Why Detroit Tigers' Gregory Soto is finally ready to become 'big piece' of bullpen

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers left-hander Gregory Soto didn't have much of a routine last season.

Whether it was starting, coming out of the bullpen, participating in long toss sessions or lifting weights, he never knew what to expect when his name was called.

His output in the first three months — a 7.46 ERA in 13 games and seven starts — reflected those uncertainties. When he became a full-time reliever in August, his numbers drastically improved for the rest of the season: 2.51 ERA in 14⅓ innings.

"Suddenly, I was a reliever," Soto said Saturday.

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The 25-year-old pledged to stay consistent in his daily activities, even when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training and altered the 2020 season to 60 games. This year's small sample of success is a testimony to his healthy diet, shortening his windup with pitching coach Rick Anderson and lessons learned from bullpen coach Jeff Pico.

Across two games and 2⅔ innings, Soto is commanding his pitches with five strikeouts and no walks. In 2019, he had a 45-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 5.77 ERA in 57⅔ innings.

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"Andy talked to him and got him to quit picking up his legs and trying to do so many funky things," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Saturday. "Because he throws 97 (mph), use that little slide step and let her fly. The ball is really coming out of his hand good, and he's more in control of himself.

"Walking people when you come out of the bullpen is never a good thing, and he had some of those issues, but he's been really good."

Detroit Tigers reliever Gregory Soto throws a pitch in the sixth inning vs. the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

The Tigers are letting him work at his own pace, like when he tossed two innings in Sunday's 3-2 win against the Cincinnati Reds, facing seven batters (one hit-by-pitch) and sending four down by way of a strikeout.

"Right now, fortunately, I don't have any inning specifics," Soto said through translator Carlos Guillen. "I'm ready because my mind is ready and my body is ready because I know what I want to do."

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Of his 23 pitches, 18 went for strikes. He got a strikeout to end the sixth inning with an 89 mph slider before three pitches — a 98 mph fastball, 90 mph slider and 97 mph fastball — struck out the side in the seventh.

Gardenhire was pleased.

"This guy can really be a force in our bullpen," he said. "If he can continue that, throwing the ball over (the plate) and in control of himself, you've got another big piece of your bullpen."

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Detroit Tigers' Gregory Soto pitches during intrasquad action Thursday, July 16, 2020 at Comerica Park in Detroit.

And when Gardenhire only needed him for two outs in relief of a struggling David McKay on Opening Day, his first opponent, Jesse Winker, watched two fastballs and one slider go by for a three-pitch punchout. The next man up flew out to right field on a fastball low in the zone.

Only needing six pitches, Soto made it look easy.

Of course, he'll have to maintain his fastball control if he wants to become the bullpen's go-to and "do some serious damage" this season, Gardenhire said.

"Speed hasn't been something of my concern," Soto said. "Since I arrived to USA, my velocity is over 95 miles per hour. As long as I keep working and throwing strikes, my velo is getting higher. That's something I've been working on."

And his confidence in his slider is ever-growing.

"I can trust in my slider," he said. "I can throw it in any type of count — 3-2, 3-1, it doesn't matter. Whatever pitch between the fastball and the slider they ask me to throw, I'll throw it."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold