In Game Five of the ALDS against the Rays, Gleyber Torres bobbled a Yandy Díaz groundball into the 5.5-hole with one out into Gerrit Cole’s fourth inning of work. Though Díaz never came around to score, Cole needed another seven pitches to strike-out Willy Adames for the would-be fourth out.
It’s a small thing, but on three days rest, Cole was only able to reach 94 pitches after allowing one homer and two heart palpitation inducing near-wall-scrapers to the final four batters he faced. On all three pitches, Kyle Higashioka called for the ball at the bottom of the zone. In all three cases, Cole missed high. Further, the fastball that Meadows took deep was Cole’s third-slowest of the day. Understandably, Cole had lost his edge by the end of the fifth inning, nearing his 200th pitch in just five days.
However, had Torres made the play on that Díaz grounder, saving Cole’s arm those seven pitches to strike out Adames, Cole might have held onto greater command and velocity through the fifth and into the sixth. It’s impossible to determine a direct causal link between Torres’ error and Cole’s eventual slippage, but it’s not unfair to suggest that throwing fewer pitches earlier on could have given the right-hander a chance to succeed further into Game Five, placing less stress on him, and therefore asking the bullpen to cover less ground. There is an undeniable attrition on a pitcher and his club that comes with each fielding error, even when runners don’t score, which is amplified in such a low-scoring close game, as ones in the playoffs are often apt to be.
Though Torres proved in these playoffs that he is still capable of being one of the greatest young offensive talents in all of baseball, he’s more than a step behind his peers when it comes to his defense up the middle. By any metric, Torres rates below average defensively at short. Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average had him at -4, whereas FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved had him at -9 this season. Torres’ defensive charts show a clear pattern, helping explain his failure in Game Five.
In 2020, Torres played only shortstop, struggling particularly on balls hit to his right. When he split time between shortstop and second base in 2019, he had trouble with balls to his right at either position. Since the problem persists no matter where he is stationed, it’s unlikely that his arm strength is the issue. The MLB scout in Randy Miller’s article for NJ.com from 2018 raved about Gleyber’s defensive potential, describing the infielder as possessing, “plus arm strength,” and the ability to gas it up across the diamond when necessary.
Torres has a serious problem fielding groundballs to his backhand-side, often bending at the hips and stabbing at them from above instead of bending with his knees to get below the level of the ball in order to come up through it. Also, as was the case with the grounder in question, Torres needs to take a better route around it so that when he’s ready to field the ball, his momentum is starting to work towards first instead of straight into the outfield. This would make it easier to field as well as make the throw plays that drag Torres into the hole.
Over the past two years, when Torres gets a less than perfect hop to his backhand, it eats him up far too often, as he isn’t in an optimized athletic position to make a soft adjustment with his hands. These mistakes often appear to be the result of slow, lazy reads, but can be a fixable with sharper body alignment and footwork while approaching the ball.
Due to the existing core of the Yankees’ lineup, and Torres’ contextual value as a shortstop who can hit, the Yankees are best served by him playing him up the middle moving forwards. However, as a somewhat limited defender, his ceiling will be hard-capped unless he can improve, eating up to two of the wins above replacement level that his elite offensive production provides. The Yankees should be excited about continuing to build around such a talented young slugger at short, as Torres should continue to improve on both sides of the ball. He’s not so bad that he’s unplayable at shortstop, he’s just not ever going to sniff being an MVP-caliber player unless he is able to
Check Fernando Tatís Jr., who went from worst to first between his rookie and sophomore campaigns as a defensive shortstop. Though Tatís has greater physical attributes than Torres, and just about every other human who’s ever picked up a baseball, if he puts in the work, Torres should be able to start making the routine backhand plays more consistently as Tatís has ironed out his throwing inaccuracies. Further, this wouldn’t be the first time the Yankees built around an offense-first shortstop, considering they won five championships with The Captain himself at the helm. The Yankees should feel confident that Gleyber Torres’s future with the club is as bright as ever, but know that his limitations will come back to bit them again in the future if they don’t iron out his backhanding this offseason.