Tigers closer Soto works to bring save-situation adrenaline, focus to non-save situations

Detroit News

Detroit — The discrepancy is a little jarring, even if not exactly unprecedented.

The Tigers’ Gregory Soto certainly isn’t the only closer in baseball to struggle more in non-save situations than in save situations. But his struggles are noteworthy.

In save situations, like Friday night when he struck out three hitters to lock down the Tigers’ 5-4 win, he’s got a 1.98 ERA and a 1.1 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and 12 walks in 27 innings. He’s holding hitters to a .205 average and a .593 OPS and has converted 24 of 26 save chances.

In non-save situations, he’s 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA, a 1.5 WHIP with 21 strikeouts and 13 walks in 21⅓ innings. Opponents are hitting .247 with a .750 OPS.

He had been tagged for four runs in 1⅓ innings in his two outings before Friday, both non-save situations. He was asked how much he needed a bounce-back outing and he turned the answer back to pitching in save situations.

“It means a lot,” he said through Tigers bilingual interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I’ve been waiting for that for a long time. My recent outings haven’t been save situations. This one I was looking forward to it. I just wanted to go out and do my job.

“In the other ones, I was just trying to perform. In this case, I had to save the game for the team and fortunately I did that.”

Again, he’s not the first closer whose focus is sharpened in direct proportion to the adrenaline level created by the situation he’s pitching in. But it’s not the preferred approach.

“It shouldn’t be,” manager AJ Hinch said. “When you go out on the field you should give 100% of what you have that day to get through your outs. Saves get counted in more categories that are beneficial to the psyche of the player.

“But I think any time you go on the field you should treat it the same.”

Psyche and feels aside, the best part of Soto’s performance Friday was the strikes — 14 of his 22 pitches were in the zone. He also threw four of those pitches over 100 mph.

“My mentality wasn’t to throw over 100,” he said. “It wasn’t to throw hard. It was to re-acclimate myself and get back together with the strike zone.”

His pitch mix was a little different, as well. His dominant pitch has always been a two-seam sinker. He threw that pitch 55% of the time last season and was over 50% most of this season. Lately, though, he’s gone more to the four-seam fastball.

While his two-seamer has extreme movement and can dart out of the strike zone, the four-seamer stays on plane. And at 98-100 mph, you get how a hitter expecting a two-seamer could be fooled by a straighter, riding four-seamer.

“I think he needs to use it more,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “I think, for me, with a guy who throws so hard like that, traditionally the two-seam against the opposite-handed hitter — lefty vs. right-handed hitter or righty vs. left-handed hitter — the two-seamer is the pitch on average that gets hit the hardest.

“Hitters see it better, the movement of the pitch and it’s hard for them to get it all the way inside with regularity. For me, the four-seamer enables him to throw more strikes and challenge more hitters.”

Barnhart said he only called for four-seamers Friday and he let Soto grip it however he chose. He ended up throwing nine four-seamers and eight two-seamers. He got four called strikes with the four-seamer.

Last year, Soto threw the four-seamer just seven percent of the time. This year, he’s up to 31% usage and he’s checking hitters at a .185 clip with 25 strikeouts with it.

All fine and good for Hinch, as long as Soto’s mechanics stay consistent, as well.

“I think delivery gets you in sync more than how you grip the ball,” he said. “Four-seam, two-seam, I tip my cap, cool. Whatever they want to throw. I don’t pay as much attention to that as I do to the delivery and being in sync to where he lands in the same spot.

“His timing was better (on Friday) and the strike-throwing was really good.”

cmccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

Royals at Tigers

First pitch: 1:40 p.m. Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

SCOUTING REPORT

RHP Max Castillo (0-1, 2.81), Royals: This will be his second start after he was traded to Kansas City from Toronto. He allowed a run over five innings against Tampa in his Royals debut. He features a four-seam fastball (93-94 mph) with above average extension and a change-up. He will sprinkle in the odd slider, curve and sinker.

RHP Matt Manning (1-2, 3.79), Tigers: He picked a bad night for his breaking balls to fail him. Last Tuesday, the Mariners, one of the best hitting teams against spin in baseball, KO’d him early, hitting two home runs and scoring seven times in 2⅓ innings. It was shortest non-injury related outing of his career and it came on the heels of a career-best eight-strikeout performance against the Giants.

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