Three Cuts: Is Mike Soroka already a frontline starter?
The Atlanta Braves boarded their flight from Miami to Los Angeles having successfully completed a necessary task for the first time during the 2019 season: Dominate inferior opponents.
The series against the lowly Marlins gave Atlanta its first sweep of a sub-.500 team this season and pushed its record against such opponents to 11-7.
After winning the division title behind a 52-32 record against sub-.500 teams last season, Brian Snitker’s club is finally beginning to play like a playoff contender — largely due to complementing a good offense with standout starting pitching.
How good is Mike Soroka, the youngest starter in baseball, right this instant?
The central appeal of top prospects and rookies is potential, the idea that the present hints at a much brighter future. On rare occasions, this idea arrives fully formed, with the present not so much hinting as screaming about what’s on the horizon. Atlanta watched this unfold with Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018. There’s a chance the city is watching it yet again with Mike Soroka.
The 21-year-old right-hander is the youngest starting pitcher in baseball and, four starts into what projects to be his first full season in the majors, he’s pitching like one of the game’s greats. He’s limiting damage like he’s 2018 Jacob deGrom. He’s matching Justin Verlander’s career strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s carrying a 1.14 ERA into May.
Small sample sizes are partially to blame for this extreme outlier, but peripheral numbers only serve to strengthen Soroka’s case.
Since 1980, the only under-22 starter to post a better adjusted fielding-independent pitching than Soroka (62 FIP-, or 48 percent better than league average) with at least 40 innings pitched is Stephen Strasburg. The names directly behind Soroka on this list are Dwight Gooden, Jose Fernandez, Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood.
By this same adjusted FIP metric, Soroka ranks third among all starters with at least 40 innings pitched over past two seasons. The only two pitchers ahead of him are deGrom and Chris Sale. The names directly behind him: Max Scherzer, Trevor Bauer, Patrick Corbin, Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino and Justin Verlander.
Per Statcast, Soroka’s production is not a fluke of batted balls simply finding fielders’ gloves. Opponents are averaging 84.2-mph exit velocity on batted balls against Soroka — a mark that ranks in the league's top 6 percent — and his average launch angle is negative. He’s thrown 364 pitches and allowed just one barrel and zero home runs.
The arsenal arrived as advertised. His spin rate ranks in the upper echelon of major-league pitchers, he changes speeds from the mid-90s to an 80-mph changeup that keeps improving and his sinker looks like a plus-plus pitch right now. He's altering his out pitch to make inning-by-inning adjustments to hitters. Soroka is also proving why he was under consideration for the best command tool in minor-league baseball.
“The game’s slow to him,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said after catching Soroka’s start against Miami. “You’re talking to him before the game, you’re talking to him in-game, the adjustments he’s able to make because he slows the game down. To be his age, it’s incredible.
“ … It’s hard to think about someone that can come in here and take the ball and to slow the game down like he can. It’s a rare thing in today’s game. He’s well beyond his years.”
There’s a case to be made that Soroka has not been truly tested against an elite opponent this season. He’s faced three bottom-10 offenses (Reds, Padres, Marlins) in his four starts and San Diego’s lineup did not feature rookie phenom Fernando Tatis Jr. The Diamondbacks rank third in runs scored and top-10 in overall offensive production, but the lineup he faced that day still led off with Ildemaro Vargas, Wilmer Flores, David Peralta and Adam Jones; only one of those players (Peralta) hit at least five percent above league average last season. In this sense, his next two scheduled starts against Arizona and St. Louis will be informative.
Consistency matters, too. Start-to-start and month-to-month effectiveness are positive signs, but true top-of-the-rotation arms are able to show up and deliver on an annual basis. That will obviously take time and patience. For now, Soroka can only navigate through lineups every five days. The Braves are not — and should not be — concerning themselves with any of this context right now.
"He's just one of those kids, he just keeps making pitches. He never gives in," Snitker said. "It's like each pitch is a separate entity in itself. He makes a pitch and then worries about the next one. He doesn't get caught up in anything. And he's got the ability to throw one pitch and get out of an inning."
