Sixteen days after the Atlanta Braves season ended against Tommy Greene, Mitch Williams, and the Philadelphia Phillies, a future Brave was born in Chicago. Born to Robert and Deborah Soria, Zack Soria is the oldest of three children. It didn’t take long for Soria to find the game of baseball. Almost since he learned to walk, Soria has had a ball, a bat, or a glove nearby. With any luck in his new career, that won’t change for a long time.
Soria starred in many sports, but it was baseball that gave him his first taste of national exposure. With his dad as one of the team’s coaches, Soria was a member of the Lemont Little League squad that played in the 2006 Little League World Series. They made it to the US semifinals before falling 4-3. Soria would continue to rack up some pre-college accolades as an All-Conference and Pre-Season All-American player for St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago.
He landed next with the University of Louisville, but soon transferred to Mesa Community College where he hit .335/.393/.408 in 2014. His successful run there prompted Florida International to recruit him and he joined the Panthers before their 2015 season. Over three seasons, spent mostly behind the plate, Soria improved his game each year with his OPS climbing from .700 to .782 in his senior year.
It was after that senior year that Soria got word his baseball career would continue. While the Braves weren’t one of the teams heavily scouting Soria, they still drafted him in the 18th round last June. Soria soon signed and despite an advanced age of 23 for the Gulf Coast League, that’s where he began his career. He’d hit .256 in the GCL over 78 AB, but did add seven doubles and 12 walks to 14 strikeouts. More importantly, he provided consistency behind the plate for some young pitchers.
With a collection of talented catching prospects in front of him, Soria didn’t have much hope of getting his 2018 season started before Danville’s season kicked off. And finding time behind the plate with Ricardo Rodriguez, Rusber Estrada, and Ray Soderman on the roster hasn’t been easy for Soria as well. The latter two are recent additions to the system while Rodriguez was once acquired for Christian Bethancourt. The sporadic playing time has led to just nine games and 39 PA to open the year. He’s just 6-for-30 but has pushed his OBP to .333 with strong plate discipline.
That plate discipline is one of the things that stands out the most about Soria. While rookie league pitchers can be wild, a 13.3% walk rate will attract some attention. Soria is considered a bit undersized behind the plate and power is likely not going to become a hallmark of his offensive skillset, but Soria can barrel up the ball to a gap. If he sustains his walk rate and hits in the .250 area with a .100 ISO, the Braves can live with his bat because what they really want is a catcher.
Soria works hard on framing and the little things that go into performing as a solid catcher. His arm isn’t fantastic, but it is capable provided pitchers give him enough time to throw out runners. He doesn’t make many unforced errors behind the plate and shows some athleticism. All-in-all, Soria is a decent defender behind the plate.
As far as projections go, you can see a possibility of a major league backup catcher in Soria in the A.J. Ellis mold (career 12% walk rate, 18% strikeout rate, .114 ISO). Ellis has stepped into a major league batting box over 2,200 times so it would be no small feat to develop into that type of player. If Soria can add another weapon – a bit more pop, possibly – he could become a true gem out of the 18th round.
Being a professional catcher is no easy feat. From the responsibilities behind the plate to the expectations in the batter’s box, few catchers get as far as the professional ranks. That alone makes what Zack Soria has done impressive. He’s given himself a chance to do what many of us dream about as kids – play major league baseball. How close he gets to that dream is unknown, but he’s not going down without a fight. That much is for certain.
Zack was kind enough to answer a few questions for me over Twitter over the last week. Hope you enjoy a dive into the mind of a professional catcher.
1) Did you always want to be a baseball player and if you followed baseball as a kid/teenager, who was your favorite team and favorite players?
Soria: Yes I always wanted to be a baseball player as a kid. Actually, my grandmother – who just recently passed away last New Years from Leukemia – taught me how to swing a bat around the same time I learned how to walk. From what my parents told me, they came home from work one day and my grandma was tossing a whiffle ball to me and I was hitting it with a kitchen whisk. She said I was a natural.
I also grew up playing many different sports including football, basketball, hockey, and even raced snowmobiles and dirt bikes for a couple years. But I truly loved and still love baseball. I grew up in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago so by default, I was a die-hard Sox fan growing up. My favorite players growing up were Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Dustin Pedroia because Pudge was a catcher and Pedroia has that blue collar, dirtbag style of play that I emulated to get where I am today.
2) Getting scouted up until the draft and going through it is hard on players. Did you have a feeling the Braves were interested in you? What were your first conversations with the Braves after the draft like?
I didn’t know the Braves were interested in me. I had filled out the typical questionnaire in the off-season but that was it. I actually thought the Texas Rangers were going to take me. That’s who I was in contact with most of the year leading up to the draft. In the 17th round, the area scout in south Florida for the Braves called me and told me they were going to take me in their next pick. After the draft, my area scout congratulated me and told me I was reporting to the GCL in Orlando that Sunday. It was an awesome couple of days to soak in getting drafted and being able to live out my dream.
3) The next few questions go a little deeper into the analytic side. Since coming to Atlanta, we’ve heard a good deal about a focus on a more analytical approach for the Braves. Most of the time, we are talking about the big league club. One thing that stood out on the opening night of the Danville season was shifting. I didn’t see too much of that last season. Has there been more focus on shifting and analytics, in general, this season than you remember last year in the Gulf Coast League?
Our new GM is really big on shifting and focusing on analytics. It’s a little different in the rookie ball leagues at the start of the season just because we don’t have too much information on most hitters. But as the season progresses we’ll get a better idea of the percentages and can shift accordingly. So far the shift has worked more often than not in our favor.
4) Though his bat has improved tremendously over the last few years – prior to a recent struggle – Tyler Flowers was known before he came to Atlanta as an excellent pitch framer. That reputation has only continued. Do you feel pitch framing is one of your strengths?
I’ve always made defense my priority growing up, specifically framing. There was a period of time in professional baseball where teams wanted an offensive catcher who could just get by on defense. Fortunately we’re starting to see a shift towards defensive first catchers which is good because the analytics show how important framing, pitch calling, blocking, and so on are in winning games. The Braves have made it clear that catching is our number one priority and hitting is a bonus.
5) To finish up, one thing that stood out the most to us was your patience and BB/K ratio in the Gulf Coast League last year (12.5% walk rate, 0.86 BB/K). While pitchers in rookie league ball can often be a bit wild compared to more advanced arms, do you feel your hitting approach is a reason for your patience and could you describe that approach?
I’ve always had good strike zone awareness thanks in part to being a catcher. As far as being patient at the plate, it just depends on the pitcher. If a pitcher throws a lot of strikes and has few walks, I’ll be a little more aggressive because I know he’ll give me something to hit early in the count. Guys that mix up pitches and work backward, I’ll tend to be a little more patient. I’ve never been scared to hit with 2 strikes so I feel that plays a part in being patient and seeing the ball as long as possible.
I actually felt like it was more difficult to hit in college than it was in the GCL because college pitchers could throw 2-3 different pitches for strikes whereas a lot of the young arms in GCL are still trying to develop offspeed pitches. As far as actual velocity and the movement it’s definitely better in pro ball. It’s the guys that know how to pitch and keep hitters off balance that make a hitter have to bear down and hit a mistake pitch.
I want to thank Zack for answering a few questions and best of luck to Soria moving forward!