Ready for any role, Detroit Tigers’ Gregory Soto has new championship persona

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers left-hander Gregory Soto was lights out to begin 2020. His sinking fastball, armed with command and control, touched triple digits. His slider, as described by fellow reliever Joe Jimenez, was “just nasty.”

The 25-year-old posted zeros on the scoreboard in his first 10⅓ innings, only allowing four hits and two walks. He struck out 14 of the 38 batters he faced.

“All of a sudden, it clicks,” Tigers reliever Buck Farmer said last July. “Soto’s been a guy that’s done that recently. We’ve always known it’s been there. … When you look out there, it’s like, ‘Man, these guys in the box have no chance.’ “

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His performance — a 4.30 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 23 innings — was a step up from 2019, and now he’ll work with new pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, with an opportunity to become the future of the Tigers’ bullpen.

“That’s something on my mind,” Soto said Thursday. “I can’t hide it. If they mention anything about being the closer, I’m ready. Even more ready than last year. But they’re going to make the decision. They’re the ones calling the shots. If they trust I can do the job, I will take it and give 100% of myself.

“My mindset is to do my best to fulfill any requirement they have for me. Any inning they want me to be in, I will be there.”

But Soto’s final 12⅔ innings last year — 7.82 ERA, 12 hits, 11 walks and 15 strikeouts against 60 hitters — weren’t comparable to his early dominance. He had trouble keeping runners from stealing bases, regressed to old mechanics and struggled with command.

He gave up a combined six earned runs in two outings Aug. 18-19 against the Chicago White Sox. He issued three runs, only recording one out, Sept. 24 vs. the Kansas City Royals. Those three games accounted for nine of his 11 earned runs allowed all season.

“I learned how to trust myself,” Soto said. “Obviously, here and there, you have a couple of bad outings. That put my ERA higher. But those things happen in this game. Some of them, I cannot control. Trusting and having confidence in myself is something I learned.”

[ Why Daniel Norris believes pitching coach Chris Fetter ‘beyond incredible’ ]

There’s a lot Soto must prove before headlining the bullpen. He spent the offseason pitching in the Dominican Winter League and focused on his slider. When controlled, it seems unhittable. He threw his slider 80 times — or 20.3% — and generated a 61% whiff rate with 13 strikeouts in 2020. His slider only allowed one hit and produced a .084 expected batting average.

Now he wants to use it more often.

“I wanted to be comfortable and have trust to throw it in any corner of the plate or any pitch count or any situation of the game,” Soto said. “I worked very hard on that. I want to keep myself aware that I can use the slider anytime I want. … My slider, I consider it very good. It’s just a matter of confidence and trust.”

During Soto’s stint in the Dominican Winter League, he helped Águilas Cibaeñas to a championship, allowing two runs across five innings in the regular season, for a 3.60 ERA, in five appearances out of the bullpen. He had three strikeouts and one walk.

In the postseason, Soto gave up two runs in seven innings (six games) between the semifinals and finals for a 2.57 ERA. He logged seven strikeouts but walked five.

[ What makes Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter the perfect hire ]

This winter’s experience was beneficial beyond the numbers. Amid a crowd of 500-700 people, Soto estimates, for Game 7 of the championship series, the lefty flamethrower took the mound for the seventh and eighth innings with a five-run lead.

“Hey, if you need me to be more than one inning, I’ll be there for you,” Soto told his manager, Félix Fermín, before the final game. “I’m ready to throw two innings or more.”

Soto did just that.

In two innings, he allowed one run on one hit and two walks, delivering two strikeouts, en route to a 7-4 win. Multiple innings for relievers is a concept new Tigers manager AJ Hinch favors. Soto, who started seven of his 60 games in 2019, is a prime candidate.

[ How the Tigers’ bullpen will change under AJ Hinch ]

Regardless of how Hinch, Fetter and Nieves use him, Soto returns to the U.S. for spring training in February as a champion, and hopes it translates to the big leagues.

“Something that I’ve been working on since the beginning of my career,” Soto said. “Finally, we fulfilled this dream. We got to keep working.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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