Nine starts into his career, Soroka is producing at a historic rate and making it look easy. That matters: 21-year-old starting pitchers rarely make the majors in general — Soroka became one of only 20 pitchers since 2000 to make at least five starts as a 20-year-old — but when one arrives immediately putting up Jose Fernandez numbers it's notable.
Soroka has exceeded even the loftiest prospect expectations thus far. Still, we'll need a longer track record before he officially goes from producing like the 2018 NL Cy Young winner to Jacob deGrom's designated NL East counterpart. But even if MLB's youngest starting pitcher encounters obstacles along that path and even if he didn't arrive as a fully formed frontline starter, at the very least he's thrown his hat into the NL Rookie of the Year race. That's a decent start.
The Tyler Flowers-Brian McCann duo is keeping the Braves in elite catching company
Atlanta found lightning in a bottle with its 2017 pairing of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, doubled down on the combination in 2018 and walked away with a division title thanks in part to the most underrated catching situation in baseball. The Flowers-Suzuki tandem ranked second to the Dodgers in FanGraphs WAR (11.0) over that two-year stretch, hitting seven percent above league average with framing-boosted defense numbers.
With names like Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos hitting free agency and J.T. Realmuto and Yan Gomes well-known trade options, though, the Braves were considered major players in the catching market as Suzuki’s contract expired. Instead they opted to sign former franchise staple Brian McCann for $2 million — a move met with skepticism (including my own) following the 35-year-old’s replacement-level production during an injury-shortened 2018 campaign. The six-time Silver Slugger winner was viewed as a welcome asset for an organization looking to take the next step on the mound, but expecting him to turn back the clock to his Atlanta heyday would have been irrational.
Fifteen games into his Braves return, Brian McCann has turned that clock all the way back.
In fact, the McCann-Flowers platoon has picked up right where Braves catchers left off in 2018, ranking fourth in WAR, second in on-base percentage and seventh in weighted runs created plus. However, those numbers are pulled down from a brief (and hitless) appearance from rookie Alex Jackson. Atlanta’s veteran catchers are each hitting at least 20 percent above league average as the team heads west. McCann’s .410 OBP ranks behind only Cubs star — and brother of Atlanta’s own catcher of the future — Willson Contreras among catchers with 50 or more plate appearances.
Couple those individual numbers with the intangible bonus of two catchers who are invested in their pitching staff’s success and Atlanta should feel pretty good about its $6 million combined investment.
McCann’s success, in particular, can be traced to a fully healthy edition of the Duluth product following knee surgery. A swing change helped along the way.
“When I went to New York, that short porch — I kind of became a singular hitter,” McCann said. “It was too short over there, and I was doing just enough not to make a wholesale change. And I think last year when I got my knee surgery and I came back, it was time to make that wholesale change."
This is not to say that other investments were not worthwhile ventures.
Grandal (1.1 WAR) looks like one of the offseason’s premier steals, the Gomes-Suzuki tandem has provided an immediate upgrade in Washington and Realmuto (1.3 WAR) has merely provided more evidence that he’s baseball's best all-around catcher. But each of those catchers cost far more money and/or top prospects. Atlanta’s decision to bring back the franchise icon has already paid off, but if Atlanta’s veteran platoon can stay healthy and keep producing at a high level behind the plate it’s going to be classified as a coup for the third consecutive season.
Braves young arms forming an anti-barrel brigade
Hitters who create enough quality contact will be rewarded. Pitchers who limit quality contact will be rewarded. This is not an exact science — players are robbed by misfortune all the time, whether it be line drives right at fielders or weak grounders finding gaps in the infield — but it is perhaps the most reliable strategy in a game defined by playing the odds.
As hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said, "That's the name of the game: Hitting the ball hard and having a good exit velocity and good launch angle." And the inverse holds true for pitchers, which is good news for Atlanta’s young arms.
The production from Fried and Soroka speaks for itself but it’s welcome news for Newcomb and Toussaint, neither of whom have allowed a single barrel, as they shuttle between Triple-A Gwinnett and the majors.