How Soto developed into feared closer

Detroit Tigers

Two years before Gregory Soto could dream of being an All-Star closer, he was an opener, and not a particularly good one.

The Tigers lost 114 games in 2019, and Soto took five of those losses. He had just three games and 13 1/3 innings above Class A ball at the time of his first big league callup, but Detroit needed starters after Matt Moore sustained a season-ending knee injury and Jordan Zimmermann and Tyson Ross suffered elbow injuries.

Soto went 0-3 with an 8.49 ERA in seven starts, averaging nearly two baserunners per inning. Yet the pitching behind the results was intriguing. After a rough opening month, his fastball picked up velocity to top 95 miles per hour, including a two-seamer with sinking action that was hard for hitters to elevate. His slider showed signs of becoming a potential wipeout pitch.

Clearly, Soto wasn’t going to stick in the big leagues as a starter. But manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson saw enough to believe he could dominate as a reliever with a few changes. So Anderson began working with Soto on simplifying his delivery in Spring Training last year before the pandemic delayed the season, then again when the season finally got going.

“Andy shortened him up a little bit, got him away from the big windup, and everything seems a lot more in control,” Gardenhire said last year.

Teams can spend years looking for power lefty relievers who can retire right-handed hitters just as well. Detroit hadn’t boasted one since Phil Coke was sprinting out of Comerica Park’s bullpen a decade ago. The Tigers found their next lefty reliever right in their system. And while manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter deserve a ton of credit for their work on improving the pitching staff this year, Soto is an example of Anderson’s best work over three years in Detroit.

“I’m very thankful for everything they did for me, specifically Rick. He helped me a lot,” Soto said through translator Carlos Guillen. “Last year I had my ups and downs, but he gave me some ideas on what I should improve, and that’s what I kept working on back in the Dominican Republic in winter ball when I played there, just keep doing the same thing and improving myself the way he led me, so I can be better this year.

“It’s been an ongoing process, ever since the beginning. I have to mention Jose Parra back in the Dominican Summer League has been working with us. He has helped me a lot in my development since I was in the Minor Leagues. It’s been an ongoing process.”

By the end of 2019, Soto’s sinker was averaging 96 mph. It jumped over 97 mph last year with more drop and movement, becoming a devastating pitch even when hitters make contact. Now, he’s hitting triple digits when he’s rolling.

“His stuff has always been talked about, written about, feared from the other side,” Hinch said. “The big question was: Was he going to be able to harness it? And he’s really put together a nice run of quality outings in high leverage with zero room for error.”

This year, with a closer’s job up for grabs in Detroit, he took a developmental leap with more consistent command, becoming the type of reliever that Hinch can rely upon in big situations. The catch is that for Hinch, those situations can come in any inning from the sixth to the ninth, or even in extras.

“I mean, he’s put in the toughest spots imaginable,” Hinch said. “I think he’s shown some growth, I think he’s matured, and I think his overall pitching style has really taken off.”

It took a mental adjustment for Soto, a closer in winter ball, to embrace that mentality. But it has meant the world for Detroit’s improved bullpen.

“If you have the mindset of helping your team, it doesn’t matter where you’re going to be [pitching], any specific situation,” Soto said. “As long as you can help the team win, I’m ready for that.”

His All-Star selection recognizes that. Now that he’s headed to Denver for a potential matchup against the greats in the game, he has an idea who he wants to face.

“It’s been a dream since I was a kid,” he said. “Obviously I don’t care whoever I have to face, just enjoy the moment, but it would be more special if there’s a chance for me to face [Nationals slugger] Juan Soto given that we both have the same last name. It would be fun for us.”

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