fairly aggressively.
From an overall production standpoint, if you are looking on the pessimistic side, one need not look any further than the Steamer projections for Soroka in 2021. Its hard to know exactly how much they price in injury risk with their projections, but Steamer has Soroka posting a 4.44 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 139 innings in 2021. Other than another injury, that feels closer to the floor of what Soroka is likely to give the Braves, but it could reasonably happen.
For the realists
So what is actually going to happen? There is clearly some real variance in what Mike Soroka could offer the Braves in 2021 and some of that variance does not directly have to do with his recovery from the Achilles injury. That, in itself, makes handicapping Soroka’s 2021 season tough.
From a practical standpoint, I think it’s safe to assume that the Braves are going to be careful with Soroka, but give him and their doctors room to convince them that he could be back on the sooner side of expectations. The Braves are a contending team, all of the information so far has been that his recovery has been going great seven months removed from the initial injury, and Soroka is one of those guys that is going to take special care of his body to get back out on the field. Ultimately, that probably means that he is going to get plenty of throwing done down at Spring Training, he will continue to work on strength and flexibility in that leg, and he probably debuts in late April or early May with some minimal restrictions before getting back to normal.
As for projections, purely from a feel perspective... ZiPS seems to be around where most people would place their realistic expectations with a 3.81 ERA and 4.02 FIP. Coming back from a severe injury is hard and with that much downtime, some rust is just going to be there. A 2 fWAR season coming off a severe injury is hardly a letdown, and its worth noting that that’s how much ZiPS projects in 120 innings. If Soroka can ramp up to more than that, he should cross that threshold.
However, one last note from yours truly. I started at Talking Chop the year that Soroka was drafted (2015) and ever since he became a pro, I’ve seen a lot of bets against Mike especially given my brand as the resident Soroka simp on the TC staff. “He can’t get lefties out”, “he has the wrong arm slot”, “his stuff isn’t plus enough”, “he doesn’t have a durable frame”, “he doesn’t miss enough bats”, “he can’t pitch up in the zone”... I’ve heard it all. Betting against a guy with the drive, work ethic, and mental aptitude that Mike has has not gone well for those that have done that. Pitchers are a high risk category to be sure and some incredibly talented pitchers have gotten unlucky and not been able to stay on the mound... but count me among those that are gonna keep betting on the kid.