Tape measure homers, web gems, and nasty pitches are what baseball is all about and in starting this crazy season the triple-digit mojo of Detroit Tigers reliever Gregory Soto has been generating huge buzz and propelling the ballclub in the early going.
The Detroit Tigers are off to an 8-5 start after sweeping the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates and the optimism level of Tigers pop fans is on the rise. Other players besides Soto are drawing second looks from observers as well. JaCoby Jones is hitting well and showing discipline at the plate. Spencer Turnbull has turned in three solid starting efforts from the rotation.
However, it’s been Soto getting many folks talking and anticipating his next appearance. Soto’s sinking heater has touched 100 MPH and averages a swift 97.7 via Fangraphs.com. He’s that “power arm” Tigers radio guys Dan Dickerson and Jim Price are always on the lookout for. The fastball/sinker has been so dominant Soto is throwing it 82% of the time with his slider as his only complementary pitch thrown the other 18% of his pitches.
Soto has walked only one batter in his first seven scoreless appearances in 2020 in addition to allowing merely one-base hit. Quite simply, he’s on fire to start the season showing some plus stuff and solid control he didn’t flash all that often during his rookie season.
Is it real? Has Soto taken to the bullpen and put himself on a path to relief pitching stardom? Certainly, the fans are starting to think so. On a smaller scale than the 1976 phenomenon, Soto is practically a cute nickname and a manicuring of the mound by hand away from Mark Fidrych-like adoration in some quarters.
The Tigers have been a woeful big league team with limited to no expectations for success for three solid years. Most fans would agree the Tigers bullpen deficiencies extend back much farther into even sone division-winning seasons. Therefore it’s completely understandable so many fans and observers want to jump on board with Soto and imagine what could be. Why not? There is no harm in being wrong other than commonplace fan disappointment.
Soto is throwing the ball harder than last year. His fastball is up about 2.5 miles per hour. Moving to the bullpen fulltime also has him throwing his slider three miles per hour harder as well. The suddenness to his stuff is very evident in watching the at-bats of those facing him. There have been a few hard-hit balls…but for the most part, it’s been a lot of called strikes and futile swings.
Obviously, it’s early. Even those who are most optimistic about a new Soto being on hand for the long haul aren’t quite calling him “Aroldis” yet. They know 7.2 innings pitched totaling 86 pitches thrown doesn’t even get you a ticket to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame much less a clear path to Cooperstown.
It’s always a bit eyebrow-raising to see a small sample of performance in the majors far better than anything achieved in the minors. Soto, working primarily as a starter in the minors, never came close to striking out 38% of batters in the minors as he’s currently fanning in the majors. His sporty 3.9% walk rate looks unsustainable when you see he never was under 10% in the minors.
There will likely be struggles. Control and command might fade for a bit. Bloops will fall in at lousy times. Someone will connect for a big fly. That’s just the game. Soto isn’t re-inventing anything.
This isn’t to say no one should be excited….(I’m a little excited!)… it just needs to be tempered with the knowledge of Soto doing things he hasn’t done before and having the success he’s not had for very long. He also may well keep it up in some fashion. Soto has the tools you need to be a nasty southpaw reliever in the majors. It’s about refining it, repeating it, and sustaining it.
Meanwhile, the Tigers need to maximize their effect on their fortunes while he’s hot. There have been calls to get him into a late-inning role. Basically anytime Buck Farmer and Joe Jimenez struggle in any fashion, you’re going to hear the idea of a switch while Soto is rolling at least. Those things will sort themselves out. Farmer and Jimenez have been acceptable thus far.
Soto did pitch one two-inning appearance on July 26th in Cincinnati. It will be very interesting to see if he evolves into a multi-inning weapon. A reliever who can put the hammer down in the 6th and 7th can mean just as much the guy getting out #27.
The AL Central will get plenty of looks at Soto. Will he adapt to the familiarity his foes will have of him? One good sign is he faced the Reds four times in 10 days and he shut them down.
The Tigers have plenty of live arms to test out in their bullpen as they look to solidify an ongoing relief weakness. But few have the exciting skill set as their lefty currently lighting up the radar gun and putting donuts on the line score for Tigers opponents. Enjoy the ride.