ATLANTA — Mike Soroka, Atlanta’s All-Star ace, calls it a blessing that he hails from the hockey-centric, Flames-crazed city of Calgary.
Hockey is king in Canada, and with no MLB team within suitable driving distance of Calgary, located north of Montana, baseball is an afterthought.
Soroka, 22, played both hockey and baseball in his younger years, and the former goalie jokes to this day that he’s still a better skater than a runner.
“By no means was I ever Tom Glavine and going to get drafted into the NHL,” Soroka joked while referencing the ex-Braves lefty who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings.
Ultimately, it’s that focus on hockey that carved out Soroka’s path to baseball, as crazy as that might sound. That’s why he views it a blessing.
Soroka is quick to point out he’s not a sports nut, and the number of hours that hockey required was a deterrent.
Those early morning skates, sometimes at the crack of dawn, are not the most appealing attraction for a teenager. Add in the pressure and intensity that came with playing hockey in Calgary, and it all pushed Soroka away from pucks.
“That’s why I fell out of love with hockey,” Soroka told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t want to be there, six, seven days a week.”
In baseball, Soroka had a sport that he could play with no pressure compared to the high standards for hockey players, and kind of go about it as he pleased.
He hit when he felt like it. Some days, he fielded. Others, he pitched.
That low-stress environment suited him, fueling an organic love for the sport.
Roughly seven years ago, Soroka decided to put the down his mask and stick, committing solely to baseball.
It’s a decision that has paid off handsomely, with Soroka owning a 2.41 ERA through 23 starts, tied for the second-lowest mark in MLB, and he could be the Braves’ Game 1 starter in the NLDS. Soroka is already an All-Star in his first full season and will also finish in the top three in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
“I never didn’t like showing up for baseball practice,” Soroka told Yahoo Sports recently. “I found a genuine love for playing the game.”
Why Soroka likes being relatively unknown
If you don’t know all that much about Soroka aside from his Baseball-Reference page, don’t worry, you’re forgiven. That’s actually how Soroka prefers it. He would rather be known for how he competes on the mound than for his personality.
He just wants to post zeroes. Being on billboards is not for him. The righty believes it helps him that he’s relatively unknown.
“That’s just me. I don’t want to play this game putting a target on my back like a lot of other people do,” Soroka said. “The last thing you need is to be on the mound with the other team wanting to beat you that much worse because of who you are. That’s not a good idea. This league is tough enough as it is. You don’t need to make it harder.”
That sentiment showcases why so many of Soroka’s associates point to the same personality trait when asked to describe the righty: his maturity.
Soroka, according to those who know him, is mature beyond his years. He carries himself like he’s been in the game for a decade, not just two years. He has a purpose behind every pitch. He doesn’t get rattled on the mound when things don’t go his way. Soroka remains calm when things go south.
In other words, he responds better than your average 22-year-old.
“A pitcher’s greatest gift is really understanding who he is,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz explained during a recent Mets-Braves series. “For his age, he understands himself and what he can do. He knows when he doesn’t throw a pitch to a certain area, he comes back and there’s a reason why or he feels things and he makes adjustments and that’s huge for a young kid.”
That maturity is displayed in Soroka’s ability to command his pitches, thus limiting how many walks he allows and how many homers he yields.
Soroka has walked just 33 batters and allowed eight homers in 141 2/3 innings. His walk per nine innings ratio slightly less than that of Mets reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, who is known for possessing pinpoint command. The eight homers are the fewest yielded by any qualified pitcher, and Soroka only trails Hyun-jin Ryu in the ERA race.
That pinpoint command is the first attribute Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, who is 2 for 12 against Soroka, noted when detailing why he’s tough to face. Soroka said he’s always been able to throw strikes, and credited his pitching coaches over the years for helping teach him the psychological side of pitching. The righty primarily relies on his 92-mph sinker while also using a slider, change-up, and four-seam fastball.
“[The coaches and I] were focusing on what am I trying to do at the plate. Constantly, if this pitch is here vs. here, what am I trying to do in this count?” Soroka said. “Like anything else, to throw hard, you have to try to throw hard, and to have good command you need to try to have good command. I feel it goes both ways. I had an emphasis on command when I was young and it took off.”
Kranitz added that Soroka’s lower half “is built for a starting pitcher” which could be tied to his days as a goalie.
“It’s really refreshing to see a kid his age that has a real good grasp of what he’s doing and what makes him good,” Tom Glavine told Yahoo Sports. “And then focus on what he does.”
How the Braves found an ace from Calgary
Brad Bridges has a saying.
“You got to listen to your scouts,” said Bridges, the Braves’ former scouting director and a current national cross checker for the San Francisco Giants. “When you listen to your scouts, sometimes they’re going to lead you to the promised land.”
