When the Braves selected Canadian prep RHP Mike Soroka with the 28th pick in the 2015 draft, many folks did not know much about him. He was clearly talented, but the Canadian baseball prep scene isn't nearly as well covered as the high school and college amateurs are in the US.
However, Soroka validated the Braves choice by putting together a fantastic debut for the Braves with a 3.18 ERA while striking out 37 batters in 34 innings while walking only 5 batters total across two levels. Soroka was dominant for the most part in rookie ball and now fans are not wondering who he is, but what the future holds for him in the Braves organization.
Well, luckily, Mike graciously agreed to help out with both of those questions and sit down to an interview with me. We at Talking Chop can't thank him enough for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with us and provide some great insight in to his journey to the Braves as well as his thoughts on pitching and being successful going forward.
Mike Soroka Interview
Alright, we are here with Mike Soroka of the Atlanta Braves. First Mike, please introduce yourself to Braves fans who may not know who you are?
My name is Mike Soroka and I'm from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I know not too many baseball players come from there, but there are a couple every once in a while. I was taken in last year's draft in June and it's a true honor to play for the Braves. I'm happy and excited to get to my first spring training here soon.
When did you start playing baseball and was it the only sport that you played growing up?
No, well I started with playing hockey and I think I started playing hockey when I was 4 or 5. Then, after that, I played soccer for a couple of years but that wasn't really anything more than a side thing.
Baseball, when I was about 8 or 9, was kind of a thing to replace hockey when spring hockey ended and there were no camps in the summer. It was your basic parent-pitch, then it was Little League. Then a couple years after Little League, I grew a little bit and it really took off for me.
At what point, growing up playing Little League and doing the youth baseball thing, did you realize that you were maybe talented enough and had the physical ability to play baseball professionally?
Well, professionally, not really until a couple of years ago. I made the decision to quit hockey going into grade 10. I was just one of those things where it's just so competitive up here where if I knew I had to be good at one of the two that I was going to have to quit the other one.
I made that decision because I just knew that I enjoyed practicing baseball more. I enjoyed working at it and it was never, ever a hassle to get to the diamond and it was always the best part of my day going to baseball practice or a game.
The only times I liked playing hockey was when there was a game. I was a goalie, too, so that might have played a factor. Right at grade 10, I grew about 8 inches and went from AAA to Calgary to Team Alberta, the provincial team, and at the end of the year I made the junior national team.
After that, that's when we realized how many kids off that junior national team went to big Division I's and as well as in the draft. After that, my sights were set pretty high.
You mentioned organizational baseball in Canada and hinted at generally how it works, is organized amateur baseball in Canada a very tight, small community where all of elite players are aware of each other or is it much more widespread and larger than that?
Yeah, it's tight. You know pretty quick who's who in Canada. With provincial teams, once you get to midget, there are a few leagues with Upward Baseball and there are a couple of travel teams.
Then you have the BC League as well as the Ontario League and there are couple here and there in the prairies, but I think once you are on the junior national team it's pretty obvious who everyone is. There's no real secrets kept around who's who.
There's certainly a couple kids every year that were not even on the junior team, they went to a junior college just out of high school where they made the provincial team at least. There's always a couple like that, for example Jeff Degano, he went 54th overall to the Yankees and we still knew who he was before the draft and he was expected to go around that high.
That wasn't a surprise, but I don't think he ever made the junior national team at all. There's some pretty cool things that we get to see.
Who were the coaches that had the biggest influence on you as you were developing as a player and what was the biggest lesson that you took away from your time when you were developing as a young pitcher?
Oh man, I mean...that's a long list. I think mentally it would have to be my dad. He played in the WHL for hockey. He was never...they wanted him to start fighting and that was when he turned and went to university instead. He played baseball as well until he was 14 and took a different route than I did.
I think mentally being able to deal with failure and deal with adversity, he was right there with me and really gave me a good perspective on how to handle it and how to be when things like that arose.
