Yankees Face Agonizing Dilemma with Gleyber Torres' Fall from Stardom

Zachary D. RymerSeptember 17, 2021

New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres gestures against the Minnesota Twins during the sixth inning of a baseball game on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

Is it possible that Gleyber Torres isn't long for the New York Yankees?

That this is even a question amid Torres' fourth year in the big leagues is remarkable in and of itself. This is, after all, the same guy who was an All-Star both as a 21-year-old rookie in 2018 and as a 22-year-old sophomore in 2019.

Yet the last two seasons have been a mighty struggle for him offensively, as he's hit just .250 with 10 home runs over 154 games. He's also been a near-constant source of frustration for the Yankees in the field, specifically in the 144 contests in which he's started at shortstop. 

In all, the Venezuela native has been worth 0.4 wins above replacement since the start of the shortened 2020 season. That's 6.2 less than he was worth in 2018 and 2019 and among the dregs of players who've gotten in at least 150 games over the last two years.

Mercifully, the Yankees pulled the plug on Torres as a shortstop when they moved him back to second base Monday. The next day, manager Aaron Boone didn't like how Torres neglected to run out a ground ball and banished him to the bench.

The obvious bright side is that Torres will only turn 25 years old on Dec. 13. Another lesser yet significant bright side is that his rights are under the Yankees' control through 2024. Put together, these two things amount to an excuse for patience.

The big question, then, is how much of a project Torres has become. Is he just a few tweaks away from reclaiming his stardom? Or does he need a full-on reboot, preferably in a city other than New York?

What the Heck Happened to His Bat?

It ought to be difficult to explain how Torres has gone from an .849 OPS in his first two seasons to a .687 OPS in his most recent two, but the overarching cause is straightforward.

He used to hit for power. Now he doesn't.

The 62 home runs that he hit across 2018 and 2019 weren't just impressive. They were historic, in that they were the most all-time by a middle infielder in his first two seasons. To go from that to 10 homers in nearly a full season's worth of games is a drastic fall.

Torres' Statcast metrics tell an easy-to-understand story of how his power has dried up. His average launch angle is on a steady downward trajectory, going from 19 degrees in 2018 to 14 degrees in 2021. His average exit velocity peaked at 89.1 mph in 2019 and is at 86.9 mph this year. In short, he's neither getting under the ball nor hitting it hard like he used to.

Dig a little deeper, and an even more ominous culprit for Torres' power outage emerges. Whereas his performance against breaking and off-speed stuff could be worse, his capacity for slugging fastballs has all but disappeared:

Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

You might think this is a swing-and-miss problem, yet Torres' whiff rate against fastballs is actually down from his first two seasons. For that matter, his average exit velocity against fastballs is only 0.2 mph lower than it was in 2019.

Rather, Torres' malfunction relates to how he is (or, more accurately, isn't) turning on fastballs.

career-low 28.7 percent of the right-handed swinger's batted balls off heaters are going to his pull side. And even when he does pull a fastball to left field, it's generally not with the same exit velocity that he was previously capable of.

Weirdly, this trend also applies to off-speed and breaking pitches:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

The general picture here is that of a hitter who's getting jammed when he tries to turn on heat and yet also gets jammed when he tries to turn on something slower. Either way, he's being cut off from his best field for slugging.

Weirdness like this might be ascribed to an injury, but Torres has been largely the same on either side of last year's hamstring strain and this year's thumb sprain. So unless he has some nagging injury that he and the Yankees are keeping quiet, his real problem is mechanical, mental or some combination of the two.

Observationally speaking, Torres has come to look like a guy who doesn't know what kind of hitter he wants to be. It's hard to tell whether he's seeking something to drive or if he's merely trying to get on base. As a result, he's not doing much of either.

What the Heck Happened to His Glove?

As Torres was coming up through the minor leagues in the mid-2010s, the scouting reports on him were generally positive regarding his defense. For instance, take the book on him from Baseball America at the outset of 2018: 

"Defensively, there's no reason Torres can't stick at shortstop, but the emergence of Didi Gregorius in New York necessitated that Torres learn other positions quickly. He shuffled around during his brief season, playing 15 games at third base and 10 more at second base before the injury. He has the above-average range and arm to play those positions or shortstop. If he were to land at third base, he would hit for enough power to profile there."

At no point, however, has Torres lived up to this billing. Apart from the five defensive runs saved that he posted at second base in '18, his defensive metrics have been universally below average. Outs above average (minus-28) is especially harsh on him, rating him as one of the worst everyday fielders of the last four years.

Though OAA dings Torres for being bad at making plays to his right, it's the errors that stand out the most. He made nine of them in only 40 games at shortstop in 2020 and 18 in 108 games at short this year.

While it's sometimes unfair to judge a guy by his errors, what makes Torres' boots so infuriating is how avoidable they should have been. As seen here, here and here, he's bobbled too many balls hit right at him. There have also been times when he's botched eminently makeable plays (see here and here) with unnecessarily fancy execution. 

In fairness, Torres probably doesn't deserve to have 10 throwing errors this year. Some of those (like this one and this one) were more so his first baseman's fault. But said first basemen could just as easily argue that Torres didn't make accurate throws from shortstop as often as he should have. Which, well, fair enough.

If nothing else, all this suggests Torres simply has a hard time focusing when he's in the field. Yet the way in which he's tended to turn relatively easy plays into mishaps also makes it fair to question whether he has the hands or the instincts to play anywhere on the infield, much less shortstop.

Where Do the Yankees Go from Here?

At least for now, it doesn't sound like the Yankees are ready to give up on him.

“We forget he is still a young player,” Boone said, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. “He’s had massive success at the big league level. I still think there is a chance for him to be an impact player in this league for a long time.”

After his back-to-back lost seasons, however, the Yankees have every reason to wonder if Torres can get back to what he was in 2018 and 2019 without dramatic change.

Whether it's an overhaul of his batting mechanics or some such project, said change could specifically concern him. Or, if what he really needs is someone other than Boone managing him, said change could be one that impacts every other player on the Yankees.

If the Yankees are going to move on from Torres, it almost certainly won't be by way of a non-tender. It's obviously suboptimal that he's already a replacement-level player making $4 million with three more trips through arbitration to go. But at least until his salary starts climbing into the eight-figure range, he's more likely to leave town via a trade.

Should the Yankees pursue that route this winter, they'll surely be selling low on Torres. But that's not to say that they would stand to gain nothing from trading him.

They could find a team willing to do a one-for-one reclamation-project swap. If such a deal were to save the Yankees some money, they would have that much more capital to put toward one of the market's top free-agent shortstops. Think Corey Seager. Or Trevor Story. Or best of all, Carlos Correa.

The only bad decision the Yankees can make is sticking with the status quo. That would mean simply waiting on Torres to go from "broken" to "fixed," which is basically waiting on a miracle.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.