DETROIT – There was a moment in Monday night’s win over the Chicago White Sox that felt like a fork in the road for the Detroit Tigers’ season.
The Tigers had scratched and clawed their way to two runs in six innings against Dallas Keuchel, the type of soft-throwing, crafty starting pitcher who typically gives them fits. Chicago had already scored its first run of the game in the seventh inning when Leury Garcia reached first on a little dribbler to first base.
Slugger Yoan Moncada came to the plate as the go-ahead run. It felt like a story Tigers fans had seen hundreds of times before: The team gets strong starting pitching and just enough offense, only to see the bullpen blow the game.
Nobody would have been surprised to see Moncada hit one over the right field fence to put the White Sox ahead and crush the Tigers’ momentum in the biggest game of their season so far.
That is, until Ron Gardenhire brought Gregory Soto into the game.
Soto retired Moncada on a weak ground ball to third base. The following inning, he mowed through the heart of the White Sox lineup, even pitching around an error, and finished his day with 1.1 innings and a strikeout on 16 pitches.
That sums up what the lefty has done for the Tigers all year.
Soto’s season stat line speaks for itself: Nine innings, 11 strikeouts, one hit, one walk, one hit batter. He’s retired 27 of 31 batters without giving up an extra-base hit.
In short, Soto has been the best reliever in baseball.
The 25-year-old was the team’s No. 14 overall prospect in 2018 before making his debut last year. He was a starter in the minors, but his arsenal always looked like one that could fit well in the bullpen, and that’s certainly been the case.
Soto showed flashes of his potential as a rookie, but nothing like what he’s doing so far in 2020. Batters are whiffing at 13% of his offerings. He’s throwing two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. He’s induced as many ground balls as fly balls and more strikeouts than either of them.
It’s only taken a couple of weeks for Soto to become Gardenhire’s go-to reliever in high-leverage situations. Monday was the latest example, but it wasn’t the first.
Soto earned holds against the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals the first week of the season by pitching perfect seventh innings, needing just eight pitches each outing.
The only time he’s reached the 20-pitch mark came July 26, when he tossed two spotless innings against the Reds in a game the Tigers would eventually win 3-2.
In a year when the starting rotation has so many question marks and the Tigers have very little margin for error, there’s an argument to be made that Soto is the team’s MVP through 14 games.
If this is a fluke, Soto is sure hiding it well. The underlying numbers back up his production across the board.
Soto owns an elite 1.25 FIP, a .209 xwOBA (expected weighted on base percentage for opposing batters), a .234 expected slugging percentage against and a 1.71 xERA.
He ranks in the 89th percentile or better in hard hit rate allowed, xERA, xBA, xwOBA, xSLG, strikeout percentage and whiff percentage. If you’re not into advanced stats, this just means he’s been really, really dominant in both missing bats and limiting quality contact.
Soto hasn’t completely ditched the four-seamer, but he’s basically getting by with a filthy sinker and the occasional slider.
So far, 75% of his pitches have been the sinker, which averages 97.7 mph and has an 18.5% whiff rate. Soto gets a ton of called strikes with the sinker and can ramp it up to 99 mph.
He’s got a 67% whiff rate on his slider, but he’s only thrown 17 of them this season, compared to 77 sinkers.
When he was a starter, Soto was trying to mix in all of his pitches -- including the four-seam fastball and the changeup -- to keep hitters guessing and survive multiple times through the order. As a reliever, he can stick to his bread and butter and just mow through an inning or two with a nasty two-pitch combo.
Will Soto maintain his 0.22 WHIP, .034 batting average against and 3.2% walk rate? Obviously not. That would translate to the greatest relief pitching performance of the modern era.
But everything we’ve seen so far suggests Soto’s transition to the bullpen could be career changing, and he’s earned his role as the high-leverage guy in the late innings.
The Tigers have Soto under team control until 2026, so his career in the Old English D is just getting started. It sure looks like they’ve found another piece for the future, though, and that’s what rebuilds are all about.