The Atlanta Braves and Mike Soroka have stressed patience during his recovery from a second Achilles tendon repair, and that patience paid off this season as Soroka returned to pitching in games at the minor league level.
The Braves drafted Mike Soroka with the 28th overall pick of the 2015 MLB amateur draft. After the lockout ended, he signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal for the season, avoiding arbitration. It was the same amount he made in 2021, after he beat the Braves in an arbitration hearing.
What were the expectations?
While there was some hope and talk of Soroka returning from his lengthy absence to get back to the major leagues this season, the reality for him was that even getting on a field at the minor league level would be an achievement to take into the offseason. Adjusting to new mechanics and staying healthy were the two main things that the Braves could have hoped for this season.
Soroka did not appear in any major league games this season, but finally got back on the field for the Rome Braves in an August 16th game against the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Against overmatched High-A competition, Soroka showed flashes of what made him arguably Atlanta’s best pitcher between 2018 and 2020, with eight strikeouts over four one-hit innings.
Following this, Soroka was moved up to Gwinnett where the rest of his season showed rockier results. In his first two starts, Soroka allowed six runs over eight innings of work with more walks than strikeouts, and the theme of his starts in Gwinnett were struggles the second time through the order. He had a brief respite from toiling on September 2 with four one-hit shutout innings of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp before struggling to close the season. Soroka allowed nine runs over nine innings in his final two starts, including allowing three home runs in his season finale. Soroka was then shut down with elbow soreness on September 22, putting an end to his efforts to get back to Atlanta.
What went right? What went wrong?
Unfortunately for Soroka, his attempt to return from his initial Achilles tear in August of 2020 has been rife with setbacks. He was hit by a line drive in early July, injuring his knee. His rehab had been set to start soon after that, but this setback nearly guaranteed he wouldn’t have enough time to build up to appearing in the majors before the end of the season. The elbow soreness at the end of the season also causes concern, though there was always the expectation that that building up his stamina would have its issues and lead to arm issues of some sort.
Soroka focused heavily this season on getting a feel for his pitches and showed off some notably-revamped mechanics. In his interview following his start in Rome, he stressed work that he’s done to become more athletic both on and off the mound, to rebuild a stronger base for his mechanics. The initial Achilles injury came while attempting to move to cover first base, and he mentioned reworking the footwork following his delivery and beginning his run off the mound with his legs underneath his body rather than behind him.
On the mound, Soroka has worked to get a more fluid motion through his body, which starts with his lower half and landing position. In his pre-injury delivery, Soroka had a short stride length, ending with his front half partially closed and a cross-body arm action. Soroka increased his stride length down the mound and now opens his front hip and leg fully towards home plate. What results is an arm action that connects to the movement of his front half, rather than trying to throw around a closed-off front hip. Where Soroka previously had to tilt his entire body gloveside and lifted his front foot to land, he stays vertical throughout his delivery and either lands square to home plate or with minimal follow-through on his back foot. It’s a more fluid delivery overall, one which puts less strain on his hips and shoulder, though it’s not clear if he will benefit from a performance standpoint.
Much of Soroka’s prior success was based on his deception, and his delivery is easier to read now with the ball showing earlier and coming from a more natural release. On the flip side, Soroka was previously a player with bottom-of-the-league extension on his pitches, and is now utilizing his length more appropriately.
Soroka struggled at the minor league level in a way he never has before, and while some of it is him not being in peak physical form, some of it is naturally attributable to adjusting to a new delivery. With any change like this, the movement of his pitches and attack angle are going to be different, and he will have to relearn his pitches in many ways. His changeup showed marked inconsistency in his short time on the field, as his command of that pitch. especially, was not up to his prior level. His slider was stronger than expected and at times looked better than it did pre-injury, but was also notably not as consistent as Soroka had been before.
Many of these growing pains are a symptom of his larger recovery and problems with his pitch command and shape are to be expected after a two-year absence, but these are problems that are nonetheless relevant to his ability to contribute at the major league level. Soroka’s velocity was down this fall due to him being held back a bit from full effort, but we also will need to take a better look at how his mechanics fare in higher-effort situations. Soroka still shows all of the promise he did two years ago, but now shows it while saddled with two years of aging, a laundry list of injuries, and a need to rediscover that last bit of refinement to his pitching.
Still, one shouldn’t understate how good Soroka’s stuff has looked in flashes. For a player two years out from competitive action, his slider showed a nasty bite and consistently produced whiffs. His changeup, when located, also provided deception and weak contact. His struggles typically came on his fastball and poorly-located changeups, and he should probably, eventually, see improved command relative to where it is right now. Physically, Soroka is much stronger than before, and with that he has had to adjust to a new body as well.
While he struggled as lineups got a second look at him, and these struggles are his main hurdle at present, he tended to look much like the 2019 version of himself in the early innings with a fresh arm.
Soroka will likely come into Spring Training with an opportunity to win the fifth spot in the starting rotation, but it’s fair to say he shouldn’t be the odds-on favorite for that roster spot. It’s hard to discount a 25-year-old with a 2.86 career ERA and 4.9 fWAR in his first 214 career maor league innings, but he is effectively coming into 2023 as a completely different player and athlete than he once was. The Braves have continued to tender him contracts throughout this process, including another $2.8 million salary for 2023, so there is and should be a level of faith there. Still, it should be expected that Soroka spend at least some time at Triple-A to start the season. He will likely get a shot at the major league level at some point, and still has the raw stuff to be a successful starter, but is in the middle of a long process that isn’t anywhere near over yet. He will have to build up through 2023 and while he may contribute immediately, will still hopefully have an arrow pointing up as he puts his major injuries further and further behind him.