I’ve always had a thing for failed starters who turn into strong relievers. Prominent recent examples include pitchers who are aging out of being full-time starters, like Ian Kennedy and Bud Norris, as well as lefties who can prolong their career by dropping their arm slot and switching to a breaking ball-heavy approach, a la Oliver Perez.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen for younger pitchers as well, however, and I like to give props to organizations that are quick to recognize when it might be time to accept that a pitcher is best served coming out of the bullpen — instead of leaving them in the rotation despite obvious evidence that it just isn’t working.
Despite other flaws, the Detroit Tigers have shown a strong willingness to make this move for some of their pitchers, finding a lot of success by transitioning Shane Greene, Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen and, at least in 2020, former first round pick Beau Burrows, into relievers.
They may have done it again with electric lefthander Gregory Soto, who is off to a ridiculously good start for the Tigers in 2020. Armed with a triple-digit fastball and what is rapidly becoming one of the most dynamic sliders in the game, is Soto the closer-in-waiting in Detroit? And, even if not, does he have relevance in your fantasy leagues? Let’s examine.
Who is Gregory Soto?
Soto initially signed with the Tigers as a 17-year-old amateur free agent back in 2012. Age and command issues limited him to just two innings of affiliated ball between 2013-2015, and it took a strong showing in 2017 for him to finally put his name on the prospect map in the Motor City. Hwent 12-2 in 2017 with a 2.25 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 124 innings across 23 starts, 18 at High-A and five at AA. He also walked 65, good for a 12% walk rate, thus beginning the trend of high strikeout, high walk totals for the southpaw.
Soto somewhat surprisingly got the call to the big leagues early in the 2019 season, despite struggling to a 6.94 ERA in 23.1 innings in AAA, and he spent the majority of the season working out of the bullpen, appearing in 33 games with seven starts. To put it lightly, the results were bad. Soto only managed a 16.3% strikeout rate, which coupled with a 12% walk rate and led to a 5.40 ERA, 1.86 WHIP and an ugly 0-5 record.
Fortunately, the Tigers were smart enough to take even the slightest glance at his splits and identify the problem: Soto just was not cut out to be a starter. He posted a ghastly 8.49 ERA (6.73 FIP) with a 14% strikeout rate and a 10.5% walk rate in 23.1 innings as a starter, complete with a 1.84 WHIP and a horrendous 2.31 HR/9. I’m not going to pretend his numbers were good as a reliever, either, as he posted a 1.84 WHIP, a 17.9% strikeout rate and an even worse 13% walk rate, but he did manage to fare much better at run prevention with a 3.93 ERA and a 4.50 FIP.
So Detroit made the wise call and permanently installed Soto in a relief role in 2o20, and the results have been better than they could have dreamed up. It’s a small sample size (like all of the 2020 season) but so far Soto has a 0.00 ERA, a 0.40 WHIP and a 14:2 K:BB ratio in 10.1 innings pitched, allowing only three hits and racking up a trio of holds as he’s pushed his way into the back of Detroit’s bullpen situation.
Part of his success has been because of an uptick in velocity, a bump most starters make coming out of the pen. But more importantly, once the Tigers decided to commit to Soto as a reliever they made one more very, very crucial adjustment: they got rid of his terrible, no-good, very bad changeup. He only threw it four percent of the time as a starter, and for some reason seven percent of the time as a reliever in 2019, but in 2020 he has thrown it exactly zero times.
This chart shows how his sinker, slider, and changeup usage have changed from his time as a starter in 2019 to his time as a strict one inning reliever now in 2020:
|Gregory Soto||SI Usage||SI Velocity||SL Usage||SL Velocity||CH Usage||CH Velocity|
|2019 (As Starter)||75%||94.6||21%||83.5||4%||87.2|
|2019 (As Reliever)||66.9%||96.1||26%||85.9||7%||88.7|
|2020 (All Relief)||79.8%||97.7||20.2%||88||0||0|
It’s not a shock to see Soto’s sinker velocity tick up out of the bullpen, but going from 96.1 to 97.7 is still a big difference, and a two mile per hour gain on his slider is massive. I mean massive.
On top of the extra velocity, the shape of the slider pitch changed as well, with less drop and more horizontal movement, making it an exceptionally difficult pitch for hitters to get wood on. Here’s a look at the pitch from last year, and a 2020 example below:
And here’s the pitch in 2020:
(If I didn’t think it’d bog down your computer, I’d insert a gif of Amy Santiago from Brooklyn Nine-Nine saying “Oh mama” right here)
I admittedly chose one of Soto’s slowest sliders from 2019, but I wanted the camera angles to line up. Either way, it is very clear this is basically a different pitch in 2020. It has way more velocity, less vertical movement, but still enough horizontal movement to keep hitters from barreling it up.
Despite the massive change in the pitch overall, Soto’s zone rate hasn’t changed, going from 41% last year to 40.7% this year. Everything else has changed dramatically, however, as he’s posted a 50% chase rate and a jaw-dropping 44.4% swinging strike rate — a clear sign that hitters have yet to adjust to the new velocity and movement on this pitch.
The other shift you may have noticed is a return to his high sinker usage. For some reason he took it down to under 70% of the time out of the bullpen last year, relying far more on his slider (okay) and his changeup (not okay). Without the changeup in tow, we’ve seen that sinker rate climb all the way up to 80%, which may not be sustainable all season long, but boy is it fun for right now.
Shall we? Here’s a look at the pitch in 2019:
And in 2020:
Who doesn’t love 100 mile per hour heat atop the strike zone? While Soto’s sinker hasn’t had a huge change in swinging strike rate (up to 6.2% from 5.4% last year) the pitch has generated more ground balls and less hard contact, leading to excellent results so far.
So what’s next?
Soto’s hot start to the season is absolutely worth paying attention to, and the changes in his pitch mix (goodbye changeup) and his added velocity definitely have me intrigued. While he’s not going to carry this level of success all year long — I’m not convinced his overall command suddenly improved this dramatically — I think he’s worth paying attention to in leagues that either count holds or K/9 (or both).
As for the Tigers, they seem to have committed pretty hard to Joe Jimenez as the closer of the future, despite a career 5.42 ERA in 149.1 innings pitched, which means it may not be Soto’s time to shine in traditional saves-only leagues just yet.
Of course, Detroit did just indicate they are willing to change things up, calling up three highly touted prospects in Isaac Paredes, Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize while also finally moving hot-hitting JaCoby Jones up in the order, so perhaps manager Ron Gardenhire can be convinced to give Soto a look in the ninth inning.
Either way, have your eye on Soto in redraft and dynasty leagues. 100 mph heat and 90 mph sliders don’t come around too often, even in relief situations.
Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)