No knee-jerk reaction: Tigers need to re-examine Gregory Soto’s suitability as closer

Detroit News

Detroit — You never want to overreact to one bad performance. Especially with closers. The margin for error is magnified, obviously, because the game is on the line every time they throw a pitch. They are human, after all, and humans are imperfect.

Before Gregory Soto’s five-run implosion in the ninth inning Sunday, he’d allowed just one earned run in his previous 14 games covering 14 innings with 17 strikeouts and four walks.

Soto walked three of the seven batters he faced Sunday, two of them with the bases loaded. It was his sixth loss of the season.

But the two-time All-Star has 20 saves and 22 opportunities. He’s allowed multiple runs just three times in 40 outings. Opponents are hitting .203 against him. He’s faced 163 straight hitters without yielding a home run since Andrew Vaughn of the White Sox got him on Opening Day.

Manager AJ Hinch has, to this point, been unwavering in his support of Soto. There has been no talk, at least not before Sunday, of any shifting of the seats at the back end of the bullpen.

Maybe it is time to have that discussion. And not just in response to Sunday’s nightmare.

The two prerequisite traits of a successful closer are the ability to throw strikes and miss bats. Soto is doing neither on a consistent basis.

It’s a little jarring Soto’s strikeout rate is the fifth best in the Tigers’ bullpen: Joe Jimenez (34.5%), Alex Lange (31.3), Andrew Chafin (29.7), Will Vest (24.6) and then Soto (24.2).

Among relievers, only Wily Peralta (11.8%) has a higher walk rate than Soto (11.5).

Soto is getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone 26.8% of the time. Lange (34.8), Chafin (34.7) and Jimenez (33.8) all have a higher chase rate.

Soto’s swing-and-miss percentage is the lowest of his career (27.3). Lange (43), Chafin (33) and Jimenez (31.2) are missing more bats.

And, the other side of the coin, when Soto pitches in the zone, he’s getting hit — hard. The average exit velocity on balls in play against him is 91.8 mph. That’s in the bottom 1 percentile among big-league pitchers (starter or reliever).

Only Michael Pineda (92 mph) has a higher exit velo on the Tigers’ staff.

Only Vest has a worse hard-hit rate than Soto — 47.4% to 43%. That’s in the bottom 13 percentile in baseball.

These numbers are startling and belie the fact he’s blown only three saves in the last two seasons.

The velocity on his two-seam and four-seam fastballs is still elite, still hitting 98 mph on average, still hitting triple digits occasionally. Opponents are hitting under .200 against both, with his two-seam sinker being his predominant pitch.

And yet, Statcast shows he’s getting swings and misses on just 19% of the sinkers he’s thrown and putting hitters away with the pitch just 17% of the time.

The biggest falloff, in terms of his arsenal, has been the slider. Last season, he got a 43% whiff rate with it and limited hitters to a .138 average. This year, the whiff rate is down to 38% and opponents are hitting it at a .280 clip.

He’s lost two inches of vertical drop and an inch of horizontal movement on his slider this season. According to FanGraphs, Soto’s slider was worth 9.1 runs above average last season. This year, it’s worth minus-3.7 runs above average.

Troubling metrics, to be sure.

So, what do you do if you are the Tigers?

Messing with the chemistry of the bullpen — inarguably the Tigers’ biggest strength this season — is dangerous. Demoting Soto could have a seismic and not necessarily positive impact, especially on his psyche.

Taking him out of the closer role wouldn’t be a permanent move, of course, though it might be difficult to convince Soto of that. But playoff hopes are long dashed. These last two months, once again, are going to be for auditions and roster positioning anyway.

Here are some options:

► Use a communal closer. Hinch went nearly a year and a half without naming a closer. He could go back to letting in-game matchups dictate who gets the final three or final six outs.

► Give Soto another few weeks to stabilize and build some positive momentum heading into the offseason.

► Give Lange a crack at it. His stuff is closer-worthy; why not see if his temperament is suitable for the role?

► Reward Jimenez for a spectacular bounce-back season and reinstate him in the closer role going forward.

It seems imperative to figure this out in these next two months. The last thing the Tigers want, you would think, is to add closer to the offseason shopping list. Looking at Soto’s metrics, though, it’s hard not to see it going in that direction.

On deck: Guardians

Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 7:10 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: All three games on Bally Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Shane Bieber (6-6, 3.39) vs. LHP Tyler Alexander (2-5, 4.04); Wednesday — RHP Aaron Civale (2-5, 6.17) vs. RHP Drew Hutchison (1-5, 4.37); Thursday — RHP Zach Plesac (2-10, 4.49) vs. RHP Beau Brieske (3-6, 4.19), tentative.

Scouting report

Bieber, Guardians: This will be his fourth start against the Tigers this season. He dominated in the first two back in May, allowing three earned runs with 15 strikeouts in 15 innings. On July 6, though, the Tigers nicked him for five runs and seven hits in 5.2 innings. His four-seamer isn’t the weapon it once was (down from 94 mph to 91) but his slider and curveball certainly are. He’s getting a 41% whiff rate on the slider and 38.8% with the curve.

Alexander, Tigers: He’s coming off an impressive start at Minnesota where he allowed two runs and struck out five in five innings. He mixed all five pitches expertly, but he did a lot of damage with his four-seam and changeup (nine misses on 25 swings). His newly refurbished slider has been a good tool for him, especially against lefties. In 12 outings since coming off the IL in June, he’s posted a 2.10 ERA and held hitters to a .227 average.  

Twitter: @cmccosky  

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