Mechanically, I had Jim Lawson and Chris Reitsma, who used to be a pitcher for the Braves. Injuries kinda caught up to him and I don't know exactly how long ago he retired, but he's been there for most of my bullpens since I was about 13 or 14. We set our sights there, and he will even tell you that he set as the pinnacle for me was to be on the junior team in my last year of high school and I made it a year or two before that.
Even he said that it kind of took off from there. I think with the experience we have with the junior team playing against...well, I've pitched more innings against professionals in the last 3 years than against my own age category. I think I racked up about 80 innings against professionals ranging anywhere from the Blue Jays big league club to I'm pretty sure I pitched against Rome this year in the spring.
It is just learning those things with that experience that kind of gave me a head start in that sense. Like I said, learning to do what I do best and not trying to be someone else. That's probably what learned the most being on that junior team. When I broke in with the team, I was only 84-87 and when you are throwing against professionals that's not usually a great velocity to be at.
At least then I got away with a couple pitches because it was slower than they were used to, but the following year I bumped up to 87-90 and that's just a sweet spot for them and if I made a mistake I was going to get burned. Thats where I learned a lot about myself as to what I need to do to be successful.
Even though my velocity kept going up, I learned so much about sequencing and offspeed and how to pitch to guys with intent and not just throwing what my catcher throws down. I think that's probably the biggest lesson and experience that I've had thus far.
That brings us to draft night. I've heard in interviews you have done in the past that you knew generally where teams were looking at you and you knew the Braves were one of the teams that were interested. Who were some of the other teams that were interested in taking you and what was your reaction to when the Braves drafted you?
Well, to the first question, we only really had a vague sense of who was interested. I know the Blue Jays had made it pretty obvious since that March that they were interested in us. That may have been a factor as to when I was picked...but I don't know. I don't know what goes on behind closed curtains and to be honest it doesn't matter. When the Braves took us at 28, we lost it.
That was probably best day of my life right there. I am going to remember that forever. It was kind of funny, because our internet stream had a good bit of lag because we didn't get it on our TV, we had to get it on our computer.
So there was a bit of a lag and I think the Braves tweeted it out before I actually saw it on TV. It was kind of a funny change because I caught wind a couple minutes before the pick that they were going to take me and those two minutes were the longest two minutes of my life. I was just so excited...it's an honor.
So you get drafted 28th overall, sign your contract, and manage to find the time to graduate from high school. After all of that, what were your expectations for your first season of pro ball and did it meet your expectations or was it completely different?
Well I mean, performance-wise I had....well not expectations, but to keep doing what I had been doing all along. Other than the occasional hiccup, it was pretty...I was pretty competitive with the junior team and I describe to people that the first team I stepped out on to the field in a Braves uni was against the Yankees and it just felt amazing to be in that professional uniform, but at the same time it felt weird because I have been pitching against pros for 2 years and in a different uniform.
There was a little bit of an adjustment there and that happened real quick. Performance-wise, I think there's always, always room for improvement and I don't think I will ever be 100% satisfied...that's just who I am. I knew I was going to learn a lot about the 5 day rotation.
I heard from everyone from college guys to coaches to everyone that moving to that 5 day rotation was a big adjustment and I was certainly feeling that during the last couple of weeks of the season.
There's certainly things you have to learned about yourself on what you need to be doing to be ready every 5th day. I think those couple of things that I really picked up and are going to be really useful in the future. Occasional things along the way that just experience teaches and you can't really replace experience with anything.
You had a great year last year between the GCL and Danville. If not for a couple of starts towards the very end, you were pitching with a sub-2 ERA, striking out more than a batter an inning, and not walking anybody. Describe your approach to pitching and why you think you have been successful and is there a pitch that, when everything could be on the line and nothing else is working, you can go to that pitch and trust it completely?
