(Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire)
It was the MLB debut of Mike Soroka Tuesday night, the 20-year-old Atlanta Braves prospect who has sported an impressive 27.6% strikeout rate, 5.8% walk rate, 1.99 ERA, and 0.97 WHIP through 22.2 IP in Triple-A this year. Known as a command-first pitcher who has recently developed the ability to punchout batters, there was plenty of hype entering the evening. The result was a brilliant 6.0 IP, 1 ER, 6 Hits, 0 BBs, 5 Ks performance, forcing me to breakdown Soroka’s entire outing inning-by-inning to help us understand what to expect moving forward. Here is the GIF Breakdown of Mike Soroka’s MLB Debut in eighteen GIFs.
Before he even threw a pitch, the Braves handed him a three-run lead, possibly helping calm his nerves as his first two pitches were excellent, the first a slight cutting fastball along the outside corner that played perfectly with a sinking two-seamer that led to a weak groundout from Asdrubal Cabrera. Simply stellar.
Another excellent fastball led to his second out to Michael Conforto, but the third at-bat to Yoenis Cespedes didn’t go as well. Well, except for this fastball with was beautiful:
It didn’t take long for Soroka to establish that he’s going to do plenty of damage with his two-seamer. It comes with sharp both lateral and vertical movement at 94-95mph and without the feral and erratic nature of contemporaries like Aaron Sanchez or Zack Godley. I’m already expecting to see at least one front/back-door fastball to punchout a batter, though I do wonder if Soroka will find himself inducing too many batted balls with the pitch to allow for high strikeout totals. Obviously too early to tell, but that’s what I’m thinking thus far.
Back to Cespedes. The at-bat ended on a 2-1 heater in the middle of plate laced for a single, followed by a single by Jay Bruce on a decent heater that fell to the outside corner. The first single was a four-seamer that Soroka wanted back, while the Bruce pitch was a little better and just how baseball works. Nothing to worry about here.
We’re up to Todd Fraizer and we have yet to see a secondary pitch. 0-0 was a smooth two-seamer that started off the plate and darted back comfortably over the plate.
We’re going to see this a lot from Soroka as he’s a strike-throwing machine and loves to rely on his two-seamers horizontal ride. After missing with a slider at 88mph away, Soroka trusted the pitch again, this time falling along the outside edge, sealing his first frame in the bigs:
Not plus breaking pitches, but good enough to get the job done. I’m curious if he’ll turn to it as a putaway offering as we move past the first frame.
A solid first inning for Soroka. He showcased a fastball that will keep in competitive paired with good command and flashes of brilliance. A hint of the possibilities ahead.
We’re just three pitches into the second inning and I’m already impressed again, even if the execution wasn’t fully there. Soroka got to 0-1 on Adrian Gonzalez and threw a changeup in the dirt – the first slow ball he’s thrown thus far. Instead of going back to his bread-and-butter heat, he elected to try again right away in an expression of confidence. I can hear him say “let me try that again, I know I can do this right.” Here’s the result:
Okay, not the best changeup ever, but Gonzalez sure didn’t expect to see another slow ball and had no idea that it would come with that much depth, even if plenty more elevated than it should be. But it isn’t the result that makes me appreciate Soroka, it’s the attitude. The confidence and drive to get it right. To perfect it and get the result he wanted instead of shying away.
Now 1-2 on Gonzalez it was time for Soroka to earn his first MLB strikeout. After A-Gon fouled off one breaking ball, he struggled to hit a perfectly executed one as Soroka spotted a slider down-and-in for the whiff:
That’s a solid breaking ball that will miss bats when executed correctly. We saw him induce a groundout with the pitch in the first frame while earning a strikeout here, and we’re ticking off boxes rapidly…
…okay maybe that was too quick of an assessment. This slide piece to Amed Rosario was as hung of a bender as you’ll ever see, lined hard to Freddie Freeman for a very fortunate out. I’ve tallied roughly four bad mistakes in the zone thus far, while I’ve seen plenty more painted pitches in Soroka’s favor. I get the feeling we’ll start to see those mistakes on the plate turn into mistakes off the plate.
