As a team, you can say the Yankees have been disappointing offensively this year. They have a 99 wRC+, despite being considered one of the best offenses in baseball heading into its season. By a wide margin, their most disappointing player this year has been Gleyber Torres. Even as Gary Sánchez and DJ LeMahieu are heating up following their slow starts and Luke Voit has finally returned from his second stint on the injured list, Torres is still struggling.
Following his arrival to the Yankees organization, Torres quickly rose up prospect lists. He soon proved the hype was warranted, as he exploded out of the gate as a 21-year old rookie. The following year, he blasted 38 home runs, paving the path to becoming the next Yankee superstar. From there, everything changed. 2020 was an off-year, but we could reasonably point that to a combination of injuries and a weird COVID year. Max Greenfield wrote about Torres prior to the start of the season, establishing 2021 as a make-or-break year. He mentions the plethora of talent at the shortstop position in this upcoming free agency class, including Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javier Baéz, and Marcus Semien. Is it possible the Yankees make a run at one of these guys if Torres can’t get it together soon?
All the projection systems had Torres as an above-average hitter heading into this year. Based on where he was drafted, I’d assume most fantasy managers agreed. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve already cut bait at this point. It’s frustrating because we know how valuable his power tool can be, especially coming from a middle infield position.
New Approach At The Plate
In his first two seasons, Gleyber Torres had a very aggressive approach at the plate, especially on the first pitch he sees.
He is swinging at fewer pitches in general, but this trend is seen most prominently on empty counts. Now his first-pitch strike rate is down, likely because he is chasing fewer pitches out of the zone. However, he has a career .384 wOBAcon, so he is missing out on opportunities to potentially do damage. A swing and a miss for strike one would not be the end of the world. I’m not sure what sparked this change in style, but a return to his less passive approach may help him return to his former self.
What Happened to the Power?
One quick look at your favorite baseball stats webpage will tell you all you need to know about Torres’s drop in power. He has just three home runs on the season, just two years after hitting 38. His exit velocity is down. His hard-hit rate is down. His xwOBA is down. His barrel rate is down. I don’t need to tell you more. This can’t be all because of a handful of first-pitch takes. There are many parts of his game — mostly approach-based — that have changed between 2019 and 2021, all of which are likely part of the problem.
Last week, Devan Fink took a look at the same issue. He highlighted the fact that Torres is not pulling the ball as much as he used to. Torres has been among the best hitters in the league in terms of quality of contact on pulled balls. His fly ball rate is currently only down a few percentage points, but Devan argues — and proves — that the drop in power can be pointed in the direction of his fly balls.
What if I told you Gleyber Torres‘ biggest problem was that he wasn’t whiffing enough? Bear with me here. Torres has seemingly put extra emphasis on plate discipline as he’s matured as a big leaguer.
His chase rate has gone down significantly from his rookie and sophomore seasons, which is good. He is also whiffing and hence striking out less. Again, these are generally good trends.
However, his in-zone whiff rate has stayed relatively stagnant in all four years of his career, so this trend is largely driven by pitches out of the zone. Let’s take a look at what Baseball Savant’s “Swing-Take profile” for Torres from 2019 and 2021.
One of the biggest differences between these two charts is the run value on swings in the shadow zone, the area right on the edge of the strike zone. Because 2021 is a much smaller sample, this difference would be even more drastic if you were to prorate it. Ironically, his contact rate on such pitches in 2021 is 75.0%. In 2018-2019 put together, it was 69.6%. So when Torres made less contact, he performed better. It seems like Torres is focusing on not striking out rather than putting solid contact on the ball. Here’s an example:
The count is 1-0 here, so a hard swing and a miss would not do much harm. However, Torres tries too hard to make contact and ends up hitting a weak ground ball for an easy out. Related to Devan’s point, Torres is unsurprisingly pulling the ball less often on these pitches as well. Believe it or not, there is a positive relationship between whiffs and quality of contact. Whiff rate and barrel rate have an R-squared metric of 0.49, which is fairly strong. This relationship could not be more apparent than in a player like Torres. If he focuses solely on hitting for power, without worrying about making contact, it should help him return to what he once was.
