The Detroit Tigers’ farm system has seldom been this stocked with exciting pitching talent, and the future of the organization lies in these arms. After years of trading away top talent for win-now players at the deadline, the Tigers have been slowly accumulating a hoard of strong pitchers, and soon the major league team should see this plan come to fruition.
Among these names has rarely been Gregory Soto, a lower-tier prospect with modest numbers in the minors. Nevertheless, it was the 24-year-old lefthander who made his debut in May 2019, his first of 33 games with Detroit scattered throughout the season. As one might expect, the results were not great for the rookie, but perhaps he showed enough promise to earn another chance in 2020.
What went right in 2019?
Soto was called up to Detroit as a replacement starter, and the experience did not go very well. In seven total starts on the year, the southpaw logged an 8.49 ERA and 6.73 FIP in just over 3 ⅓ innings per outing. As the season progressed, the Tigers decided to use him solely as a reliever, and this change was a big improvement; in 34 ⅓ innings he posted a 3.93 ERA, third-best in the bullpen, and a 4.50 FIP.
After the All-Star break, Soto only pitched out of the bullpen, and did so fairly effectively. His 17.8 percent strikeout rate and 13.4 percent walk rate were not overly impressive, but his 0.81 home runs per nine innings helped him keep down his earned runs, and his .362 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) allowed points to maybe a little bad luck.
There is a ceiling on pitchers like Soto, but he does have one advantage going for him. Against fellow lefties, Soto kept batters to a .302 wOBA, zero home runs, and a 9.2 percent K-BB%. He also held hitters to a 21.8 percent hard contact rate and saw a 57.4 percent ground ball rate. These numbers should be good enough to work out of the Tigers bullpen, even if Soto just serves as a situational lefty. Changing MLB rules may not help him out here — pitchers will have to face a minimum of three batters starting next season — but there are some nuggets to glean from his first season in the majors.
What went wrong in 2019?
Soto endured about as rough of a start as possible to his major league career. His first four starts saw him surrender a combined 17 earned runs, and none of his seven starts on the season lasted more than four innings. He was thrown directly into the fire, which is never an easy situation for a pitcher, especially one who does not come from a top pedigree, but clearly Soto was not ready for this responsibility.
Some believed Soto might be a passable starter given his ability to use multiple pitches, but his 2019 season saw essentially only fastballs (71 percent) and sliders (24 percent). With only two main pitches and without either bringing a ton of success, it just does not look like he can be a viable member of the rotation. It would be pretty surprising to see the Tigers use him as a starter in the future given his struggles this year and the alternative options in the system.
Perhaps the most telling sign of his inadequacies as a starter are his numbers as he goes through the order. As a starter, Soto kept opposing batters to a .241/.330/.370 line his first time through, good for a .307 wOBA against. Those numbers skyrocketed to .385/.422/.795 and a .475 wOBA on hitters’ second at-bat against him, something that can absolutely not happen to a starter. This can obviously be masked as a reliever, however, which is probably the path forward for the young lefthander.
Even though he may be able to survive in the bullpen, the overall numbers from Soto’s 2019 season are rough. He allowed a hard contact rate of 45 percent, and his 82.3 percent contact percentage does not give much hope towards him mowing down hitters. Even if he continues to be a ground ball pitcher, he is allowing too hard of contact to realistically keep runners off the basepaths.
As mentioned before, he pitched decently against lefties, but that might be the upper limit of his usefulness. The Tigers gave Soto a chance to perform — both as a starter and as a reliever — and the results were not great. There were enough positives to try him out as a left-handed specialist in 2020, but it is difficult to see how he can earn any sort of bigger role given how his pitched this season.