ATLANTA -- Within the next two weeks, we’ll learn how Mike Soroka fared in balloting for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Over the next decade, we’ll see if the Braves' young right-hander can indeed live up to the tremendous potential created within his first full Major League season.
Soroka finished 2019 ranked fifth in the Majors in ERA (2.68) and fourth in Adjusted ERA+ (169), which takes a player's ERA and normalizes it across the entire league by accounting for external factors like ballparks and opponents.
How special was this season for the young Canadian, who earned his first All-Star selection in July? Well, he joined Dwight Gooden (229 in 1985), Vida Blue (183 in '71) and Jose Fernandez (176 in 2013) as the only pitchers of the Live Ball era to produce a ERA+ of 165 or better at 21 years old or younger.
“If he stays healthy, he’s going to be one of the greats,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said.
Here’s a look back at Soroka’s memorable first season.
What went right?
The two most important stats on Soroka’s ledger were 29 starts and 174 2/3 innings. These numbers highlighted the good health he maintained after right shoulder inflammation limited him to five starts in 2018. A separate shoulder ailment, influenced by aggressive weightlifting, sidelined Sorkoa for most of Spring Training. But he experienced no other issues after making his season debut on April 18.
“[Staying healthy] is what I’m most proud of this year,” Soroka said. “I’ve been taking my health for granted for a lot of years in the Minor Leagues. I was just being naïve, thinking because I worked out and ate well, I’d never get hurt. Last year was the toughest summer I’ve ever had because it challenges you as a person. I was able to turn it around to one of the best things that ever happened to me because I learned about what it takes to stay healthy for a whole season.”
Soroka produced a 1.07 ERA through his first eight starts, allowing less than two earned runs in each. Accounting for his success during the injury-shortened 2018, he stands as the only pitcher since 1913 (when earned runs became an official stat), to allow one earned run or fewer in 11 of his first 13 career starts. No other pitcher had done so in as many as eight of his first 10 starts.
While Soroka’s production might have been more pedestrian, as he posted a 3.34 ERA over his final 21 starts, he proved to be Atlanta’s top starter over the entire season. The decision to hold him for Game 3 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals was influenced by the fact he posted a 4.14 ERA in 13 home starts and a 1.55 ERA in 16 road starts.
In the divisional era (since 1969), Greg Maddux (1.12 in '95) and Roger Clemens (1.32 in 2005) are the only pitchers (minimum 15 starts) to produce a better road ERA.
What went wrong
Before looking at some possible areas of improvement, it’s best to dig a little deeper into Soroka's home/road splits.
Home: 4.14 ERA, 76 innings, .275 batting average against, .322 on-base percentage, .420 slugging, 7.58 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.13 walks per nine innings, 48.9% ground-ball rate
Road: 1.55 ERA, 98.2 IP, .205 BA/.261 OBP/.373 SLG, 7.11 K/9, 2.10 BB/9, 54.2% GB rate
While Soroka's strikeout and walk rates were pretty similar, there was a significant difference in the slash line categories and at least a slight difference in the ground-ball rate.
Per Baseball Savant, opponents batted .205 (24-for-117) and slugged .231 on ground balls against Soroka at SunTrust Park. They hit .207 (31-for-150) with no extra-base hits on ground balls hit against him outside of Atlanta. These near-identical results erase thoughts that SunTrust's infield surface influenced the sinkerballer’s uneven splits.
Soroka did surrender nine of his 14 homers in Atlanta, despite completing an additional 22 1/3 innings on the road. But when evaluating a one-year sample size that includes many other similar variables, it might be best to consider bad luck as the difference in these home/road splits.
Soroka limited the Nationals to one run and three hits over seven innings on July 31, then pushed the Braves toward the NL East title when he limited the eventual World Series champions to one hit over six scoreless innings at Nationals Park on Sept. 13.
But Soroka's finest performance occurred when he allowed one run and two hits over seven innings against the Cards in Game 3 of the NLDS. He set a Braves postseason record by retiring 17 straight batters between the second and seventh innings.
“He was as nasty as any pitcher I’ve faced in the postseason,” Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright said after opposing Soroka that day in St. Louis.
Soroka stands to be the Braves’ ace entering next season and he has the potential to be an NL Cy Young Award candidate for many years to come. He has already made some adjustments to temper his weightlifting routines, and he spent this past summer gaining a better sense of what he needs to do to prepare to make 30-plus starts on an annual basis.
“I got to see firsthand how guys like [Max] Scherzer work and how they understand there’s never a point in this game where you know everything,” Soroka said. “There’s always something to learn, especially with the way this game is trending with analytics and all that’s available to us as pitchers to aid in our betterment. I think it’s going to be a fun offseason. We’ll look at some things I need to improve on or what I need to do more of next year that I didn’t do as much this year.”