Gleyber Torres Looks Better Than Ever
In 2019, Gleyber Torres was a second-year player who made his second All-Star team and finished the season with 38 home runs. He was the Yankees’ breakout star in that postseason, leading the team with a 1.078 OPS in nine playoff games. He was just 22 years old, and it was reasonable to expect his best was still ahead of him.
So, you can forgive me when, in an attempt to be a bit bold yet still realistic, I predicted that Torres would win the AL MVP award in our 2020 season preview issue that hit newsstands just before the pandemic delayed the season for four months. Torres played in 42 of the shortened campaign’s 60 games, and he underperformed when he was on the field: 103 OPS+, 0.0 WAR and just three home runs.
Still, 2020 could be considered a fluke for many of baseball’s best players, including Shohei Ohtani (79 OPS+), Nolan Arenado (86 OPS+) and Kris Bryant (73 OPS+). Torres, despite his sapped power, was still an above-average hitter that year! When it came time for our ’21 season preview, I doubled down on my pick for Torres to win MVP. He proceeded to have his worst season yet: 93 OPS+, 0.8 WAR and nine home runs in 127 games.
There were ways to explain Torres’s struggles and expect him to return to All-Star form again. He was playing mostly shortstop in 2020 and ’21, when he was among the worst defenders in MLB. The Yankees finally made the smart decision to move him back to second base, where he played his first two seasons, on Sept. 15 of last year. Over his final 19 games, he slashed .300/.372/.443 with two home runs and, perhaps most notably, just one error. He didn’t need to press so much about his glove, and he started to find his groove at the dish. The other thing was his health. He was out for 12 days with a left hamstring and quadriceps strain in ’20, which could have been the source of his lack of power that year, and he missed 31 days last season—six days due to a false positive COVID-19 test in May and 25 days with a sprained thumb. That said, he was no longer a sure thing. There were rumors that he would be traded in the offseason, and he was left out of the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup. He’d have to earn regular playing time.
So far this season, Torres resembles the player he was in his first two seasons. Sure, his overall numbers (.231/.273/.451) aren’t on the level they were then, when he combined to slash .275/.338/.511. However, a closer look reveals that not only is Torres reviving his career, but in many ways, he’s better than ever before.
Torres is making better contact more frequently than he did in 2018 and ’19. He’s hitting the ball harder than ever. More than half of the balls he puts in play have an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, Statcast’s hard-hit threshold.
So why do his 2022 numbers not reflect the career year that the data and his expected statistics suggest? There is the usual early-season variance due to the limited number of plate appearances. His career-low .222 BABIP is far lower than his .302 career mark, indicating he’s likely hitting into some bad luck. Also, the deadened baseballs being used this year are almost certainly to blame for the discrepancy between his actual numbers (.231 BA vs. .319 xBA; .451 SLG vs. 622 xSLG), as Emma Baccellieri explained in her excellent piece yesterday about the league-wide gap between expected and actual stats.
Yet even if we can’t completely rely on the expected stats, it is still encouraging that Torres is among the top 7% of all MLB hitters in exit velocity and expected batting average, the top 5% in expected slugging and top 10% in hard-hit rate. Making great contact more often is always a recipe for success, even in a worse offensive environment.
Torres also has made tremendous strides on defense. Indeed, based on any of the leading defensive metrics—defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating and outs above average—he grades out as a good fielding second baseman. “He’s comfortable there,” says Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who won a Gold Glove playing third base with the Rangers in 2020. The Yankees traded for IKF as part of their effort to shore up their shaky infield defense. DJ LeMahieu, who has won three Gold Gloves at second base, now fills a super-utility infield role, playing first, second and third; he’s good at all three spots. They also re-signed first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a four-time Gold Glove winner, and acquired third baseman Josh Donaldson in the same deal they made for Kiner-Falefa.
“Josh has been an MVP,” says IKF. “He’s been a top defender over and over again. He should’ve won a Gold Glove. He got robbed of that.”
The wild card here was Torres. His playing time depended primarily on whether he could figure things out at the plate, but with the Yankees’ making defense a priority, he couldn’t afford to be a liability in the field like he was last year. He’s a mainstay in their lineup because he improved both parts of his game.
I smiled when Kiner-Falefa told me, “We’ll try to get Gleyber a Gold Glove.” That same optimism is what compelled me to predict that Torres would win an MVP award before both the 2020 and ’21 seasons. Torres is one of those guys who is so obviously gifted that people can’t help but overreact when they watch him play. When he’s at his best, we proclaim that he is the next great Yankees superstar; when he slumps, we call him a bust. It’s so easy to forget that he debuted at age 21 and even now, 25 years old and in his fifth season, he is still figuring things out at the big league level.
He won’t win a Gold Glove this year, just as he was never going to win an MVP in his early 20s. It’s not unreasonable to think that he could win both awards at some point in his career, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
The takeaway here is that Torres is an undeniable talent, who, despite his natural ability, needed to refine and improve his skills. Now that he’s done so, he is better than ever and still raising his game.
