TORONTO – During the spring of 2015, ahead of both that year’s draft and international free agent signing period, the Canadian junior national team embarked on its annual tour of the Dominican Republic that featured a matchup versus some of Latin America’s top prospects.
Mike Soroka, en route to a first-round selection by the Atlanta Braves, got the call in that one and faced off against a slugger who’d already gained a fair bit of hype ahead of a $3.9 million payday from the Toronto Blue Jays, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“I threw five innings against them, faced him a couple of times, went well, went really well, actually,” says Soroka, who didn’t detail what one observer who was in attendance described as a pair of masterful strikeouts of Guerrero. “I just remember that he was up there swinging for the fences. He did that in BP and put on a show, him and Josh (Naylor, the Mississauga, Ont., slugger also selected in the first round that year) kind of went back and forth, so that was pretty fun to watch.
“I always knew (Guerrero’s) bat was real. I’d never seen a 16-year-old swing a bat that hard and it just hasn’t stopped. Some of the swings he was taking in the AFL this year, it’s just fun to watch, no matter who you are – as long as you’re not the guy throwing.”
Once he entered pro ball, Soroka spent a lot of time with a similarly precocious and talented teenager in Ronald Acuna Jr., who posted a .917 OPS in 111 games with the Braves as a 20-year-old rookie last year. The two climbed the minor-league ladder together level-by-level, the Calgary native gaining an appreciation for the Venezuelan’s uniquely advanced gifts along the way.
And though Soroka hasn’t faced Guerrero since that 2015 encounter in the Dominican, he’s kept tabs on his progress and sees in him some pivotal parallels to Acuna.
“It’s the attitude at the plate,” explains Soroka. “It’s an attitude that, you’re not going up there cocky or anything, it’s more or less so confident in your abilities that you’re going to succeed on the next pitch, every pitch. You just see he’s got that swagger about him, same way Acuna does. Some people don’t like that about Acuna – they say he thinks too much of himself, and it’s like, no, he loves having fun and this is how he has fun playing baseball. It’s the same (with Guerrero).
“They don’t take a swing they don’t mean, they don’t check their swing or take half-hearted swings – they’re out there to hit the ball hard, wherever that might be. That’s why you see the power from pole to pole. It’s fun to watch them play the game as people, as well, because they have fun doing it.”
On-field presence is certainly a part of the subtle brinksmanship that takes place between batter and pitcher and Guerrero – with his stout, six-foot-one frame – cuts an imposing figure.
But the self-belief within that big body is also a big part of what he takes with him into the batter’s box.
“I feel ready,” Guerrero says of what he feels when he digs in at the plate, as interpreted by Tanya Bialostozky, a Blue Jays mental performance coach. “I know when I’m there I have to be patient and wait for the pitch I want. When I step in, my mindset is that I’m the best guy in the world and it’s the other guy that has to try harder so I’m ready. I know I’m big, I’m the best and I don’t let myself get intimidated by anyone.”
Soroka, among the more thoughtful and mature 21-year-olds you’ll find, enjoys facing those types of hitters. The observer who recalled him striking out Guerrero twice points out that Soroka recognized who the big dog was in the other lineup and stepped it up against him in the moment.
The challenge of facing elite sluggers, says Soroka, “allows you lock in even more because you know you can’t take a pitch off and you’ve got to match that, you’ve got to puff your chest out a little more and show him you’re the one in charge.”
“You want to create that doubt in his mind,” he continues. “That’s what makes those guys so special. They keep that swagger when they’re in slumps and you can tell they don’t feel (off). They’re up there and you think that guy’s up there ready to hit regardless of whether his stats say he’s hitting .200 or .350. It’s the same way on the mound. If you can match that, you’ve given yourself a better chance, as well.”
To give himself the best chance he can this season, Soroka has trained hard all winter at the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary before recently heading down to Florida.
Shoulder troubles truncated his debut season, limiting him to five starts and 25.2 innings with the Braves and just 30.2 innings in the minors, so he focused on specificity-based workouts “to make sure I’m not putting my shoulder in comprising positions while I throw.”
A functional movement analysis showed that his scaps weren’t working properly as he delivered the ball, and so the aim has been “making sure the arm lets go.”
“Part of that goes into the way I lift and mobilize,” he explains. “I’m still trying to get bigger, stronger, that’s the goal because I’m still only 21, but keeping in mind I’ve got to stay mobile in the areas I need and the areas I need to loosen up a bit so I can stay off the shelf.”
“I’m trying to get an early start on the season, trying to get it off on the right foot and trying to make sure I can stay healthy this year.”