Tigers Talk: Decoding Gregory Soto’s growth and updates on the farm
On April 21, Gregory Soto came on in the eighth inning against the Yankees and helped the Tigers escape a massive jam. He recorded a five-out save, and there was so much to love.
Soto, often known for his sometimes savage command, threw 14 pitches. Ten of them were strikes.
The southpaw, who was worth -3 defensive points saved in 2019 and had a Jomboy Media video dedicated to his on-field issues, even made a clean out 1-2 at home plate in the eighth. A beautiful play. It seemed like a great summary of how Soto has improved over the past two years. Once a tough pitcher always trying to exploit his full talent, he showed signs of resemblance to a closer dominant big league. He already has an All-Star appearance to his name and the idea of another isn’t without merit.
“I think he timed his delivery so he could repeat it multiple times,” manager AJ Hinch said during Detroit’s final homestand. “Now that I see him making deliveries at different rates. He’ll take a quick step, he’ll kick high. When he does this, I know that when he separates his hands, when the front foot is down, he has total control of his flow.
“Looking at him in the past, even when he was a starter, you couldn’t say the same about his pace, his timing, his separation, ultimately his shot throwing.”
Originally, this was going to be a full story about Soto and all that growing up. But baseball is a mercurial sport, and some things have happened. First, Soto declined an interview at the Tigers clubhouse last week. It doesn’t matter, because there were still plenty of telling quotes like this one from Tigers catcher Tucker Barnhart.
“One of the first paddocks in spring training I caught, I was blown away by the quality of command,” Barnhart said. “Usually when you have guys who have stuff as good as him, sometimes the command can be lacking because they can overwhelm the guys with pure stuff. But the ability to throw strikes with the electric stuff he has is cool.
But just days after that interview with Barnhart, Soto entered the ninth inning against the Twins, and every sportswriter’s nightmare came true. The topic you are writing about is completely unfolding at the worst time. Soto threw eight straight balls – a few of which were badly missed – before the Tigers overturned their blooper loss when Robbie Grossman misplayed a ball into right field and Eric Haase ended up throwing the ball into the field left to ensure a wild march of the Twins- disabled.
Soto that night looked more like the Soto we saw in 2019 and 20 – a great pitcher but still kind of an untamed mustang.
The truth is, that’s sometimes how things go with pitchers, especially flamethrower relievers. So with Soto, some things may be true. He turned his slider into a swing-and-miss villain. He improved his fastball control and his ability to get ahead on the count. His first-pitch strike rate has improved in each of the past three years, from 51% in 2020 to 60.7% so far this year. His overall strike zone shot percentage is 56.4%, down from 51.5% last season. And while he hasn’t missed that many bats so far in 2022, there’s no doubt his swing-and-miss gimmick is still here.
But the unmastered command and sick stuff that makes Soto effective can always come with compromises. There may still be an occasional explosion. It’s not unique to Soto.
Look at another dominant reliever Barnhart has picked up in his career with the Reds. Aroldis Chapman is one of the sport’s most fearsome relievers. Still, his walk rates have been slightly higher than Soto’s over the past two seasons. Soto throws a higher percentage of pitches into the strike zone.
Chapman is a seven-time All-Star, as proven as they come in terms of closings. But he’s not universally loved by Yankees fans. He saved 30 games last season but also suffered four losses and four missed saves. In 2021, Soto has thrown more innings than Chapman but has only had one missed save and three losses to his name.
“Reminds me a lot of him,” Barnhart said of Soto. “I caught Chappy early in his career where his command wasn’t as good as it is now. Again, when you catch a guy who’s in his first two years in the major leagues and that he’s throwing 103 mph, that level of anxiety definitely increases. They’re both left-handed, they both throw hard, both have good sliders. I’d say they look a bit alike.
And of course, Soto continued his rough outing against the Twins with a 1-2-3 save on Saturday against the Dodgers. He has allowed just one earned run so far this season. Frustrating at times, of course, but he became a very good major league player.
“I love his behavior as much as I love his business,” Hinch said. “His business speaks for itself. His growth as a person, as a competitor, has been really fun to watch.
List decisions loom
The Tigers will have two fewer players on their roster when they start this week’s shortened home game against the Pirates on Tuesday.
MLB’s rosters drop from 28 to 26 on Monday, leaving the Tigers and every team in the league with tough decisions to make.
