It was a treat watching the 1995 World Series, which aired on Fox Sports South last week. Kudos to the Braves for doing that – at a time when we’re all desperate for sports, it was nice having that 7-10 p.m. block filled by something besides sitcom reruns and Netflix.
You’ll make endless observations watching these old games, from the players to announcers to advertising. In this instance, I especially enjoyed watching the pitching, seeing the “big three” (now an absolutely exhausted term in sports) win their only World Series. I loved seeing the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium crowd. You could feel the liveliness and passion through the screen.
But one of my biggest takeaways, relative to the current Braves: It’s easy to see why Mike Soroka is loosely compared with Greg Maddux.
You can call it hyperbole. That’s fair. It’s ridiculous to compare a player who just completed his first full season to one of the greatest pitchers ever. Maddux had arguably the best command of all-time. He was dominant across the vaunted steroids era. If he wasn’t the top pitcher of the 1990s, he’s in the top two.
And yet, as I watched Maddux, I kept drawing parallels to Soroka. It was a fun exercise rooted in past comments linking the pair. You’ve heard the talk. You either became insanely optimistic, rolled your eyes or found yourself teetering on the fence of fan and realist.
Still, you can’t ignore the similar demeanor, that calmness and smoothness that Soroka and Maddux share. Both pitchers always look in control. Neither was a brash personality, but the quiet confidence is palpable. They’re both control experts, focusing more on location than overpowering the opposition.
In an interview with 92.9 The Game last May, John Smoltz coined Soroka “Greg Maddux 2.0.” That’s coming from one of Maddux’s closest friends and teammates. A Hall of Famer who spent much of his prime in the same room as Mad Dog.
“He’s a pitcher, and that you can’t say universally in the game,” Smoltz said. “There’s a lot of throwers. There’s a lot of guys with great stuff. He’s Greg Maddux 1.0, 2.0, whatever you want to call him, and that’s a tough, kind of high compliment, to a guy that’s a Hall of Famer and one of the best in the business.”
When Smoltz made those comments, Soroka was in the midst of a phenomenal stretch. After making five starts in 2018, his ensuing season couldn’t have started any better. I stress: In a historical context, it really couldn’t have been better.
Soroka had a 1.92 ERA through his first 12 career starts, which was the all-time best result for sub-22-year-olds through a dozen outings. He finished the season with a 2.68 ERA, striking out 142 in 29 starts. He was sixth in Cy Young voting.
Maddux struggled across his first 32 starts, posting a 5.59 ERA over his first two seasons. His third season was a breakthrough, when as a 22-year-old he garnered his first All-Star appearance. It was the first of 15 consecutive seasons in which he had an ERA no higher than 3.57. He led the league in ERA four times in his career, twice earning a mark under 2.00.
Soroka, who’s already had shoulder issues in his recent past, may never be the iron man Maddux was, though that’s additionally a reflection of the times. Maddux logged 200-plus innings in 18 of 19 seasons since his breakout. He led the league in innings five consecutive seasons.
That’s a testament to Maddux’s greatness. Often when we make player comparisons, we view it too black-and-white instead of just trying to find similar facets in their skill sets.
Soroka isn’t going to lead a league in innings for a half decade. He’s not going to replicate Maddux’s 20-year stretch. He’s going to make his own legacy - he and the Braves hope - that we’ll revisit down the line.
Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who coached the great staffs of the ’90s, didn’t stray from Maddux comparisons either.
“What I like about Soroka, I love his mound presence,” Mazzone said in our conversation in March. “I love the way he changes speeds and makes the ball move. If I say he’s a poor man’s Greg Maddux, that’s a compliment. There’s a calmness going on. Just watching his mound presence and listening to him talk, watching him like that, reminds me of a pitcher, not a thrower.”
We keep hearing that line with Soroka, that he’s a pitcher not a thrower. It’s commonly used in baseball when the evaluator is trying to explain how a pitcher knows where the ball is going, rather than just firing a 99-mph fastball and hoping it finds the strike zone. It’s even more applicable now, since so much emphasis is on velocity.
Like Maddux, you won’t find Soroka talking about the speed on his pitches. Fireballs aren’t in his arsenal. Instead he complements a four-seamer with a change-up, sinker and slider. Soroka’s change-up and slider produced whiff rates of 39 and 38.5, respectively. He managed to keep the ball down despite the baseball’s power surge: His ground-ball percentage was a tick over 51 percent, and he allowed only 14 home runs.
Aside from the stats, Soroka passes the eye test. In his only playoff start, he allowed one run across seven innings at St. Louis. He showed a coolness superior to any of his veteran teammates. It was only one start, as many of you won’t want to be reminded, but he showed he can translate to October, when some great pitchers tend to wilt.
Mentally, Soroka is far ahead of most his age. He’s wise, well-spoken and analytically minded. You appreciate any insight from players, but he always goes over the top to explain baseball’s intricacies. He’s the rare example of a coach’s AND reporter’s dream.
Soroka checks every box needed to maximize his potential. We’ll see how his career unfolds, but don’t be too quick to dismiss the Maddux comparisons. It shouldn’t and won’t be the expectation, but there’s undoubtedly shades of Maddux here. That’s enough to be a productive 10-plus year starter in itself.
Which makes the delayed, potentially canceled season even tougher. We’ve been robbed the second full season of Soroka’s career. He’s sure to be near the top of unlimited reasons that Braves fans are eager for baseball’s return.
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