You’re forgiven if you hadn’t given Detroit Tigers reliever Gregory Soto a lot of thought until this past Sunday afternoon. The young left-hander with the live arm has been of interest within the farm system for a long time, but struggles with command and his secondary offerings have always kept him pegged to a future relief role, limiting the air under his prospect status.
So far in 2020, the hard-throwing southpaw is making a name for himself anyway.
Soto was initially signed by the Tigers way back in 2012 as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. In one of the world’s true hotbeds for baseball talent, Soto was not a standout, but by the time he’d reached his twenties he’d made his way onto Tigers’ prospect radar with his electric arm and power fastball.
Soto arrived in Class-A West Michigan back in 2017, and immediately showed why reports from the rookie levels were so positive. He punched out 144 hitters in 124 innings, including a 24 inning debut at Advanced-A Lakeland to close out the year. Control was still an issue, as Soto also walked too many hitters, but the fastball was clearly overpowering and would reach the high-90’s when he really let it go. He was already 22, so from the beginning there were a lot of questions as to whether he could ultimately put it all together as a starter, but the arm talent was undeniable.
We had Soto ranked as our 12th best prospect in the Tigers’ farm system heading into the 2018 season, but his progress as a starter stalled over the next two campaigns. As the farm system improved, Soto continued to advance levels, but slipped down the rankings as better talent began populating the system.
The issues for Soto were simply those that befuddle most young pitching prospects. Despite obvious athleticism on the mound, a high kick and somewhat elaborate wind-up sometimes got out of sequence, leading to wildness and the occasional meltdown inning. Secondly, Soto’s breaking ball was a fairly loopy slurve that he struggled to command, and his changeup was erratic. He was a classic case of a starting prospect that most sharp-eyed observers had long pegged as a future reliever, but potentially a very good one.
By the end of 2018, the Tigers finally gave in and began fast-tracking him to Detroit as a multi-innings reliever. He still made the odd start, and even made seven spot starts in his 57 2⁄3 innings major league debut, but the future was clear and the Tigers’ coaching staff began the process of cutting down the excess movement in his delivery and focusing on short outings in which he could simply air out the fastball and only occasionally mix in his lagging secondary pitches.
Soto entered last offseason working on converting from his full wind-up to a slide-step, and showed no loss in velocity. He also focused on dialing in his diet. The long offseason, and then the lack of looks at him as spring training was shut down in early March, made it difficult to know what to expect from Soto in his new role.
So far, the returns have been incredibly encouraging. He looks in excellent condition, and has produced some real changes that bode well for him sustaining success, even if he isn’t quite at the level of an elite reliever just yet.
Gregory Soto (7/26/20) - Two pretty nasty innings. pic.twitter.com/7MSv5V8ouV— Chris Brown (@ChrisBrown0914) July 27, 2020
Scouting angle from 2018, but you can see how he looked prior to the adjustments here.
The most obvious feature, if you’re already familiar with the heat Soto is capable of offering, is the precision here. This is the element that has always been lacking. If Soto can continue to throw quality strikes without losing the fastball out over the heart of the plate, hitters are going to have little chance against him, even without a plus secondary pitch.
However, just as interesting is the revised slider Soto is flashing. The new look breaking ball is a harder, sweeping slider touching 90 mph that pairs much better with his power sinker than the old slurve did. Soto’s previous breaker came out with a lot more obvious pop out of his hand, and deep, sweeping horizontal break. With a riding fourseamer, the slurve may have been tunneled well enough to be effective if he could command it, but with Soto throwing a nasty sinker at 97-99 mph, the hard slider that can start lower in the zone and still be tempting, is a much better fit.
The slider, like Soto’s improved fastball command, all seem of a piece with his delivery changes. As a prospect, the long windup and high kick, mixed with a penchant for little pauses and timing tricks, often led to some shoulder tilt and a late arm. The ball would tend to come out high and he’d lose it armside pretty often, making for exciting at-bats for left-handed hitters in particular.
The simplified mechanics appear to be granting Soto better balance and stability, and greater ability to get on top of the ball and throw downhill. This is helping his command and working better with the late drop on his sinker, but it’s also allowing him to start the slider down in the zone and really let loose, increasing the velocity and helping him bury it down where even hitters who recognize it early have a hard time laying off. At the same time, Soto’s long loose arm with late quickness and good extension are still making him tricky to time.
The results have been striking. Soto has faced 12 hitters, and punched out seven of them without allowing a walk or a hit. He’s only needed 37 total pitches to do it, as well. His loose arm and quality extension, combined with the well-spotted power stuff, has definitely turned some heads.
Gregory Soto probably hasn’t turned into a precision power pitcher overnight. Expect him to have his struggles with command. Right now, pitchers appear ahead of the hitters in terms of being ramped up to game speed, and Soto’s sinker isn’t unhittable, even at 99 mph. He does, however, show similar paradoxical traits to Spencer Turnbull with a high spin —2420 rpms— fastball that produces surprising sink. Still, his simplified, more effective mechanics should make for quicker corrections, and there are plenty of tangible reasons to think that this is a lot more than just a wild power reliever who found his command for a few outings.
The stuff has always been undeniable. If Gregory Soto can continue to locate his fastball and mix in the slider and a decent changeup effectively, he’s going to be very good. In a Tigers’ bullpen that has gone a long while without seeing a true homegrown relief ace, he’s been a sight for sore eyes.