At 21, the Braves’ Mike Soroka is making history

On the night Austin Riley, who’s 22, hit a home run in his Braves debut, an even younger man drafted just ahead of Riley in June 2015 became the first pitcher in MLB annals to yield one earned run or fewer in nine of his first 11 big-league starts. Six times Mike Soroka has pitched this season, and the recap of how opponents have fared reads like computer code – 1, 1, 1, 0, 1, 0.

Soroka doesn’t turn 22 until Aug. 4. His ERA this year is 0.98. The lowest ERA over any full season was Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968, known forever as the Year of the Pitcher. Nobody is suggesting that we stand on Gibby Watch, but this much we can say: Having seen more than our share of good young pitchers over the past three decades, it has been a long time – probably since Steve Avery in September/October 1991 – since we’ve seen something akin to this.

Among starting pitchers who’ve worked at least 20 innings, Soroka leads the majors in ERA. He’s fifth in batting average against and ground-ball percentage. He’s first in home-run avoidance, having been touched for zero. (The only big-league homer off Soroka came in the final inning of his first start, which was on May 1, 2018. Yoenis Cespedes did the deed.)

Here was Braves manager Brian Snitker after Soroka worked seven scoreless innings against St. Louis on Wednesday: “He never stops pitching. He just goes from pitch to pitch. I had all the confidence in the world he could get through (a difficult third inning) because I’ve never seen him rattled. He doesn’t get caught up in it. He never looks ahead and thinks, ‘What’s going to happen?’ He just tries to win the inning.”

Soroka retired the first six Cardinals, striking out two in the first, inducing three fly balls, two of them well-struck, in the second. The third began with him walking the Nos. 7 and 8 hitters. After a sacrifice bunt, he bounced a slider off Matt Carpenter’s foot. Bases loaded, one out.

Snitker: “It didn’t bother me when (Matt) Carpenter got hit. That just loaded the bases, and I thought it was a chance to put the ball on the ground.”

That’s what happened. Soroka started Paul Goldschmidt, one of the better hitters extant, with a slider. Ball 1. Then three consecutive two-seamers, those being fastballs with heavy sink. Goldschmidt grounded Sinker No. 3 to Ozzie Albies, who turned the requisite double play. Over the next four innings, the Cardinals pushed only two more runners into scoring position. That came in the sixth, which ended with Marcell Ozuna topping a changeup back to Soroka and Jose Martinez swinging through a 94-mph four-seamer.

Soroka on his third inning: “I came out in the first and I had it, and sometimes that comes back to bite you. But Flo (catcher Tyler Flowers) and (pitching coach) Rick Kranitz came out and reminded me, ‘You’re one pitch away from getting out of this.’ I got out of it, and I corrected it. I stopped trying to guide it in there and just let them hit it; I forgot about trying to force it.”

Someone asked if he’d lost, as they say in the trade, his release point. Soroka: “I didn’t lose my release point. I lost my aggressiveness. It was a mental adjustment. It didn’t mean my velocity was down. I just had to remember to let it (his sinking fastball) eat.”

Soroka has four effective pitches – four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and change-up. The difference in speeds between his four-seamer and his change can be as much as 15 mph. But it’s the sinker to which he turns in times of duress.

Walking through the Braves’ clubhouse after Wednesday’s game, a noted Braves alum was asked about Soroka. “He throws bowling balls,” Chipper Jones said. “He’s legit.”

Then: “He reminds me a little of Doggie,” and here a visitor suggested that Soroka is rather larger – he’s 6-foot-5 – than Greg Maddux and throws considerably harder. Chipper’s response: “When Doggie was in Chicago, he could throw 93, 94. And he always had that movement. In time, (Soroka) will get this” – he made an in-and-out gesture – “like Doc (Roy) Halladay. That’s when you’re nasty.”

Got that? A Hall of Famer just likened a 21-year-old to two other Hall of Famers. Off the strength of current events, could we call it a reach?

Soroka was the second player drafted -- 28th overall, 14 spots after Kolby Allard -- by the rebuilding Braves of John Coppolella. When that general manager spoke of the young Canadian, there were never any caveats. The Braves fully believed they’d found a star. Coppolella’s assessment of Soroka: “Special kid. He really wants it.”

It takes more than an arm to make a pitcher, not that the Braves didn’t feel Soroka possessed the physical attributes. But the he-really-wants-it component sets him apart. He can think his way through a batter or an inning. He can reset on the fly. He doesn’t get flustered. Said Snitker: “It’s like he’s got no heartbeat.”

Shoulder discomfort led to Soroka’s 2018 season being shuttered in mid-June. (This after he’d beaten Noah Syndergaard at Citi Field in his first start and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning six weeks later.) A recurrence slowed him again this spring. But he didn’t need surgery, and his shoulder issues never rose to the level – “It was never the labrum or anything like that,” Snitker said – of panic-inducing. The Braves took their time with Soroka, who says he feels just dandy now.

Snitker again: “As long as we kept him upright and can get him on that white thing (the pitching rubber) out there, we’ll be OK.”

As of this week, Soroka could look around the Cobb County clubhouse and find four players with whom he’d shared the 2016 Sally League at Low-A Rome – Riley, Ronald Acuna, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint. Said Soroka: “They’re guys I grew up with. It’s great to know how many big steps these people have already made.”

In the daily nitpicking of these Braves, we – meaning all of us – have tended to lose sight of how fast this organization is traveling. A night like Wednesday, with Riley’s 438-foot blast and Soroka’s seven shutout innings, served as a reminder. Snitker said afterward that he’d looked at his players during the national anthem: “When you see them all bunched up together, (you see) how young they are, how talented they are.”

Acuna was the National League’s 2018 rookie of the year, finishing 12th in the MVP balloting. Soroka could become the 2019 ROY, and if he keeps going at anywhere close to this rate he’ll draw some Cy Young votes. Sudden achievement has become the norm. The first draft class of the Great Rebuild has arrived in force.