Mario Soto: Unlucky and Underrated
One of the greatest pitchers in Cincinnati Reds history came along at the wrong time
The year was 1985. The month was June. I came inside one afternoon and saw the day’s mail was sitting on the kitchen table. On top was that week’s issue of The Sporting News.
Now, receiving the latest issue of TSN was always one of the highlights of my week. I was a kid who had started to fall in love with baseball (and the Cincinnati Reds) a couple of years before, and I was starved for baseball news. Every week, it was packed with news about every team, and about my team! Very few Reds games were televised at that time — the team had been awful for the last three years, after all — and there were no SportsCenter highlights of my favorite players. But The Sporting News published a week’s worth of box scores in every issue, and I pored over them like I was trying to decipher ancient script.
I still remember picking up that issue, and being struck dumb. Mario Soto was on the cover! I couldn’t believe it.
Soto was my first “favorite player,” which is hardly surprising, since he was one of the few productive Reds in those miserable seasons of 1982, 1983, and 1984. He had been an All-Star in each of those seasons, but still, I couldn’t believe he was on the cover of my favorite publication. I thought Soto was my little secret, and now the world was going to know about him! (Note: I wasn’t a very bright child.)
Soto ended up having a dazzling, if short career (1985 was ultimately the high water mark for him), and his tenure with the Reds was better than most current-day Reds fans likely realize. But it was a career that was nearly derailed multiple times before he ever found stardom on the big league stage.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1973, Soto was assigned to the Reds rookie league affiliate in Billings, Montana for the 1974 Pioneer League season. He was just 17 years old and raw, but was expected to be a starter for the Mustangs. Before the season even started however, Soto suffered a freak injury, fracturing his right elbow while throwing. He missed the entire season.
The following season, Soto injured his throwing arm once again and appeared in only five minor league contests. His career was on the rocks.
Finally, in 1976, Soto was fully healthy…and he immediately became one of the best prospects in baseball. Starting 26 games for Class-A Tampa (Florida State League), Soto was nearly unhittable, posting a record of 13-7 with a 1.87 ERA. He tossed 3 shutouts and 13 complete games.
The next season, Soto began the year with Triple-A Indianapolis and he was so good (11-5, 3.07 ERA) that the Reds called him up to the show. Soto made his major league debut 9 days after his 21st birthday. (He allowed 2 earned runs in two innings against Pittsburgh.) He spent the next season between Cincinnati and Indianapolis, but just when it looked like Soto was ready to stick in the big leagues for good, disaster struck again.
“[I]t was almost over in 1979, too,” Soto told TSN. “I had a bad lower back in spring training, and I was in the hospital for two weeks. I thought that was it.
“I spent some time in Florida to get ready and then in Indianapolis, I was doing a lot of exercises, but it wasn’t getting any better. One day I decided to stop exercising, and the next two or three days, it started feeling better. I never exercised again.”
Interesting strategy. Maybe I should try that.
By 1980, Soto was a big leaguer for good, and he became a full-time starting pitcher for the Reds a season later. Thus began one of the greatest 5-year runs for any starter in Cincinnati franchise history. From 1981 to 1985, Soto won 73 games (and lost 57, thanks to some of the worst Reds teams ever) with a 3.16 ERA and a 118 ERA+. He made three National League All-Star teams, and in 1983, he finished second in the NL Cy Young Award balloting when he won 17 games with a 2.70 ERA (6.8 bWAR), leading the league with 18 complete games.
Soto had only finished ninth in the Cy Young voting the year before, but he posted 7.5 bWAR (yes, bWAR is a flawed statistic for pitchers, but it’s an interesting data point nonetheless) while leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings, a career high 9.6 K/9.
By 1986, Soto’s career was on the downswing thanks to a shoulder injury, and he threw his final pitch in 1988, at age 31. Another of the great “what-if’s” in Reds history. What if Soto had remained healthy and was on that great 1990 team? He was under contract through that season, and could have finally gotten his championship ring.
Alas, Soto was unlucky to have arrived at precisely the wrong time to be an elite pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. He debuted one year after the final World Series of the Big Red Machine era and his career ended just before the Wire to Wire Reds made franchise history. When all was said and done, Soto only made one playoff appearance in his career, two scoreless innings against the Pirates in the 1979 National League Championship Series. The Reds were swept in that series, which represented the only postseason appearance between the 1976 and 1990 championship seasons.
Soto shouldn’t be remembered only for being unlucky, however. He should be remembered as one of the best pitchers any living Reds fan has ever seen. Take a look at this chart, of all Reds starters since 1950. (That’s nearly three-quarters of a century at this point, by the way.)
Soto is second in strikeouts during that span, third in complete games, and sixth in wins (again, despite playing for mostly awful teams). The dude was just brilliant, and I fear that he’s going to be lost to ancient history for Reds fans in the future. You need to remember him for more than the fact that he taught his brilliant circle changeup to young Johnny Cueto, helping Cueto become a Reds legend himself.
In the end, I’ll remember Soto as I did when I first saw him as a pre-teen. I’ll remember summer evenings in the back yard, with Marty and Joe calling games on the radio in the background. I’ll remember one-on-one wiffle ball games against my brother. Every time I pitched, in my mind I was Mario Soto. Every single time.
Mostly, I’ll remember because Soto’s career was one worth remembering, and worth celebrating.
The Riverfront: A Cincinnati Reds Show
This week’s episode: TR #402: How the classic holiday film "Elf" explains the Cincinnati Reds. We’re in a holiday mood, and Nate and I had a blast with this topic.
Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel, and don’t hesitate to smash that thumbs-up button while you’re at it. You can also subscribe to the audio version of The Riverfront wherever fine podcasts are found.
Thanks for subscribing! Feel free to forward this newsletter to any of your Cincinnati sports-loving friends, or send them to our Substack site so they can subscribe for free.
If you have any comments, or just want to argue with me about anything I’ve written, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The best comments will be featured in a future newsletter.