I mean, yeah, and that's my fastball. It's kind of hard to explain the mentality behind that, but I got to talk to Chris Reitsma, Duane Ward who was a big setup man for the Blue Jays back in the day, Paul Quantrill, and they all had that bulldog mentality and I really took to that.
With the walks, there is a certain point where I have to get to where it's not just throwing strikes, right? Now it's about getting to expand the zone, throw a little bit out of the zone, so I can show the hitter that I can throw strikes instead of pumping them in all the time.
I did find that hitters were getting pretty comfortable at the plate in the sense that they knew I was going to come at them and that I was going to throw a strike. There's a couple of things that I have to work with there. If I'm going get hit, I'm going to get hit on a well-located fastball and if he does that, he beat me.
I'm not going to let him beat me on a curveball that I humped or a change-up I hump. For a strikeout it may be a bit of a different story, but if I'm in a 3-2 count or a 2-2 count, I'm very likely coming at you with a fastball and going to make you swing. Guys pop up in BP, there's no reason they couldn't in a game.
I think that just having that confidence...that almost no matter what you are going to throw, having that distinction and self-awareness that any one of your pitches can get the job done and I think that a well-located fastball is the best pitch in baseball.
You have said in the past that one of the keys in your mind to being a successful pitcher in the majors was to develop a genuinely good changeup. Talk to us about the development of that pitch as you have matured and where you think that pitch is right now?
Its coming along even farther than it was when I said that. Like I said, I got really fortunate, and Reitsma won't tell you this, but John Smoltz told him that he had the best changeup he had ever seen. If you watch replays, I don't doubt it...it's like a Fernando Rodney wipeout changeup. It opens up so much for the hitter. It makes your fastball play up so much and it's just one of those pitches that I understood as a hitter, the slow stuff is really hard to hit.
Right now, it's the same as every other pitch. Its refining my command of it. It's been consistent so far as everyday I have the same changeup now...it's not varying. But command has been side to side and up to strike and then wipeout. I know last year, and we worked on it at instructs actually, I was cutting off a little bit with the changeup and I couldn't get it there.
It was coming in and it was diving like a splitter. It was "ok" in an 0-2 count or something like that like a strikeout count, but I couldn't bring it up for a strike without hanging it. It's small things like that where if I can throw it for a strike to righties and lefties, then it's almost like you only need two pitches. Sometimes, the hitters just don't know what to think...hitting is hard *laughs*
What sorts of feedback have you gotten from coaches and the organization as a whole? Have they given you any goals or adjustments to make for the coming season?
Well, yeah...I mean, everyone has those couple of things that they need to watch and I think I got a pretty good sense of those. One of them for me is that when I get more tired I tend to drop a little bit. It doesn't hurt my strike-throwing ability, but it hurts my deception a little more. I drop and push and there's just little things to look at as far as that goes that I may not been feeling when I'm tired. I just have to make a conscious effort to fix that.
There's always a couple of things like staying on line and staying through the plate where I know if something is not working I can go back to those things and find it. I think being able to make those adjustments in the middle of the game is the most important part. You don't want to cruise and something changes between the 4th and 5th innings and...you need to be able to come right back.
Who are the teammates you have become closest with in the organization over the past year?
Oh yeah, there has been a couple of us. There are guys I met in the GCL. I got to know Herbert and Allard really well as well as Guardado. Those are three of the guys I hung out with while I was in the GCL.
Once, I got to Danville it was my roommates Matt Withrow, Josh Graham, Grayson Jones, and I took to Chase Johnson-Mullins really well as you already know not to mention Austin Riley and Patrick Weigel. Chase and I have a lot of likes in common...we like the same kind of music which usually doesn't happen and we got to talking a lot.
There's a ton of guys and I didn't have a problem with anyone. It's a pretty awesome group of guys.
Is there anything else you want to tell Braves fans out there before we let you go?
Yeah, I think they should be really excited about what's coming up here. It's really a special group of guys and I'm not just talking about out on the field, everything off the field matches their performance on the field. Its really a great group of guys