Alignment Tweak Puts Soroka On Right Track

Looking at the final numbers from Braves righthander Mike Soroka’s debut would lead one to believe that he’s still waiting for his first big challenge in pro ball. After all, the Calgary, Alberta, native was 0-2, 3.18 with 37 strikeouts and only five walks in 34 innings last year in his pro debut. 

But when the first-round pick arrived in low Class A Rome as one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, the 18-year-old showed up with a significant tweak. It’s an adjustment he believes is the proper response to his first taste of pro adversity.

Last year whenever a righthander stepped into the batter’s box, Soroka was in control. He’d pound them inside with his two-seam sinker, setting up his slurvy breaking ball or his changeup to finish them off. It worked extremely well, as righthanders were held to a .119/.169/.134 batting line. Only one of the 71 righthanded hitters had an extra-base hit against him–a double.

But when Soroka faced a lefthander, the balance of power swung sharply. As devastating as Soroka was against righties, he was powerless against lefties. They hit .373/.417/.448 against him. While Soroka struck out 36 of the righthanded hitters he faced, he only whiffed 15 percent of the lefties.

“A lot of lefties were getting too comfortable,” Soroka said. “Lefties weren’t having much trouble because everything to them was away, away away. My fastball would run back away. Even if I threw a changeup, they just had to get their hands out and punch the ball.”

In the past, Soroka set up on the third-base side of the rubber. It fit well with his sinker/slider combination, but the closed-off finish to his delivery made it hard to locate well to the glove-side. So while everything was in on righthanders, a lefty could get a very comfortable at-bat, knowing that Soroka had nothing that could run in on their hands.

In the offseason, Soroka slid to the middle of the pitching rubber. It’s a compromise of sorts as he’s still far enough over on the rubber to get in on righthanded hitters, but now he can also locate to his glove-side (in on the hands of lefthanded hitters). And the move has also allowed him to be more direct to home plate, taking away some of the cross-body delivery that concerned scouts in the past.

“This year I’m almost perfectly online,” he said. “It’s been a slow migration (back and forth on the rubber). It started when my sinker started coming along. I moved to the third base side. I had that slider and that two-seamer. But I was also landing much more closed.

“To get to the other side I had to really fly open. We started working before the draft. I was then landing a couple inches closed, but still from the third base side it was hard to get in. I moved closer to the middle (of the rubber). Now that I’m right online, getting in on lefties is no problem. And now that I’m farther this way, I don’t have to hook my slider so much. I can start it top corner of the zone (instead of out of the zone); that’s a lot easier on the sight points.”

A couple of weeks into the 2016 season, the difference has been noticeable. In his second start of the year, Columbia loaded the lineup with lefthanded hitters–five of the nine hitters faced Soroka from the left side. But where 2015 Soroka would have been helpless, the new-and-improved Soroka dominated. He held Columbia to one hit and one walk in six scoreless innings while striking out five. Soroka’s other 13 outs all came on the ground–12 ground outs, one of which was a double play.

Consistently he was able to get in on lefthanders after setting them up by pitching away.

Three starts starts into the season, no one was hitting Soroka too much. He was 0-1, 2.40 with 12 hits alllowed, three walks and 18 strikeouts in 15 innings. But his .238/.261/.381 line against lefthanded hitters was especially notable.

In April, Soroka has been just as comfortable locating to the glove-side of the plate, in on lefties, as he was locating to his arm-side. If he can keep that up, one of the youngest pitchers in the South Atlantic League will also be one of the best.

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