Mario Soto changes speeds. He can throw body heat (98.6), and yet, from the same motion, he can throw a pitch that might be described as a "braking ball." Some batters say they can hear the screech of brakes as the ball approaches the plate. Soto—and the Cincinnati Reds—swear by his changeup, hitters swear at it, and pitching coaches around the majors are trying to capture its magic. Soto is all the rage.
He changes speeds, all right. By nature, he's relaxed, friendly, smiling, a picture of good will. But every now and again Soto loses it. He's lost it twice this year, once in Chicago and once in Atlanta, and it cost him five-day suspensions each time. There was no excusing his behavior, but in neither adventure was Soto asking for trouble. Because of circumstances beyond his control, he found it. Now the rage is all the public seems to know about Soto.
And that's a shame, because some people in baseball believe he's the best pitcher in the league—in either league, for that matter. "If I had to build a pitching staff from scratch, I'd start with Soto," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog. Soto turned 28 last week, but he is already fifth in career strikeouts on the Reds, the first team in baseball. He has never won more than 17 games in a season, but through no fault of his own. The mind boggles at the thought of how many games Soto might have won for the Big Red Machine of the mid-'70s.
Thus far this season, Soto is 9-3 with a 3.31 ERA, and he has seven complete games in 19 starts. He won eight straight at one point for a team that's 11 games under .500. And for one week he was probably the first pitcher in major league history to have more five-game suspensions (two) than losses (one).
Soto made the All-Star team for the third time, but in San Francisco last week, media people seemed to shy away from him. Or as one reporter put it, "So there's the crazy Dominican." In the All-Star Game, Soto retired all six batters he faced. He struck out Boston's Jim Rice on a fastball, which, as the cliché has it, is like throwing a lamb chop past a wolf.
The fastball has always been an inspiration to the language of baseball, and nowadays more pitchers than ever seem to "bring it." What do they bring? They bring heat, light, gas, high octane, hard cheese, dead red and a number of words best left unwritten. They throw seeds, aspirin, little baseballs, strawberries through brick walls and peas at the knees.
"The fastball is still the best pitch," says Soto. "Whenever I'm in trouble, I go to it."
But a pitcher can't live by dead red alone, and in the Cincinnati organization, minor league pitching coach Scott Breeden teaches an off-speed pitch called "the circle changeup." A simple way to describe the grip is, make the A-O.K. sign with your pitching hand, put a baseball inside and squeeze. It's similar to a palmball, but it's a very difficult pitch to master. To throw it correctly, a pitcher uses the arm speed of his fastball—the ball just won't get there as quickly.
"Mario has one of the best changeups I've ever seen," says Red pitching coach Stan Williams. "And I pitched with Johnny Podres and Carl Erskine, who had great ones. They threw theirs differently, sort of like they were pulling down the window shade. Any way you throw it, it keeps the batter guessing."
Soto throws two different changeups, which can break away from both righties and lefties. He also has a slider, but that's mostly for show, since he feels the slider hurts his arm. Whatever he throws, he throws it with uncanny control. Soto gives up about 2½ walks a game, remarkable for a pitcher who averages nearly a strikeout an inning.