The scouts led Bridges and his staff to the promised land in 2015 by finding Soroka despite a lack of exposure as a Canadian prospect.
Since Soroka hailed from Calgary, the Braves did not see him as much as American prospects from baseball-rich areas like the Southeast and Texas.
Atlanta only first evaluated Soroka eight months before they drafted him at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship tournament in October 2014 in Jupiter, Florida. Soroka played for the Toronto Blue Jays Scout team.
Soroka did not produce dazzling numbers during his senior season — although he hit 98 mph in a game in Montana — but he won the Braves over with his performances against top competition in extended spring training teams.
Since Soroka pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team, he faced players who had just been drafted recently. He faced older and more mature players.
“He held his own,” Bridges told Yahoo Sports. “Had a good fastball, maturity and he commanded it.”
That lack of exposure factored into why some pre-draft rankings did not have Soroka atop their charts, but it did not deter the Braves.
Bridges, as he preached, listened to his scouts — crediting Tom Davis and Brett Evert — on whether to take Soroka with the 28th pick, and it helped that a former Brave pitcher, Chris Reitsma, coached Soroka with Team Canada.
“Those guys deserve the total credit,” Bridges said. “We were sold on the player. You don’t worry about where he’s ranked as long as we know the player.”
Soroka ultimately passed on attending Cal to sign with the Braves. He then became the youngest Canadian pitcher to ever make his debut last year when he bested the Mets with six innings on one-run ball.
“Canadian baseball doesn’t get the recognition it deserves for how many guys that are in the big leagues and making impacts, and how many end up at colleges,” Soroka said of his roots. “Every guy in this room played with a Canadian in college or somewhere along the lines. We’re around, just not quite as numbered.”
Soroka’s biggest hobby
Sally Soroka’s memory is with her son each time he picks up a guitar.
“My mom was the one always into music. She was always into classical music,” Mike said of Sally, who died in 2010 of cancer. “There was always an emphasis in my family on good music, and the appreciation of the talent with music.”
Soroka played in his school’s band from elementary through junior high, and that passion for music has developed into his biggest hobby away from the field. There’s a certain excitement in Soroka’s voice as he discusses his love for music, and how much he enjoys playing covers of his favorite songs.
He started with classic rock before making the move toward bands such as AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Metallica. Recently, he’s incorporated metal. And while there are some rumors out there, he would like to be known he’s not into death metal.
“I have my limits,” Soroka said. “I got a name for liking death metal and that was not the truth. I like everything that is music. … If it’s got a good beat and a good melody, it’s music.”
Soroka prefers to play in his apartment and has not taken his guitar to perform at bars in Atlanta or Calgary yet. He cranks his speakers and just plays along.
That passion for music surprised even those who scouted him. Last summer, Soroka and Bridges attended a concert by the Zac Brown Band at SunTrust Park. Despite all the background work the Braves did on Soroka, Bridges was not all that aware of Soroka’s musical abilities.
“He’s a private person, him and his Dad. I say private, but he’s an outgoing kid. I was really shocked by his abilities to play guitar,” Bridges said. “He’s a special kid. Always will be that guy who proves it on the field and not with his mouth.”
Among the game’s best pitchers
That humbleness and maturity that so many mention when discussing Soroka comes out when he touches on his standing in the NL Cy Young race.
“I do think there’s a long way for me to go before I can truly kind of look and say I’m as dominant as those guys,” Soroka said. “A lot of where I’m at in this conversation is in part thanks to great defense. I’m a guy that’s relied on balls put in play, hopefully on weak contact, but to be hit to the right guys and have plays made and they’ve been doing that all year. I feel like there’s a lot of parts in my pitching game that I can be able to move forward with and follow in the footsteps of those that are also in that conversation.”
In some ways, that reliance on getting grounders instead of strikeouts is a good reflection on Soroka’s personality since it’s less flashy.
“There’s always a little bit of doubt nowadays like, man, this guy doesn’t strike out over a batter per inning, so he’ll have issues in the future and it’s going to catch up to him,” said Braves catcher Tyler Flowers. “But it’s rarer to see successful sinker, slider, change-up guys nowadays than it used to be. … As long as he continues to command that, it’s going to be hard to square him up and hit balls over the fence.”
All of this is fine with Soroka.
He’ll just keep plugging along, under the radar, while potentially becoming the next great Braves pitcher whom ignites another strong decade.
“It kind of helps me not to be overly fanatic about baseball,” Soroka said. “To me, it just isn’t that surreal. This is just life. This is who I am and who I want to be and every day is pushed around being the best version of that possible for these guys.”
More from Yahoo Sports: