Mike Soroka is only a few years removed from standing on a mound at 145 pounds and throwing mid-70s.
What a difference two years can make.
Soroka underwent an extreme physical change between the ages of 14 and 15. He grew eight inches in one year. He went from 145 pounds to 175 in the blink of an eye. He’s now closer to 225 than his listed weight of 195.
With it came the velocity.
“I went from mid-70s to mid-80s to high-80s to low-90s in two years,” Soroka said.
Soroka, the 28th-overall pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2015, is a rarity as the first Canadian high-school pitcher taken in the first round of the draft since 2007. Perhaps as rare is how he got to that point.
Like many kids in his country, Soroka grew up playing hockey and thought it was his future as a Calgary, Alberta native. But the grind of a hockey practice schedule took its toll as he became a teenager, and he soon turned to his summer love on a full-time basis at 14 years old.
Not long after, Soroka began to grow, and he didn’t stop. He shot past 6-feet overnight, and nearly reached his current height of 6-foot-4 by the time he was 16. Then, the weight took off as he filled out his suddenly-projectable frame. When his fastball velocity began to match his size, people took notice. He made the Canada Junior National team in 2014 and pitched against advanced competition, including a Toronto Blue Jays split-squad team in the spring.
Scouts also took notice. By the time he finished his senior season at Bishop Carroll High School, he was high on draft boards and was expecting to go in the first round. Soroka said getting into baseball at a young age might be more difficult in Canada, but the opportunities are similar to the United States once you do, and it might have helped him get to such a high spot in the draft.
“Had you told me when I joined that (national team) that I would’ve been in the first round of the draft, that would have been ridiculous,” he said. “I was just hoping for a D-1 offer at that point. I think, had I been in the states for baseball, I might have washed out early, and I wouldn’t have had that exposure and practice playing against better competition. I didn’t start throwing hard until my junior year.”
With the extreme spike in size came constant adjustments to his mechanics to conform to his newfound length. It’s a process young pitchers often experience when they have growth spurts and have to adjust mechanically, especially those with long limbs that make it difficult to repeat a delivery. Soroka has had to develop tweak after tweak with each new spurt, and that has continued into his professional career.
The two main adjustments he has worked on over the past few years involve his arm slot and stride. He said Chris Reitsma, his pitching coach on the Canada team and former Braves reliever, worked with him to slowly raise his arm slot. At the same time, he moved his landing foot inch by inch to be more in line on his stride to the plate.
“It’s always been a process ever since baseball got serious. Staying on top, staying on line,” he said. “For some reason, the natural way it felt right to throw was kind of sidearm across my body. It’s just the way it fell and was the way I had thrown growing up.”
It’s always been a constant battle between improving his delivery and experiencing more growth. He joked he had to learn to pitch every offseason because he came out with a new body every time baseball season returned. But Soroka has made great strides in improving his delivery. He has toned down the rotation in his upper half and is more in sync between his lower half and arm. He has also developed a smooth tempo throughout the motion and lets the velocity come easier. There’s still some drop and drive on the back side and slight rotation, but the delivery is much smoother and more repeatable, and his command is beginning to match it.
“Stability has more to do with command than anything else,” Soroka said. “If you can’t be stable, you can’t be consistent. Staying on line and just being able to stay less erratic in a sense. There were two spots I’d miss if I was across my body. It was either I’d yank it and it turns into a bad cutter into a lefty, or I let it go up and in on a righty. They’re much less extremes now, which helps.”
Another battle Soroka has fought is finding feel for both secondaries at the same time. The changeup came first and has flashed plus in the past. He occasionally flashed a dynamic curveball but never consistently enough to warrant a high grade. That changed halfway through 2016 spring training when “it flipped on me.” His curveball took a big step forward by flashing plus and bumping multiple grades higher command-wise. At the same time, he has struggled finding a feel for his changeup and rarely threw it in a recent outing with Rome, hence the reason for wildly-different grades on his secondaries according to when he’s seen. Soroka chalked it up to improving mentally on the mound in order to gain a better feel for both secondaries on the same day.
Soroka is only 18, but it could be a consistent rise for him in Atlanta’s system. The framework is there to be a mid-rotation starting pitcher, and when he settles into his latest body, the one that should now be his throughout his playing career, he could take off as a prospect. He’s already showing signs of that in the first few starts of his initial full season.
“I think I made some crucial adjustments throughout the offseason and spring training,” he said. “I came out feeling good, feeling how I wanted to, and now it’s about maintaining and doing it for a full season.”
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