A big reason for that notion are the three final pitches of the second inning to Tomas Nido. Because they were absolutely perfect. Seriously.
That’s a pair of two-seamers that start off the edge and curl back to land inside the zone. It gets in your head as a hitter and you start to think they are going to abuse that outside edge for one more pitch and send you to the dugout. However, instead of turning back to the two-seamer, he elected to feature his four-seamer, locating it perfectly off the plate where the other two-seamers started. The result is Nido committing to the heat and taking a weak hack on a pitch off the plate for a strikeout. This is a pitcher pitching.
It felt like cheating as Soroka earned his third strikeout facing opposing pitcher Noah Syndergaard, using the same slider he threw to Adrian Gonzalez:
Facing a bad hitter is no excuse for lacking execution and Soroka got two strikes via the heat, setting up the pitch to earn the K. Well done.
We’re back to the top of the lineup and Soroka is making Asdrubal Cabrera’s night miserable. Just look at each of these hacks he took failing terribly at making reasonable contact with Soroka’s two-seamer:
Here’s something I didn’t expect. Notice the amount of sink on the first two pitches – the second one is just stupid good at 93mph, by the way – then the emphasis on ride on the final pitch. Not only is impressive that Soroka is commanding the pitch well, he’s also adjusting the vertical and horizontal movement with each pitch. Cabrera even cheats on the final heater, swinging well underneath it as he expected the vertical drop to come. It never did.
Soroka’s discussed the impacts of mixing his four-seamer and two-seamer for different looks in the same locations and it doesn’t surprise me that he intentional messed around with his two-seamer’s movement in this at-bat. There are few things that make me as giddy than a 20-year-old pitcher who knows how to get the most out of his fastball with movement and location and pumping it in the mid-90s.
But there’s more. Earlier in the week I talked about Nick Kingham’s ability to locate on both sides of the plate with his fastball. We’ve seen Soroka focus nearly exclusively away to both left-handers and right-handers thus far, but against Michael Conforto he displayed his ability to claim both parts of the plate:
He danced back and forth for the rest of the at-bat concluding with a grounder off a 2-2 slider to an out and it left an impression on me. If Soroka can focus on all parts of the zone with just his heat, it’s a major indication of success in future starts. The question is how consistently we’ll see that ability, though he’s certainly making me believe consistency isn’t an issue.
Ahhh this was too bad. Another mistake pitch from Soroka as this slider landed in the middle of the zone for another single from Cespedes…
…and then threw a poor fastball to Bruce that fortunately found a glove:
Are these the two guys he’s most afraid of? Soroka’s mistakes have been nearly exclusive to these two batters and hopefully it stays that way.
Next was Fraizer who earned a single after reaching for a slider away – nearly identical to the slider he saw in the first frame but slightly lower and off the plate – and lined it just over the glove of Dansby Swanson. Now facing Adrian Gonzalez, Soroka’s fastball command wasn’t as pinpoint as it was in the first three frames. He fell to a 3-1 count, turned it to 3-2 with a good fastball on the edge, then threw a mistake four-seamer that was supposed to land on the outside edge but instead jammed Gonzalez up-and-in for the slowest groundball double-play you’ll ever see:
Not only did it require the slow legs of Gonzalez, but also Todd Frazier’s molasses legs to earn an out at second.
This was the worst frame of the evening for Soroka. Fastball command wasn’t pristine, secondary pitches did little support, and he needed some luck to remain unscathed. Now the question is if he’ll come back strong in fifth.