Putting It All Together
We all know what Gleyber Torres is capable of. He was a top prospect and we’ve seen his upside at the major league level. He still has the talent to be one of the better shortstops in baseball. It’s not too often we see a 24-year-old completely lose the ability to perform at a high level. This is primarily an issue with his approach. Something changed between 2019 and 2020 and it has clearly not been for the better. He’s being too passive at the plate and he needs to return to his 2019 style to regain his success, even if his game has some flaws. All we can do is hope that someone, whether it’s a Yankees coach or someone Torres works with personally, will help him return to greatness.
Photos by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire and Dan Gold/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)
As a lifelong Yankees fan, I have a couple of points on where Torres is right now:
#1 – There seems to be an organizational focus on the preference that once you can get solid hitting to CF/oppo, making sure you can get a hit above all else, THEN you can hunt for power. I’m not sure if this came from the analytics dept, Thames, (the hitting coach,) or from within the clubhouse; with guys like Judge and Stanton espousing it routinely in the media during ST or during slumps, and/or LaMahieu just putting the philosophy into action to good results over the last couple seasons.
This may just not fit the smooth natural style he had as a prospect and during his first couple seasons. While he was coming up, he looked like one of the most composed, confident, natural prospects in the box I’d seen in quite some time.
#2 – His defense has been atrocious, NY media is a snarling, ungrateful, unrelenting beast, and he got knocked publicly by Brian Cashman for failing to be in shape coming into Summer Camp in his best shape. This all combines into a serious confidence hit, I’d imagine, and as we all know “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” (Miss you Yogi!)
Pretty much as long as he’s been there, Thames has always preached swinging hard and hitting for power and not worrying about strikeouts. And that seems to be the approach for many of their players (Judge, Stanton, Sánchez, Voit, Hicks, pre-2020 Torres, etc). I honestly think this change has either come from Torres himself or someone he works with personally. Because it seems very anti-Yankee to tell him to sacrafice power to hit for contact.
I wanted to make this more of an offense-based peice, but yeah his defense at SS has pretty much always been bad. I’ve been saying for years he probably profiles at 2B or 3B long term. I’m really curious to see what the Yankees do this offseason
For the most part, I agree with you, until LeMahieu came into the picture, or at least until they became a obscenely righty-heavy lineup. The CF/oppo focus was already being worked on by Judge and Stanton when DJ got there, and I’ve heard the quote that “as long as the hits are there to CF or oppo, the power will come,” for at least two years now from both of them, but it seems like it’s crept in all over the club since. Granted, that’s never going to be Sanchez’s approach, and it hasn’t and likely never will get to Odor, but it’s paid dividends with a lot of their guys. I just don’t think it fits the pure-hitter profile Gleyber had coming up or when he became a part of the lineup.
I do see a direct correlation in the timeline, and it may very well come from clubhouse chatter rather than Thames or the analytics dept. Gleyber’s said he’s just trying to get on base, tryng to help the team, rather than swinging for the fences MANY times over the last couple years, and it’s coincided with the described lack of pull rate.
My point was more about the hitting target than worrying about K’s. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
PS – it’s also been very well documented that he’s basically been DJ’s shadow since camp began this year, and DJ’s way of hitting doesn’t fit his style, so if that’s what you mean by “someone who he’s been working with personally,” then yeah, that’s possible.
Hicks has, since he became a regular, ALWAYS been an OBP guy, not a swing for the fences, “damn the K’s” type. Voit has been an injury enigma, but no one’s going to tell the 2020 HR leader to do anything other than what he’s been doing.
Thames has been around a long time, and I’ve seen quite a few changes, year-to-year, in how the Yankees do things in the box. The 2019 “savages in the box” Yankees aren’t there anymore. They whiff or pass on pitches in the zone more often than any team I can remember in recent history. They used to (recently,) have problems w/ breakers down-and-away…
Things have changed a lot since then, whether that comes from the hitting coach, the analytics, or the clubhouse, it’s pretty obvious that owning the strike-zone is no longer the main focus. They don’t make contact on meatballs a shocking percent of the time. If that’s not a change from coaching or on high, it has to come from the clubhouse taking it on themselves, and the main change I’ve seen there is a focus on hitting up the middle or oppo.