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1. THE OPENER
“Last week, as Angels assistant pitching coach Dom Chiti strolled by the visiting weight room at Fenway Park, he noticed the team’s two-way star and defending American League MVP doing one of the things he often does: working out. Shohei Ohtani grimaced as he tried to lift a silver rubber ball about a foot in diameter and throw it against the wall. Suddenly he turned. ‘Heads-up!’ Ohtani called, whipping the ball at his coach.
“The lob almost knocked over the 63-year-old Chiti, who braced himself for what he expected to be a 20-pound projectile … only to realize the ball was filled with air. Ohtani, 27, dissolved into laughter.
“‘He got me bad,’ says Chiti. There’s not much shame in that, though. Chiti was one of three victims that week of that prank, which Ohtani says is his favorite. As it turns out, Ohtani was doing another of the things he often does: goofing around.”
That’s how Stephanie Apstein begins her delightful Daily Cover story from this morning, about the Hall of Fame personality of the Angels’ superstar.
Shohei Ohtani Is a Legendary Hitter, Pitcher and Prankster by Stephanie Apstein
The reigning AL MVP is perhaps the most talented player in MLB history. He’s also a giant goofball.
Let’s run through some of our other great SI baseball stories from this week.
MLB Hitters Are Not Living Up to Expectations by Emma Baccellieri
When perfect contact is no longer perfect, maybe it’s time we question everything we think we know about baseball—especially the baseball.
Angels’ Season Gains a Sense of Magic With Detmers’s No-Hitter by Matt Martell
Reid Detmers, who tossed a no-hitter in his 11th career start Monday, is part of an improved pitching staff that could send Los Angeles to the playoffs.
Nestor Cortes Jr. Stands Out Among the Loaded Yankees Pitching Staff by Nick Selbe
A 36th-round draft pick isn’t supposed to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning. But New York’s mustachioed soft-tosser is not your typical journeyman.
How Diamondbacks Pitching Coach Brent Strom Is Fixing Last Year’s Worst Team by Tom Verducci
With the guidance of the 73-year-old pitching whisperer, Arizona has emerged as one of the biggest surprises so far this season.
3. WORTH NOTING from Tom Verducci
Try as hard as you might, it’s hard to find a flaw with the Yankees, who look every bit the best team in baseball their record suggests. Their upgraded defense is superb, the starting pitching and bullpen have been lockdown good and their home-run-based offense is humming. They are only the eighth team in franchise history to win at least 23 of their first 31 games.
Aaron Judge is playing the best baseball of his career, Josh Donaldson is getting on base every day and Giancarlo Stanton is riding one of his patented hot streaks. The secret sauce is that nearly every Yankees hitter is swinging the bat more often than last season, when they were one of the least aggressive swinging teams in MLB. New York no longer is conceding strikes.
“We have tried to get guys to be aggressive, especially early in counts,” manager Aaron Boone says. “But we want to control the zone. It’s the delicate balance of being in the hunt early. I think some of that might be in the first week or 10 days. Guys are trying to establish themselves in the season. Guys were swinging a little too much actually. … We have been making better swing decisions now that we are into the season.”
4. W2W4 from Nick Selbe
While maybe not exactly “can’t-miss” content, Houston’s trip to the nation’s capital is a classic instance of an unstoppable force meeting an imminently movable object. The Astros have won 10 straight and appear to have hit their stride, while the hapless Nats have lost six out of eight and have the National League’s worst record outside of Cincinnati. If nothing, the three-game set will offer a stark juxtaposition of how the two clubs have progressed since Washington beat Houston in the 2019 World Series.
Of all the pitching matchups scheduled for this weekend, Friday night’s showdown between Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes and Miami’s Pablo López might deserve top billing. Burnes has picked up right where he left off after a dominant 2021 season, striking out 50 batters with a 1.86 ERA in six starts. López, though, has outpaced him so far in ’22, giving up just four earned runs in 36 innings. The 26-year-old has not allowed any runs in four of his six outings and will look to turn things around for a Marlins team that’s lost nine of their last 11 games.
5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri
The Astros’ offense has been solid over their 10-game win streak. But their pitching has been outstanding. They’ve allowed just nine earned runs over those 90 innings—a 0.90 ERA, which is the best by a team over a 10-game stretch since the 1986 Tigers. (Who, for what it’s worth, actually did not have a particularly impressive rotation that year outside of Jack Morris and simply had a very hot streak in July!) Yet the Astros have a real chance to make their numbers here look even better: With the Nationals’, er, lackluster offense ahead of them this weekend, as Nick pointed out above, they just might be able to keep this kind of run prevention going. Only three teams since ’50 have been able to carry an ERA under 1.00 for 13 games. Can the Astros join them?