The first pitch was a slider landing inside the zone to Amed Rosario, making Soroka hold a beautiful 12-for-15 First Strike mark thus far. Again, not the best slide piece, but Soroka’s approach seems to rely on sneaking these breaking balls in early in counts when batters are preparing for heat. This later came to bite him against Cespedes and is something to note moving forward. The following two-seamer got inside enough for a weak flyout for his first out. Solid.
Soroka tried to sneak in a back-door two-seamer to Nido for another quick strike, but it tailed too far over the middle of the plate, allowing Nido to push it to the right-field corner for a double. It’s those little things that turn a good pitcher into a great one. No free lunches in the bigs.
Syndergaard skied a ball to right-field for an out as Nido moved to third and it was another opportunity for Soroka to get audible groans from Asdrubal Cabrera. Soroka ended the at-bat with the best pitch of the evening, a 95mph two-seamer that fell off the table like a changeup:
95mph. With that much drop. I understand why Ron Darling was calling it a changeup in the opening frame as you simply don’t see this much vertical movement on fastballs often and it’s hard not to get a little excited about the 20-year-old. He harnesses
one two three incredible heaters.
After a quick out, Yoenis Cespedes stepped to the plate with a pair of singles already to his name. We’ve seen Soroka struggle a bit trying to find a groove against the slugger and on the second pitch of the bat, he gave him this slider:
Across this outing, I was getting the feeling that Soroka’s slider is used mostly as a strike-getter. A pitch that in the minors he was able to get away with to earn strikes inside the zone early in counts, and despite its lack of sharp break or massive movement, Soroka would avoid punishment. However, in the majors this won’t work as often and it is a major flaw in his game. His variety of fastballs is so effective – four-seamer with cut action + two-seamers with excellent vertical and horizontal movement – that I can fathom Soroka getting by with the occasional secondary offering and simply moving his heat around the strike zone with ease. Still, not having stellar options in his back pocket does make me a little concerning about his longevity.
This is just his first start in the smallest sample you’ll see, however, so let’s take all of that with a grain of salt.
Following the Cespedes bomb, Soroka was able to dispose of Jay Bruce easily, but had to fight to get a long fly-out from Todd Fraizer:
It seems the book on the third basemen is to feature him exclusively away as he rarely saw an inside pitch in all three at-bats, though after pounding the outside edge multiple times before, I was a bit disappointed Soroka didn’t elect to surprise Fraizer with a heater inside, and almost gave up another longball because of it. Nevertheless, he sealed his final out of the game, throwing six sparkling frames against the Mets.
The scouting report detailed a fastball-heavy pitcher with plus command and improved strikeout ability. They nailed it as Soroka’s fastball is the crown jewel of his repertoire. I shouldn’t even say it like that, as his fastball comes in three varieties – a cutting four-seamer, a sinker, and a riding two-seamer – each making up an important part of Soroka’s approach. His command of them wasn’t pristine, with moments of incredible precision interspersed with a handful of lapses. It’s possible those get ironed out with more time and fewer jitters, while it’s also possible they will make a larger than ideal impact in future performances. Still, the range of movement and confidence to locate across the entire zone (mostly away but capable of moving inside and out during an at-bat) makes me believe he can survive without stellar secondary offerings.
And they aren’t too great. Soroka’s changeup is a definite work in progress – he’s said so himself! – and his primary secondary pitch is a slider that can be used as a putaway pitch, but mostly reserved for early counts to get ahead. The breaking ball needs development as he hung plenty, including a massive punishment off Cespedes’ bat. It’s still good enough to act as a complement to his dominating heaters, but it does cap Soroka’s ceiling as it makes me question if he can be a consistent strikeout producer.
In short, I like what Soroka brings to the table. His fastballs will get the job done, creating tough at-bats often. His secondary stuff needs work but as a 20-year-old, his future is very bright with an excellent foundation to build upon in heat and craftiness. If his spot is secure in the Braves’ rotation, he’ll be debuting on The List around the early 50s come Monday and should be added as a flier to in most leagues with a “wait-and-see” approach.