22-Year-Old Cy Young Dark Horse Could Lead Atlanta Braves All the Way

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 6, 2019

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 10: Mike Soroka #40 of the Atlanta Braves delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on August 10, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Mark Brown/Getty Images

With Max Scherzer rendered mortal by a bad back and Hyun-Jin Ryu finally cooling off, the National League Cy Young Award race suddenly looks wide-open.

Meanwhile in Atlanta, young Braves ace Mike Soroka shouldn't be sold short as a candidate to win the Cy Young or to do, well, anything else.

Exactly what the Braves could expect out of the 22-year-old right-hander in 2019 was a good question for a long while. Shoulder inflammation cut short Soroka's 2018 season, so the Braves likely felt deja vu when discomfort in his shoulder shut him down during spring training.

Yet Soroka finds himself sitting on an outstanding body of work over 25 starts. His 2.53 ERA ranks second in the NL to Ryu, while his 183 ERA+ ranks first among all pitchers in Major League Baseball.

According to Baseball Reference, Soroka also boasts 5.3 wins above replacement. That figure casts him ahead of New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso as the leading contender for the NL Rookie of the Year. It also reaffirms his place in the NL Cy Young Award race:

  • 1. Max Scherzer, WAS: 5.7
  • 2. Jacob deGrom, NYM: 5.4
  • T3. Mike Soroka, ATL: 5.3
  • T3. Patrick Corbin, WAS: 5.3

From one perspective, Soroka's breakout is a classic case of a top prospect making good. Despite last season's shoulder issues, he came into 2019 ranked as a top-25 talent by Baseball America and MLB.com (h/t Baseball Reference).

However, that's the only perspective from which Soroka's rise is a ho-hum affair.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Now more than ever, baseball is at the mercy of three outcomes: walks, strikeouts and home runs. That has everything to do with how the latter two are more common (see here and here) in 2019 than they've been in any other season.

This environment is no country for pitch-to-contact hurlers such as Soroka, who's struck out only 119 batters in 152.2 innings. That's a rate of 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranks 58th out of 68 ERA title qualifiers.

And yet he's allowed only 10 home runs all season. That comes out to 0.6 per nine innings, which ranks first among said qualifiers. Taken alongside his excellent mark of 2.1 walks per nine innings, his style revolves avoiding hazardous contact while also not hurting himself.

Coming into 2019, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com credited Soroka with having the best control in the Braves system. As such, his being a strike-thrower is nothing new.

More difficult to parse is why hitters have such a difficult time squaring up the Canadian's stuff, but it ultimately comes down to action and deception.

He may average a good-not-great 92.5 mph on his fastball, but the heaters he throws are mostly sinkers with above-average vertical and horizontal movement. His slider is also better than average on both fronts. His changeup, meanwhile, at least has above-average horizontal movement.

Individually, Soroka's slider stands apart as his best pitch by way of the .153 average and seven extra-base hits (including only one home run) that opposing hitters have against it.

Yet the true secret of his success is how well he makes these three pitches work together. As always, nobody can illustrate the point as well as Rob Friedman:

What you see are three pitches coming in on the same plane and then breaking off in different directions. That gets at how screwed hitters are if they don't guess right by a certain point when facing Soroka.

It's no accident that so few of the batted balls off him have added to baseball's ever-growing home run pile. A whopping 60.1 percent of his batted balls are either ground balls or pop-ups. Fly balls off him have averaged 319 feet in distance, which is below the MLB average of 324 feet.

All of this amounts to a .344 xwOBA—a Statcast metric that measures expected production based on contact quality—on batted balls. That ranks seventh among pitchers who've had at least 400 balls put in play, in between Luis Castillo and Kyle Hendricks.

Tami Chappell/Associated Press

Perhaps the one lingering question regarding both Soroka and fellow young hurler Max Fried is how much they have left in them. Both pitches have had trouble with injuries and are now in uncharted territory with their workloads.

For his part, however, Soroka has been humming right along with a 2.70 ERA since making his first All-Star appearance in July. It also sounds like neither he nor Fried are in danger of being shut down.

"We've talked to both of them about being open and communicating with us," Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told Gabriel Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August. "I think [manager Brian Snitker has] done a good job when he's been able to save some bullets. We don't skip our fifth starter. We take advantage of the off days, and we watch them start-to-start." 

Rather than take a page from the Washington Nationals with Stephen Strasburg back in 2012, the Braves seem to be willing to let Soroka pitch for as long as he's able. At this rate, the next phase of this assignment will be as their No. 1 postseason starter after they wrap up a second straight NL East title.

Assuming he keeps doing his thing in that role, the Braves will otherwise have all they need to make a deep postseason run. Their Freddie Freeman-, Ronald Acuna Jr.- and Josh Donaldson-led offense is one of the NL's best, and their oft-mocked bullpen has looked outstanding as of late. 

By the end of the year, it's conceivable that Soroka will have pulled off a 1981 Fernando Valenzuela Special: All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion all in one season.

                           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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