When the Yankees entered the offseason, there was a heightened focus on the middle infield. The Yankees’ infield defense for the past few seasons has been the biggest liability of the team, with Gleyber Torres being the most responsible for that. Rumors that the Yankees might pursue Andrelton Simmons or trade for Trevor Story if their MVP finalist, DJ LeMahieu, walked in free agency. LeMahieu returns to New York and is penciled in as the primary second baseman, making Gleyber Torres the everyday shortstop. While his offensive profile presents a lot of hope, the defense leaves a lot to desire. With a historic class of shortstops hitting the open market next year, do the Yankees have a Gleyber Torres decision to make?
Promising Offensive Profile
Gleyber Torres featured three different phases in 2020. He returned to the summer camp or “Spring Training 2.0” out of shape and it affected his play early in the year and even led to him missing time and hit the IL. When he went to the IL, he had a .231/.341/.295 for an 85 wRC+. He had just one home run and went six straight games without a base hit or getting on base at all. He was struggling and then on August 8th, things began to turn around. Over the next 46 PA’s, Torres had a .500 OBP and 162 wRC+. Then he missed the next 2 weeks with an injury. After he returned from the IL, Torres slashed .259/.377/.466 for a 134 wRC+ in 69 PAs. The one thing that remained consistent throughout the year was Torres’ improved plate discipline.
Just off first glance, you might believe that Torres’s improved plate discipline was simply a case of him swinging less. That is a large part of his improvement, but it isn’t that simple. We can go back to the three phases of his season. Before August 8th, Torres had a 37.3 O-Swing% and a 51.8 Swing%. Both of those marks are above league average. He was coming unglued as he became frustrated with his lack of offense. From August 8th to August 20th before his trip to the IL, those marks shifted to 18.5 O-Swing% and 35.3 Swing%. Gleyber was swinging less overall and it ultimately made him swing at better pitches. After returning from the IL, he swung more but kept that same approach as his O-Swing% was 24.2 and his Swing% was 40.9. Now, let’s take that approach into the postseason. He had a 22.2 O-Swing% and 36.1 Swing% which helped lead to an incredible 246 wRC+. It’s not as straightforward as him swinging less is better but Torres is better when he’s more selective.
In the past, Torres hasn’t been that selective, but he has possessed a solid hit tool. A cause for concern in the 2020 season was the increase in the ground ball rate over previous years. But, that wasn’t a surprise given that he only hit 3 home runs on the year and his power was inconsistent all year. However, this is a Torres that is only one year removed from hitting 38 home runs and having xSLG approaching .500. Torres found his power swing in the postseason, as he had two home runs in 30 PAs. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will bounce back and be a force at the plate, especially if his newfound plate discipline is here to stay. The question for the Yankees, and Torres, is whether his future is at shortstop.
A Need to Improve the Defense
While I have the utmost confidence in Gleyber Torres’ bat being something special in 2021, I don’t share that confidence in his glove. Torres had a -9 DRS at shortstop in 2020 and while small sample statistics with defensive metrics can get hazy, Torres appeared to be that bad. His -1 OAA paints a different picture, though. In his career at shortstop, over 1000 innings and 400 play attempts, Torres has a -14 DRS and -6 OAA at the spot. There’s one area in particular where Torres struggles with and that’s fielding balls in the hole.
A large part of being able to play shortstop is going to the right and making throws from deep into the hole. With the role of shifting and positioning playing a large part of infield defense, teams can adjust to a player’s deficiencies in the field while still positioning for the hitter’s strengths. In his career at shortstop, Torres has had 238 chances on balls hit towards the hole between short and third base, he has -8 OAA in those plays. According to Fielding Bible, which doesn’t determine shift or no shift in its directional runs, Torres has accumulated -10 DRS when going to his right. In the other areas of shortstop, Torres remains roughly average so his biggest need for improvement comes from moving towards the hole. Here’s a quick look at a play Gleyber should have made in the hole:
In an interview on The Ringer’s R2C2, Gleyber acknowledged his defensive struggles. He requested video of all the plays that the team felt he made mistakes on to see where he needed to improve. Torres doesn’t lack the arm strength needed to play shortstop, as his throwing runs at shortstop are -1 for his career. Torres’s problem is his footwork on going to his right, which is what he admitted to working on the most over the off-season. Improving footwork isn’t measurable through the statistics but Gleyber’s sprint speed isn’t anything spectacular, so getting good reads on the ball will be a priority. He will have to take notes from the Andrelton Simmons playbook, relying more on intelligence and reaction than speed and athleticism. This is not to say he has to be exactly like Simmons, but more that’s the style of play he’ll have to have at short. If his glove doesn’t improve, then Torres and the Yankees will find themselves in a tough situation.
A Class of Their Own
What do Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Andrelton Simmons, Javier Baez, and Marcus Semien all have in common? Outside of playing shortstop, they are all free agents next year. Now, Francisco Lindor may not hit the open market because the Mets seem motivated to give him an extension, but at the time of writing, it has not happened yet. I’m confident the rest of them will hit the open market and compete against each other for jobs and dollars. If the Yankees aren’t sold on Torres’ defense, then they will have plenty of substitutes to replace him at shortstop and move him elsewhere. Trevor Story is a potential trade candidate as well. After trading Nolan Arenado, trading Story is the right move for the Rockies. If Torres isn’t working out at shortstop immediately, then it would make sense for the Yankees to target Story.
As already mentioned, the Yankees acknowledged that infield defense was an area the team needed to improve in. Outside of Semien, all of those players have shown above-average defensive capabilities, with Simmons and Baez leading the way. The problem is, if Torres moves from shortstop and back to second base or over to the third base, Gio Urshela or Luke Voit are going to be pushed out. LeMahieu signed a six-year deal this past off-season, so he is not going anywhere. Both Urshela and Voit have been immensely valuable to the Yankees, but Torres is much younger than both of them and has more upside. The team can’t move Voit to DH because the “Number 1 Baseball Destroyer,” Giancarlo Stanton, occupies that spot and will be occupying it for a long time. Unless Clint Frazier struggles in the outfield and the Yankees feel Stanton can play there again comfortably, Voit is the potential odd man out, assuming Torres moves to second base.
Now, if the Yankees tried to move Torres to third, then Gio Urshela could become an appealing trade target for teams. His contract still has plenty of team control remaining and he is in the prime of his career. Both of those things are going to be appealing to teams, and thus a potential Trevor Story and German Marquez package might become enticing for the Yankees. You can never have enough starting pitching in today’s game and with the Yankees prospect core heavy on young pitching, there would be an incentive for both sides if the Rockies acknowledge they are going into a rebuild.
All of this is created by the fact that we are in a golden age of shortstops. It is great for baseball fans and Torres is a part of a group that could be special. However, if his defense does not improve, the Yankees have plenty of options to replace him at shortstop and move him elsewhere. The issue is that someone will be losing a spot and it’s not clear who that may be. The question the Yankees have to answer is: Is a new player more valuable at shortstop than one of Luke Voit or Gio Urshela are at theirs, at a reasonable price? That’s not an easy question to answer and the Yankees would prefer to avoid it altogether because it means Gleyber is playing well at shortstop.
It is the make-it-or-break-it year for Gleyber Torres. There were rumblings that the Yankees were interested in trading for Luis Castillo in the off-season, and the Reds’ asking price began with Torres. He has an opportunity to put the trade rumors to bed and make himself the next great Yankee shortstop if he can figure himself out at the defensive end. The offense will be there for the young star, but the defense? Time will tell.
Photos by KA Sports, Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)