Why you should keep an eye on this elite MLB arm & What Happened to Tyler Kolek?

Mike Soroka was a nice free agent addition to my fantasy baseball team last year – and it’s because his shit is nasty. He’ll slice and dice you with 95 mph sinkers, upper 80s sliders, and does it with pinpoint precision – only walking 2.5 batters per nine while striking out 7.3 en route to his first All-Star selection in 2019. He’s part of a young group of arms that are going to be really exciting to watch over the next decade – well, if he stays healthy over the next 10 years. 

Something Eugene talks about a lot is keeping the elbow in the plane of rotation. When throwers get to foot strike, the throwing elbow is going to be up in a position that is roughly in line or slightly below the throwing shoulder (above creates impingement in the rotator cuff). As the pitcher starts to internally rotate the shoulder to throw the ball, the throwing elbow wants to travel on a clear path through it’s natural slot around the plane of rotation; about 90 degrees to the trunk. This relationship is where a thrower’s “natural” slot comes from. Everyone throws from a low slot – some people just do it with more or less trunk tilt. Guys who throw “over the top” are able to create more lateral trunk tilt towards their glove side to create a higher release point. Guys who throw appear to throw “sidearm” don’t create nearly as much tilt. 

When we look at Soroka from the side (below), I want you to look at where his elbow is at foot strike and how is travels after foot strike. If he maintains a clean, natural slot throughout the course of his delivery, the elbow should maintain a relatively straight line horizontal line towards his target. Instead, you’re going to notice his elbow “scoop” up and climb above the plane of rotation as his shoulders start to rotate forward. This is not good. Instead of letting his arm naturally unwind around his trunk, his elbow is being forced to climb up so he can throw “over the top.” When athletes are forced to move in positions that are not natural or efficient, we tend to see injuries. 

For reference, here is Soroka compared to Trevor Bauer’s arm action. Notice how Trevor’s arm rotates around his trunk and his elbow maintains a clean line towards his target. Instead of scooping up, it works around the shoulders to efficiently deliver the baseball. Soroka’s climbs up and slams back down to throw the ball – it doesn’t maintain a clean path to the plate. 

An inefficient arm action (left) vs. an efficient arm action (right)

The best part about this? Soroka didn’t always look like this. Below is a clip of him throwing a pitch as a standout high school prospect in the Area Code games before being taken in the first round by Atlanta.

Mike Soroka, one of baseball’s top high school prospects, throwing a pitch at the Area Code games (source)

For reference, this is what he looked like last year from the same camera angle.

Mike Soroka throwing a pitch in a MLB game last year (from @pitchingninja)

Now let’s look at them side by side.

Soroka layover at release from high school & last season

Well, that’s a hair different from what he used to do. Notice how on the left Soroka strides closed and his arm unwinds naturally and effortlessly from a lower arm slot. It’s loose, relaxed, and efficient. If you look at his delivery on the right, notice how he has to force his body to create more trunk tilt so his arm can move from a higher slot. Instead of unwinding around his body, his arm yanks down and abruptly bangs against his torso after release. Since he had to yank his elbow up to get on top, it has to yank back down to throw the ball. This doesn’t create a healthy deceleration pattern for the arm and can place a lot of stress on the elbow and anterior shoulder. This isn’t ideal. 

In essence, Soroka was most likely coached out of the movement solutions that made him really, really good (figure that one out) and was forced to throw from a more over the top slot. While it hasn’t really impacted his performance so far, I’m not confident he can sustain this delivery over a longer period of time. There’s a reason why he threw from a lower slot in high school – it was his natural slot. Guys who get forced out of positions that made them really good tend to get hurt – kind of like the guy below. 

What happened to 2014 #2 overall pick Tyler Kolek?

Tyler Kolek was drafted by the Miami Marlins #2 overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Kolek was a highly coveted draft prospect at 6’5″ 250 lbs. featuring a fastball that he consistently ran into the mid to upper 90s – touching triple digits – that paired well with a devastating breaking ball. His stuff was absolutely filthy coming out of high school – but there’s a reason why you probably don’t know his name. 

Just so we have a reference point, this is what Kolek looked like in high school at the Area Code games.

Tyler Kolek pitching in the Area Code games (source)

This is what he looked like two years later in spring training. 

Kolek pitching in spring training 2016 (source)

Kolek didn’t throw a pitch in 2016. He missed the entire season and most of 2017 to Tommy John Surgery. For an even better look at the changes Kolek made, check out what he looked like in 2018 in instructs. His fastball topped out at 92. 

Kolek pitching in instructs in 2018 (source)

The first thing I noticed right off the bat when it came to Kolek’s delivery was his tempo. In high school, Kolek utilized an up tempo delivery where he got his center of mass going down the mound as soon as he picked up his left leg. When Kolek got to pro ball, I noticed a significant change in his tempo. In the spring training shot, notice how Kolek gets to more of a balance point and keeps his center of mass over his back leg at peak leg lift. There isn’t a continuous flow of energy the way his delivery used to look when he was one of the top high school prospects in the country. It’s abrupt, it looks forced, and it could be part of the reason why he started to fall off. 

The second thing that significantly changed in Kolek’s delivery was where his front foot landed. In high school, Kolek strided closed. In pro ball, that changed; he now strides much more open. The second shot makes this pretty easy to see. Instead of keeping his pelvis closed and getting across his body, Kolek’s pelvis swings wide open and drags his arm through. Trying to stride more open prevented Kolek from creating the cross-body tension he was once able to create when he landed closed with his front foot. His fastball lost his zip, his command went to hell, he got sent to the surgery table twice (later for thoracic outlet), and his chances of getting to the bigs now are about as slim as they could possibly be. 

While this evaluation doesn’t take into account a myriad of variables such as throwing routines, strength programs, or workload, the movement paints a pretty glaring picture. The Kolek you saw throwing in high school is completely different than the Kolek from pro ball in 2016 and 2018; and it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s struggled a lot. What some coaches may have seen as flaws turned out to be some of the things that made Kolek such a special draft prospect. While the changes made were well intentioned, I think they ended up becoming the worst thing possible for Kolek. He didn’t run it up to triple digits as a high school kid by mistake. The movement patterns he developed were vital to his success on the diamond growing up. Taking them away from him, in my current opinion, was the start of his downfall.

The worst part about Kolek’s situation is this isn’t a one time thing – it happens all the time. Careers are ruined because players either get away or are forced away from the things that made them so good in the first place. Soroka didn’t throw from a lower slot because he wanted to hurt himself. He did it because it was the best way for him to efficiently and effectively transfer force into the baseball. Kolek didn’t stride closed because he thought it would hurt his command or velocity. He did it because it helped him throw 100 mph at 18 years old. It comes back to the fallacies of research: Let’s start with the common sense card before we start putting together some bullshit plan for all the changes a guy needs to make so he “won’t get hurt.” Better yet, let’s try to understand WHY these guys move the way they do before we decide to pull out the stride straight/throw over the top/finish in a fielding position card. 

If we want to protect kids going forward and give them their best chance at getting to the show, we need to seek to understand before we seek to be understood. More and more careers are going to be put at risk until we do. 

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