For the rest of May, teams are still allowed to carry 14 pitchers. At the end of the month, the rules will revert to a 13 pitcher limit. But with pitching squads still expanded due to shortened spring training, the Tigers could stick to 14 arms for now. They have a busy schedule in May and there is no clear candidate for demotion in the team’s bullpen. But after Grossman was hit by a hand pitch on Sunday, things got even more complicated.
Here are some of the list options:
• The Tigers could end their experiment with three receivers. Even though the team loves Dustin Garneau’s glove and Eric Haase’s bat, the combination hasn’t exactly provided a ton of value for the team so far this season. Garneau has just 11 plate appearances in eight games this season. Haase, who also plays left field, entered Sunday averaging .139 with a homer. Both players are out of minor league options, so the Tigers risk losing either player to another organization. But at this point, is it really worth keeping both players on a 26-man roster?
• Akil Baddoo is averaging 0.128 so far this season and while the Tigers believe in his talent, Baddoo’s move to Triple A could do him some good after a tough start. But the Tigers probably can’t send Baddoo out for a break if Grossman is on the disabled list or even misses a few days. Preliminary X-rays of Grossman’s hand were negative, but the Tigers will evaluate him further Monday.
• Willi Castro was raised to help with the team’s interior depth and is 4-for-15 at the plate since being recalled this year. But Castro’s defense remains a problem, so he’s a likely candidate to be fired if the Tigers do part ways with two position players.
• There is also the possibility of the Tigers changing course and parting ways with one of the players in the above position and a bullpen arm. It’s also important to keep in mind: this can and probably will fluctuate throughout the month, so whatever decision is made on Monday doesn’t have to be permanent.
Tigers are lucky to reunite with Will Vest
The Mariners weren’t the only team to have their eye on Will Vest ahead of last season’s Rule 5 draft. There was at least one other team that probably would have picked Vest if Seattle hadn’t taken him first.
And so — despite Vest’s 6.17 ERA in Seattle — the Tigers might have been lucky enough when the Mariners fired him into the Tigers organization last season.
Vest came in this spring on the outside looking inside when it came to the Tigers bullpen conversation. But expanded rosters and a few injuries have opened a door. And Vest seized his opportunity. He has a 2.08 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings so far this season. And the underlying pitch data shows you why teams across the league liked his profile.
The slider and vest switch both have more vertical and horizontal movement than the league average. The slider in particular has been a bad move for him so far this year. Opponents sniff 45.5% of the time against Vest’s slider, and they’re yet to register success on his switch this season.
Vest, a right-hander, also struck out six left-handed batters in 15 plate appearances. Friday against the Dodgers, he had three at-bats in Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Gavin Lux.
At the farm
• The Tigers’ bad luck with injuries now extends to Toledo. Ryan Kriedler, the promising infielder who could have made his way into a utility role in Detroit sooner rather than later, was hit in the hand with a throw last week and will need surgery. Kriedler was hitting .246 with four homers, three walks and 22 strikeouts. He is absent indefinitely.
• Better news: Another Triple-A infielder continues to look worthy of recall at some point this summer. Kody Clemens has a 12-game hitting streak. He hit three consecutive homers from April 24-27, then hit two homers on Sunday. He’s hitting .299 with six home runs this season.
• The line of No. 3 overall pick Jackson Jobe in his third pro outing: 3 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K.
• Here are the numbers for Alex Faedo since being promoted to Toledo: 15 2/3 IP, 20 K, 3 BB and an ERA of 1.72. Faedo missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery, but it suddenly looks like his MLB debut might not be far away. Faedo’s fastball speed has mostly been between 93 and 95 mph so far.
• Here’s a stat to watch: Going into Sunday’s game, the Tigers’ starting pitchers ranked last in the league with a 7.6% completion rate. In the era of strikeouts, Detroit’s starters have struggled to generate swings and misses across the board. Their CSW% (called strikes + puffs) of 23.4% among starters also ranks last in baseball. It’s an indicator that Detroit’s pitchers are struggling to be aggressive against opposing hitters.
• How about a tribute to Ben Verlander? Verlander, of course, is Justin’s brother and a former Tigers minor leaguer who now works for Fox Sports. Verlander has carved out quite a niche for himself in the baseball media over the past year. He was at Dodger Stadium for the Tigers-Dodgers game this weekend.
—Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) April 30, 2022
(Photo: Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)