Detroit Tigers’ A.J. Hinch trusts Gregory Soto, but All-Star closer needs to throw strikes

Detroit Free Press

Gregory Soto is the Detroit Tigers‘ closer.

Manager A.J. Hinch isn’t turning his back on the 27-year-old flamethrower, even after Sunday’s messy ninth inning. Soto walked three batters, including two with the bases loaded, and gave up five runs as a 0-0 tie entering the ninth became a 7-0 loss.

“It was just a bad outing,” Soto said. “It wasn’t my best day. That’s all I can say about that.”

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“If we have the lead in the ninth inning, I’m going to give him the ball,” Hinch said, “and he’s going to throw more strikes than he did Sunday.”

For Soto, a random inability to throw strikes has been an ongoing problem for his entire big-league career. On the flip side, the left-hander has picked up 38 saves in 41 chances — an elite 92.7% save rate — over the past two seasons as the team’s closer. Then again, he has seven losses in 2022.

It’s head-scratching.

“That was a tough day, obviously, watching him struggle,” Hinch said. “But we’ve been there before with him. The good version is electric. The medium version is electric. The erratic version, he struggles like most pitchers do. I’m going to give him the ball when the game is on the line and trust the good version is going to come out again like it has for much of this season.”

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Before Sunday’s game, Soto had a 0.64 ERA with four walks and 17 strikeouts over 14 innings in 14 outings since June 19. After Sunday’s game, Soto pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Guardians and surrendered an RBI single — scoring an unearned run — in the 10th inning in Thursday’s 4-3 loss.

“When he goes out there and is filling up the strike zone, it doesn’t matter what he’s throwing,” catcher Eric Haase said. “You’ll see the dominance come back out. We just got to get him controlling the strike zone and attacking guys. Because the stuff, it’s hard to hit.”

After trading Michael Fulmer to the Minnesota Twins, the Tigers have four established high-leverage relievers: Soto (0.6 fWAR), Andrew Chafin (1.1 fWAR), Joe Jiménez (1.0 fWAR) and Alex Lange (0.7 fWAR).

Among the group, Soto ranks fourth in strikeout rate (24.4%) and third in walk rate (11.3%), ahead of only Lange’s 11.4% mark. His swing-and-miss rate (27.5%) is a career worst since transitioning into a full-time reliever in 2020, his second year in the majors.

Last year, Soto produced a 31.3% whiff rate.

“He’s throwing less sliders this year than he has in the past,” Hinch said. “That’s generally been his swing-and-miss pitch. The velo on the fastball, when it’s where it normally is, still can generate some swing and miss, but we don’t want him chasing strikeouts.”

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Instead, the Tigers want Soto to chase leverage counts. He needs to get ahead and stay ahead in counts against the opposition. He has thrown first-pitch strikes to 56.6% of batters this season, down from 59.1% in 2021.

On Sunday, Soto tossed first-pitch strikes to three of seven batters.

“That’s probably why he hasn’t gotten the strikeouts,” Hinch said.

Still, Soto’s abandonment of his slider plays a role in the strikeout situation. He has seen decreases in both vertical (2.0 inches) and horizontal movement (1.1 inches) from last season’s slider, meaning the ball isn’t breaking down and away as much. Therefore, Soto doesn’t trust his slider because it’s not acting like the same pitch.

As a result, Soto isn’t using his slider as often, though he took a step in the right direction Thursday by throwing nine sliders — generating three swings and misses — among his 17 pitches.

“The slider was much better,” Hinch said. “Hopefully, it’s back.”

Soto threw his primary secondary pitch 37.6% of the time last year but only 20.6% this year. Opponents hit .138 with a 43% swing-and-miss rate against his slider in 2021 and .280 with a 37.9% whiff rate in 2022.

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“I just don’t feel like I have to throw it in any specific moment,” Soto said. “I don’t see where it would fit in any situation. … I was using my fastball and getting outs with my fastball. I was using my slider sometimes, but I was seeing the results with my fastball. On Sunday, my fastball wasn’t there.”

Hinch has a different opinion.

“To me, it probably means he doesn’t feel convicted that he can throw (the slider) whenever he wants to,” Hinch said. “I think against any hitter in the league he has an opportunity to throw it, and it would be a good decision if it’s set up properly. Again, if you get into count leverage, you have a little bit more room for error.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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