Soroka’s shoulder: Why the Braves can’t get this wrong

Asked to name the key player in the Atlanta Braves’ organization, I wouldn’t say Freddie Freeman, who’s already great, or Ronald Acuna, who’ll be great soon enough. We know – or have a darn good idea – what they can do. And the Braves’ everyday eight remains one of the best in baseball, especially if Josh Donaldson returns to form.

The key player here would have to be a pitcher, and not a reliever. Mike Foltynewicz is a candidate for that designation; Julio Teheran no longer is. But the pitcher with whom I’m most intrigued – and I expect I’m not alone in this – is Mike Soroka.

He's a 21-year old whom the previous regime made its second draftee. (He was the 28th player picked in June 2015; Kolby Allard was 14th.) Soroka was the first homegrown pitcher of the Hart/Coppolella reset to reach the majors. He worked six innings with one earned run in his MLB debut. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his fourth start, in which he outdid Jacob deGrom. He lasted only 4-2/3 innings in his next turn, which would be his last of 2018, and therein hangs a tale.

Shoulder discomfort kept Soroka from delivering another competitive pitch last season. Shoulder discomfort also prompted the Braves to order him to cease throwing last week, when the full squad reported to Lake Buena Vista. Soroka told the AJC's Gabriel Burns over the weekend that he hopes to resume throwing "in a few days," though Burns reported the club hasn't set a timetable as to when he might work an exhibition game.

Having hung around baseball a little while, I know that pitchers and their shoulders are never taken lightly. A shredded elbow can be fixed: One round of Tommy John surgery and you’re back in a year throwing even harder. There’s no quick fix for shoulders.

Don’t take my word for this. Listen to Will Carroll, the former Baseball Prospectus writer who’s now the media relations director for Motus Global, a biomechanical firm. “Elbows are easy,” Carroll said. “Elbows bend one way. The surgery is so easy I can do it. Shoulders are just a bear. Neal Elattrache (famous L.A. surgeon) says it’s like putting a puzzle together without a box top, because you don't know what things looked like before.”

For the record, nobody has suggested that Soroka needs shoulder surgery. That's a good thing. Headline from Newsday last June: "When pitchers hear the words 'shoulder surgery,' it often means their careers are over." For Slate in 2004, Carroll offered: "Why the torn labrum is baseball's most fearsome injury." 

For now, all we know is that something’s happening with Soroka, and anything involving the shoulder is scary. Said Carroll: “He’s had multiple issues – the front of the shoulder twice, the back of the shoulder once. … Take a look at his delivery. He whips his arm all the way around like he's hugging himself. That’s the likely genesis of both problems.”

Then: “He does throw hard. I’ve seen him described as ‘a soft-tossing big guy.’ I don't get that. A lot of it is strength (as a function of Soroka’s workouts). He wants to throw his fastball really hard, which suggests he doesn't think he's strong enough or has enough stamina. If there’s a muscular weakness, it’s going to get sore.”

Then: “I’m not saying I'd change his arm slot. I wouldn't do that at all. But I just watched his delivery, and you don’t see many guys wrap around quite that much without a lot of (hip) rotation. (John) Smoltz would do a 180. (Soroka’s hips) barely move. That arm, as it follows through, he kind of tries to pat himself on the back. … The only guy I can remember having great success without much rotation is (Roger) Clemens. He had weird mechanics, but he was so strong.”

Then: “This is a terrible comparison, but (Soroka’s) delivery reminds me of Mark Fidrych.”

At age 21, Fidrych – known as the Bird for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character Big Bird – won 19 games with a 2.34 ERA for Detroit. That was in 1976. He was out of the majors by 1981. The reason: shoulder issues. On that chilling note, we asked Carroll: How concerned should the Braves be?

“Very. If (Soroka) was just every other pitcher who blew out an elbow, we can fix that. Shoulders don't come back and don't come back well. Having this many problems this early worries me. … But he hasn't done any significant damage yet. There’s no torn labrum or rotator cuff damage. If they can get this fixed, he can go on to become one of the five best young pitchers in the game.”

As for the Braves: “They’re a good medical staff. They know what they're doing. They know him. They’re building that workload.”

Then: “The Braves have been remarkably good at finding and developing players. … What the Braves have done with pitching is amazing. Touki (Toussaint) would be a No. 2 a lot of places, and they’re not even sure he'll be in the rotation. … But you can get (No.) 4 or 5 starters. How often do you get an ace-level starter (meaning Soroka, potentially)? You can’t screw that up.”

What should they do? “Don't change him. Unless you know that's the reason that’s breaking him down, don't change him. He’s so good, that’d be crazy. But let me throw in a plug. As smart as the Braves are – and they’ve gotten really smart really quick, even before the change in general managers – I don’t know how much they rely on biomechanical data. I could get that done tomorrow.”

Per their rebuilding plan, the Braves have amassed many young pitchers. There’s a real chance Soroka is the best of the lot, but that’s only if his shoulder allows him to be. Carroll nailed it: This is one guy – maybe THE one guy – the Braves have to get right.