Not until after the 2021 season.
In early October, Hinch officially named Soto the Tigers’ closer.
“It feels pretty good,” Soto said Wednesday, with Tigers bilingual media coordinator Carlos Guillen interpreting. “But I got to put it out of my mind. I don’t want that thing to put me out of focus. I got to stay focused as much as I can, so I got to put my mind on other things.”
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The 27-year-old worked the 2021 season as the Tigers’ unofficial closer, posting a 3.39 ERA with 40 walks and 76 strikeouts over 63⅔ innings in 62 appearances out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.
He had a 27.5% strikeout rate and 14.5% walk rate.
Soto racked up 18 saves in 19 opportunities and pitched in the All-Star Game in July at Coors Field in Denver.
Hinch has “100%” trust in Soto, the anchor of a strong bullpen that also features right-hander Michael Fulmer (2.97 ERA in 2021), left-hander Andrew Chafin (1.83 ERA), righty Jose Cisnero (3.65 ERA), righty Kyle Funkhouser (3.42 ERA) and righty Alex Lange (4.04 ERA).
“I think he’s an elite pitcher,” Hinch said. “I think it’s uncomfortable for a hitter. I think he’s really matured and grown into a very effective reliever that now understands how to implement a game plan that makes sense. I’ve never seen a hitter comfortable against him.
“When I show up as a manager every day, I want to get him in the game. When he’s in the game, we’re either right about to win the game, or he’s closing out the game. When you have an elite leverage reliever, it feels pretty good.”
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But Soto isn’t a finished product.
He has added a changeup to his pitch menu, making him a four-pitch closer. The flamethrower threw a sinker (55.1%), slider (37.6%) and four-seam fastball (7.3%) last season, with his fastball averaging 98 mph.
Opponents hit .265 with an 18.6% swing-and-miss rate against his sinker, .183 with a 43% whiff rate against his slider and .095 with a 51.3% whiff rate against his four-seamer.
“I took advantage of the opportunity to be around veteran players, such as (Wily) Peralta,” Soto said. “He gave me a lot of tips. I learned a lot from him. He taught me to learn a new pitch and showed me how to do it, so I’m working on that.”
Before becoming a reliever, Soto used a changeup as a starting pitcher for the Tigers in the 2019 season. This changeup, though, has a different grip; still, it’s not the same grip as Peralta’s revered split-finger changeup.
Soto isn’t sure how often he will throw his changeup. “I need to gain some trust in it to know when I can use it in the game,” he said. Soto crafted his newest offering in Florida and the Dominican Republic this past offseason.
If all goes as planned, the brand-new pitch will elevate him to the next level as the Tigers’ closer.
“It will make hitters not as comfortable as they used to be,” Soto said. “I will keep them uncomfortable. Back in the day, they knew I was throwing either fastball or slider. Now that I have a changeup, that will have them feeling uncomfortable in the batter’s box.”