Michael Fulmer, Alex Lange, Andrew Chafin and Will Vest have arguably been more reliable out of the bullpen, but Soto — averaging 1.240 walks and hits per inning pitched — remains the closer.
“He’s got the best stuff in the bullpen,” Fulmer said. “That’s why he’s in the role he’s in. Everybody is going to take their bumps and bruises here and there, but what makes him special is he’s got a short memory and the stuff to be electric.”
Soto, 27, was the Tigers’ lone All-Star in 2021. The left-handed flamethrower finished the season with a 3.39 ERA and 18 saves across 63⅔ innings. Once the season ended, Hinch named Soto the closer moving forward.
As the official closer, Soto has showcased mixed results.
His 2.88 ERA and 13 saves (in 15 chances) across 25 innings (in 26 appearances) are encouraging, but some underlying numbers, such as his strikeout rate and slider usage, are reasons to be concerned about his future.
His walk rate has improved, from 14.5% last season to 11.3% this season, but his strikeout rate has dropped significantly, from 27.5% in 2021 to 22.6% in 2022. He is averaging 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings compared to 11.3 per nine in 2020 and 10.7 per nine in 2021.
The explanation for his lack of strikeouts is his slider.
He rarely uses his best secondary pitch anymore. When he does, however, it isn’t performing the same as last season. He has seen decreases in both vertical movement and horizontal movement, meaning the ball isn’t breaking down and away as much as he would like.
“My slider is the pitch that I’m having issues with,” Soto said. “I’m not throwing it where I want it to be. I have to work on that. … The issue is my location. When I want to throw it in the strike zone or just a little bit outside, that’s a problem.”
Soto’s slider accounted for 37.6% of his pitches last year but only 19.3% this year. Opponents hit .138 against his slider in 2021 and .385 against it in 2022. Meanwhile, Soto has gone from relying on his four-seam fastball 7.3% of the time in 2021 to 43.9% in 2022. His sinker usage has also dropped, from 55.1% in 2021 to 35.9% in 2022.
“It’s something that’s turned him from a thrower into a wipeout pitcher,” manager A.J. Hinch said of Soto’s slider. “I do think it’s a difference maker. Now, asking him to use it if there’s no confidence and no execution is like not using it. That’s not a good recipe. We got to get him feeling better with both his pitches.”
Soto pitched six times from June 5-16, allowing five runs (four earned) on four walks with nine strikeouts in 6⅓ innings, giving him a 5.68 ERA during the stretch. He put at least one runner on in five of the six appearances.
“It’s just a thing of changing my mindset,” Soto said when asked why he has so frequently worked with traffic on the bases recently. “I know I have the gift and the talent for throwing the ball. I have to get out of it and do my job.”
He returned to the mound in Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Texas Rangers, pitching the ninth inning in a low-leverage situation. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter told Soto to throw more sliders. He retired all three batters he faced; four of his 14 pitchers were sliders.
“A couple good sliders in there,” Hinch said. “That was good to see.”
Soto ranked 17th among 518 MLB pitchers — minimum 10 batters faced — with a run value of minus-11 on his slider last season. This season, his slider ranks 339th among 391 pitchers with a plus-3 run value. (His fastball has a plus-1 value this year, worse than its minus-2 last season, while his sinker has gone from plus-6 last year to minus-5 this year.)
Unless Soto fixes his slider, his downward trend could continue.
“I’m not sure why he’s abandoned it,” Hinch said. “It’s always easy to wonder what could be if he throws more sliders. We need to get that to be more balanced. He’s feeling something or seeing something in hitters that’s making him want to go to fastballs in fastball counts, and even a dynamic fastball like his can be hit if you don’t mix in your breaking ball.”