What Happened to Gleyber Torres?
What Happened to Gleyber Torres?
By Chris O’Connor
When the Yankees’ organization pivoted off course and became rare sellers at the 2016 trade deadline, Brian Cashman and co. were lauded for the prospect haul they received in return for guys like Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran. No prospect, however, was more hyped than 19 year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres. Though he missed time due to Tommy John surgery in June 2017, he was a consensus top-10 prospect in the minor leagues entering 2018. While he did not make the team out of spring training, he was called up quickly once the date passed where he would have accrued a full season for service time manipulation. Torres made an immediate impact, hitting a combined 62 home runs in 2018 and 2019 with a WRC+ of 121 and 124, respectively. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, his power evaporated. In his last 109 regular season games across 2020 and 2021, he has batted .242 with 6 home runs and 49 RBI’s. What happened to a guy who, still just 24 years old, looked the part of a future star just a few years ago? Let’s take a look at the stats.
On the surface, Torres’ plate discipline has improved. Despite the league-wide strikeout rate increasing every season, Gleyber saw his strikeout rate decline each year from 2018-2020. In 2018, he struck out in 25.4% of his plate appearances. That number was down to 17.5% last year and is at 20.3% this year, which is still below the league average rate. His walk rate tells a similar story. After settling around 8% in 2018-2019, it peaked at 13.8% in 2020 before settling at 10.8% this year. He is walking more because he has been more selective at the plate: in 2018-2019, he swung at about 35% of pitches outside of the strike zone; in 2020-2021, it has been about 27%. He is not necessarily compensating by swinging less at pitches inside of the strike zone, either: while it is true that his career-best 2019 season saw him swing at 76.3% of pitches inside of the strike zone, and his poor 2020 saw that number drop to about 68%, it was also about 68% in his All-Star 2018 season. This year, it is up to nearly 73%.
Batted Ball Profile
Just by the eye test, I thought that Gleyber Torres was a guy who, when he had two strikes on him, would focus on shortening it up and putting the ball in play. As it turns out, he strikes out 38.9% of the time when he gets two strikes on him; that is tied for 106th in the league. Similarly, I also thought Torres was someone who was focused on putting the ball in play, rather than swinging for the fences, in high-leverage situations. That is more supported by the evidence: in high-leverage situations, his strikeout rate sinks to 12.5%. That number rises to 19.5% in medium-leverage situations and 23.4% in low-leverage situations. This is a major reason why he has come up big with two walk off singles this year and leads the team in clutch score. His small-ball approach in the clutch is a nice change of pace from the Yankees all or nothingness and their well-documented struggles to hit with RISP.
Despite striking out less in high-leverage situations, his performance in them has been emblematic of his performance on the whole this season. He has a WRC+ of just 71 in those situations, not dissimilar to his 80 for the season. That is a pretty terrible number, and his batted ball profile is telling here. He has seen his ground ball rate rise every year of his career: in 2018 it was 32.8% and has spiked up to 44% this year. The reverse is true for fly balls where his rate has decreased every year of his career. The problem with Gleyber Torres this year is that he is hitting the ball on the ground more than ever and even when he is able to get in the air, it appears that the de-juiced ball has really affected him. In 2019, when he hit 38 home runs, 21.5% of his fly balls left the park. That number was just 7.1% in 2020 and is down to 4.5% this year. Similarly, his average exit velocity has absolutely cratered this year: while it was middle of the pack from 2018-2020, it is currently in the fourth percentile. While not many expected him to repeat his 38 home run barrage (due to the juiced ball and the fact that 13 of them were against the Orioles), this sudden evaporation of his power has been very unexpected.
Before the season, I suggested that the Yankees should consider trading Luke Voit with one of the primary reasons being that I did not think Gleyber Torres can stick at shortstop. In that scenario, I envisioned signing a left-handed shortstop who provides at least competent defense like Didi Gregorius or Andrelton Simmons, moving Gleyber to second base, and moving D.J. Lemahieu to first base as part of a super utility role to maximize his versatility. Defensive metrics are imperfect, especially with less than half of the season in the books, but they have not changed my opinion of him as a shortstop. Outs Above Average rates him in the fourth percentile among all fielders and while Fangraphs is a little better (he ranks 13th among shortstops in UZR/150), I think that it is pretty clear from both the metrics and the eye test that he is an average to below-average defensive player. If he is not hitting well or fielding at a high level at a vital position, what kind of value does he bring to the table?
Ultimately, while Gleyber has proven to be an immensely talented player, this is over 100 games of offensive struggles combined with unexceptional defense. I do think that he is far too talented to give up on, but I think that the team needs to seriously consider going hard at one of the shortstops in the upcoming free agent class (Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, and Marcus Semien) and moving Gleyber to second base. I still believe in Gleyber Torres, but it is starting to look like his 2019 season was more of an outlier than anyone could have anticipated.