How Detroit Tigers' Gregory Soto unleashed the fire in his arm, hair and emotions

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Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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Gregory Soto delivered a filthy slider to Andrelton Simmons in a 3-2 count with two outs. The Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins were tied up Tuesday in the top of the 10th inning. With runners on first and second base, Soto didn't have room for error.

They battled, but Soto's seventh pitch — his 19th slider used that game — brought out his emotions. The unapologetic lefty watched Simmons swing and miss to conclude a second scoreless inning by Soto. And then, he unleashed a dramatic celebration.

Spinning in a circle.

Screaming.

Pumping his hands together.

"The only thing on my mind was getting him out," Soto said. "Really, really wanted to get him out. Those emotions come to you during the game, and those emotions popped up immediately after that happened. Thank God, I got him out."

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The performance — on the mound and after the inning's end — signified what could be a coming of age for Soto, who got the win when the Tigers scored in the bottom of the inning (and also picked up a save on Opening Day).

The 26-year-old must continue to work on his command, but Tigers manager AJ Hinch — without actually naming a closer — seems to have found his guy. It might not be long before Hinch makes the title official.

"How about the guts to be able to go to a game on the line situation and go to a secondary pitch," Hinch said. "It wasn't 98-99 (mph) that got him out of that, it was executed sliders against a very high-contact hitter. To me, that's a presence on the front end, but more of the willingness to pitch the game. That made me very happy."

Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto throws against the Twins during the ninth inning of the Tigers' 4-3 win on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 at Comerica Park.
Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto throws against the Twins during the ninth inning of the Tigers' 4-3 win on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 at Comerica Park.

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Last year, Soto rarely got opportunities to close games, nor did he pitch in high-pressure situations. Those innings belonged to Joe Jimeneznow in Triple-A Toledo — and Bryan Garcia. But Soto didn't trust his slider as much, either.

He used 296 sinkers (two-seam fastballs) in 2020, compared to 80 sliders and 18 four-seam fastballs. His sinker averaged 97.3 mph; his slider averaged 87.7 mph. The slider was nearly unhittable, as opponents had a .056 batting average and 13 strikeouts against it.

In Tuesday's win, Soto's slider usage dominated his performance, per a request from catcher Wilson Ramos. Soto used 19 sliders to get four swings-and-misses and two called strikes. He only offered seven sinkers, topping out at 99.7 mph. His sinker produced one swing-and-miss and two called strikes.

"The sliders have been my plan since the beginning," Soto said. "Throwing as many sliders as I could. I got a lot of trust in it, and I can throw it any pitch count or in any situation."

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Through three outings in 2021, Soto has thrown 41 sinkers, 35 sliders and one four-seamer. Opponents are 4-for-7 (.571) with one strikeout against his sinker. Soto is still working on his command of it, and he needs to stay inside the strike zone to become a premier closer.

As for the slider? Opponents are 0-for-9 with three strikeouts this season.

"The days of being a fastball-only pitcher for him, until he throws strikes, is not the way he's going to approach this," Hinch said. "He's got an ability to get back into counts with breaking balls. He's got a put-away slider and 99 mph in his back pocket whenever he needs it. That's a pretty lethal combo."

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Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto during the 3-2 win over the Indians on Opening Day on Thursday, April 1, 2021, at Comerica Park.
Tigers pitcher Gregory Soto during the 3-2 win over the Indians on Opening Day on Thursday, April 1, 2021, at Comerica Park.

But the pitch repertoire is merely one aspect that gives Soto closer potential. The second? The emotions he showed after striking out Simmons in what was the biggest moment of Tuesday's game — until rookie Akil Baddoo's walk-off single.

It's a idea drawn from watching another Soto: Washington Nationals star Juan Soto, who has finished in the top 10 of NL MVP voting the past two seasons despite not turning 23 till October of this year.

When Soto was in Washington's minor-league system, he adopted a between-pitch routine known as "The Soto Shuffle." He crouches, lunges toward the mound and stares down the pitcher. Sometimes, Soto grabs his crotch. Sometimes, he smiles or laughs. Or he keeps an intimidating poker face.

He wants to make his opponents as uncomfortable as possible.

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In the same way, the Tigers' Soto — unrelated — flashes his colorful hair, reddish orange for now, and releases his emotions. The combo, along with his fastball/slider dominance, make one thing clear: Soto is a different cat, and his opponents are rattled.

"There are just a few pitchers with that type of character," Soto said. "But we have the right to express ourselves and show our emotions."

More recently, hitters have begun to fear him.

And anxiety in the batter's box is what the Tigers want their closer of the future to produce.

"The stuff — 98, 99, 100 (mph) — and making somebody uncomfortable by the willingness to pitch inside," Hinch said. "They get the colorful hair. Like, there's a lot coming with Soto.

"But when he locks in the strike zone, this guy doesn't get hit hard and doesn't get hit often. That's something we're trying to build from."

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

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Tigers' Gregory Soto is unleashing his fire