Mario Soto of the Cincinnati Reds is baseball's latest and most unusual strikeout sensation, a rare combination of fire and ice. Most strikeout leaders pour on the big heat and keep hitters honest with an occasional curve or slider. Soto, a 25-year-old Dominican righthander whose 135 Ks led both leagues at the end of last week, relies on a blend of fastballs and changeups.
Soto's fastball averages 94 mph and his changeup a mere 84. No wonder hitters aren't exactly sure what's coming at them. When Soto beat the Dodgers 10-2 with 10 strikeouts last week, Steve Garvey, who fanned once, praised Mario's fastball; Pedro Guerrero, who whiffed twice, blamed the changeup. Cincinnati Manager John McNamara, no fool he, refused to disclose which pitch was more effective.
"If I get ahead on fastballs, I'll probably strike a guy out on the changeup," says Soto, "or it will be the other way if I'm ahead on changeups." Soto's grip is the key. He holds his fastball with two fingers across the seams and the changeup with the three outside fingers across the seams. "The fastball runs on you both ways," Garvey says. And Soto can make his changeup dart in, out or down.
Soto's changeup has been a change for the better. After a winless April, in which he grooved fastballs when behind on the count and gave up seven homers in five games, Soto established his feared changeup and became almost unstoppable. He was at his best last Sunday against Atlanta when he struck out 10, walked one and allowed three hits in 10 shutout innings before he was lifted for a pinch hitter. Atlanta won in the 14th 2-0. In Soto's last 96 innings through Sunday, he had 98 strikeouts and 21 walks, and was among the league leaders with a 7-4 record, a 2.27 earned run average and six complete games. A master of control, he had walked only 31 batters in 127 innings; his 4-1 strikeout-walk ratio is extraordinary for a power pitcher.
After a 28-inning stretch in late May and early June, in which Soto walked none while fanning 31 and yielding just 14 hits, Cincinnati First Baseman Dan Driessen, who's in his 10th major league season, said, "I've never ever seen anyone pitch that well." Opponents are every bit as respectful. Recently a writer asked St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog to evaluate Fernando Valenzuela. "Not taking anything away from Valenzuela," Herzog said, "but Mario Soto and [his own] Joaquin Andujar are as good as anybody in baseball."
For some time now Soto has been a 20-win season waiting to happen. On July 5, 1980 he relieved in the first inning of a game in which the Reds were trailing 6-0. Soto threw 8‚Öî innings of three-hit ball and, when the Reds rallied for eight runs, got credit for the win. From then on he was the club's most versatile pitcher. In long relief, short relief and spot starts, Soto was 9-5, with a 2.29 ERA and four saves after the 1980 All-Star Game, and was voted the team's outstanding pitcher. In strike-shortened 1981 Soto was 12-9, but Cincinnati Pitching Coach Bill Fischer says that with more support he could have won 17 games.
This year the 6', 185-pound Soto has sometimes seemed as interested in KOs as Ks. On May Day, with a 10-1 lead over St. Louis, two outs in the seventh and two hits to his credit, Soto tried to bunt. For this violation of baseball etiquette, Mario got a pitch under the chin from Mark Littell. Whereupon Soto lost his cool and charged the mound, emptying both benches. "I completely forgot what the score was," he says.
On the last day of May, he forgot again. The Reds led Philadelphia 4-0, thanks in part to Soto's one-hit, no-walk, seven-strikeout pitching. But when Ron Reed hit him in retaliation after Soto (accidentally, he says) plinked a couple of Phillies, Mario charged forth once more. He was ejected from the game, which the Phillies rallied to win 5-4. "That minute all I could think was 'Go out there and get them,' " he says. "You don't have to let anybody hit you." This is the same Soto who once laughed while heading back to the dugout after striking out. "It's bad enough teaching him the language," says reliever Jim Kern. "We also have to teach him ethics."
Or self-control. "He has the tendency to get mad and lose concentration, especially in close games," says his catcher, Alex Trevino. Johnny Bench, the catcher-turned-third-baseman, can hear the hard-working Soto grunt on every pitch. "Sometimes he gets too fired up thinking of the strikeout title," Bench says. "I try to get him to calm down. I say, 'Stay back and figure out what you're trying to do instead of starting to think in the middle of your windup.' "
If Soto seems to be refining his skills as he goes along, there's a very good reason. "I never had enough time to learn," he says—and he's not exaggerating. Mario, whose hometown friends call him by his middle name of Melvin (a common appellation in the Dominican Republic), grew up in Bani, a small coastal town about 25 miles southwest of Santo Domingo. His parents separated when he was eight, leaving Mario's mother, a laundress, to raise her three children. Mario dropped out of school in the eighth grade and took a construction job, practicing baseball during the day and playing on Sundays—as a catcher, not a pitcher. In 1973 Juan Melo, a longtime star for the Dominican national team, converted Soto, then 17, into a pitcher. Two months later Johnny Sierra, the Reds' chief Dominican scout, persuaded the team's Latin American supervisor, George Zuraw, to sign Soto. Zuraw risked all of $1,000. "It was a total projection," he says. "He didn't throw very hard, but some pitchers, with a certain type rhythm, get faster."
Soto sat out his first professional season in 1974 after breaking his right elbow in spring training. But by 1976 his general manager in Tampa, Mike Moore, was telling Zuraw, "He's one of the best players ever to go through this organization." Unfortunately, he was going through it too fast. In 1977 Soto jumped to Triple A Indianapolis and eventually to the parent club when then-manager Sparky Anderson needed help for his badly depleted staff. Out of his league, Soto went 2-6 and was dropped back to Indianapolis, where he was 9-12 in 1978. Still projecting, the Reds brought him back up in September of that year. "That's when I finally got the changeup going," says Soto. "I was pitching in Atlanta and we were leading 6-4 in the eighth with the bases loaded, two outs and Dale Murphy up. Johnny Bench was catching. He kept calling for fastballs and sliders and I kept shaking him off. When he finally called for the changeup, I struck out Murphy on a perfect pitch. I kept working on it in winter ball."
The 1979 season began with Soto hospitalized for back trouble and wondering what he'd do without baseball. Again he divided the year between Cincy and Indianapolis; again he failed to distinguish himself.
Soto has come a long way since then, as last week's win over L.A. proved. After overthrowing by dropping his arm on deliveries and using 101 pitches the first five innings against the Dodgers, he slowed down his motion and threw just 50 pitches the last four innings. That's why the Reds say he has become a pitcher, not a thrower. "He's a sharp kid," says teammate Tom Seaver. "I don't have to go to him with advice anymore." Soto used to play catch on off days, risking his tender arm. He now takes outfield practice with a lefthander's glove. Soto lives in a Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati, saving money—he won a salary of $295,000 in arbitration before the season—and dreaming of the day when he won't have to work. "It's easy to spend money," he says, "but hard to get it." Now, Soto is really starting to make sense.