Detroit Tigers reliever Gregory Soto dominant early in the season

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers are playing .500-level baseball, getting to this point with an explosive offense and a pitching staff doing just enough. But one pitcher has gone above and beyond.

Except for Spencer Turnbull, who has thrown some masterful games as a starterGregory Soto has been the most effective pitcher this year for the Detroit Tigers. Without a doubt, he has been the most effective relief pitcher. Up to now, Soto has not allowed a run and has put up some absurd numbers in the process. It may be time to start using him a little more.

When the Tigers signed him as an amateur free agent in 2012 and throughout most of his minor league career, Gregory Soto was a starting pitcher. He started 98 of 116 minor league games, although he did not eat up many innings.

All of his games combined netted only 476 innings, and he never notched a complete game, not uncommon in Minor League Baseball, to be fair. Still, he came up as a starter, so a starter he remained when he joined the Tigers in May of last season.

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The Soto-as-starter experiment did not last long: he started in seven of his first eight games from May to July before the Tigers moved him to the bullpen. To this point, those seven starts are the only starts in his short career.

This season, Ron Gardenhire has elected to use Soto frequently, but sparingly. Soto has appeared in eight of the team’s 15 games but thrown more than a full inning only twice. Through these appearances, Soto has submitted astonishing numbers: no runs on one hit, with 11 strikeouts and only one walk.

Of the 31 batters faced, only four have gotten on base: one hit, one walk, one hit-by-pitch, and one via error. Five of his appearances have been perfect, meaning he retired every batter he faced. This is a small sample size (9 innings), so 0.22 WHIP and 11 K/BB ratio are not sustainable. Regardless, Soto has been dominant in 2020.

A deeper dive into Gregory Soto’s statistics paint a more revealing picture for the Detroit Tigers flamethrowing left-hander.

The counterpoint is possibly Soto is simply more effective in short bursts. His career statistics would bear that out, after all. In his seven starts last year, Soto gave up 22 runs—all of them earned.

Maybe using him in a starting role for all those years in the minors was a misuse of his talent. His times pitching in relief were only marginally better, though, allowing 17 out of the bullpen in 26 appearances. All in all, giving up that many runs in that short of time is not a good showing.

There is, however, evidence Soto may be ready for more multi-inning outings. In his lone appearance of two complete innings, Soto fanned four of the seven batters he saw. Given how effective Soto has been pitching to this point, it might be time to start regularly throwing him two to three innings per appearance.

If it does not work, the Tigers can return him to a seventh-inning reliever or possibly consider work as a closer. If it does work, however, they can burn innings and save runs late in the game.

Throwing an occasional extra inning or two would accomplish a couple of benefits for the team. First, it would alleviate pressure on the starters to stay in games, knowing they had a middle- or long-reliever in Soto backing them up.

Also, having two or three locked down innings of relief allows the team to maintain a lead or come back and win (obviously). The Detroit Tigers of last year did not do much of either, giving starters a lead or mount a comeback. Three of Soto’s appearances this season have been with a one-run lead, so Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson, clearly trust Soto in close game situations.

Beyond the evidence of his output this year, Soto is looking like a different pitcher. He is throwing the sinkerball more often, toning down the use of the change and slider, so it stands to reason he will earn more groundballs and more swings-and-misses. The sinker has been particularly effective; batters are not making solid contact on it if they make any contact at all. The velocity on his other pitches has increased as well.

Starting pitchers for the Detroit Tigers have not been good thus far this season. In fact, Baseball-Reference has the Tigers starters ranked last in the league in terms of Wins Above Average. They have needed some help from the bullpen, something the Tigers have not had in the last few years.

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Since Gregory Soto has been the best piece of said bullpen, he should be rewarded with some longer outings for the Detroit Tigers.