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Reckoning with Gleyber Torres’ baserunning in 2020

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How should the Yankees evaluate Gleyber’s progress on the base paths?

MLB: Wild Card-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Gleyber Torres’ defensive shortcomings in 2020 are well-documented. But as worrisome as his bungling routine plays at short is observing Gleyber’s regression in other areas of his game. Many players underperformed during the weird, truncated 2020 season. But as a young player who’s still developing, Gleyber’s fundamental skills should look more refined than they did last year. The backslide in Torres’ baserunning is especially noticeable.

Everyone knows Torres has a ton of potential. But throughout his rookie season in 2018, Torres demonstrated one of his weaknesses—his baserunning—on multiple occasions. From getting doubled-up on routine fly balls to sliding in very odd ways, Torres showed poor instincts on the basepaths in 2018. His running gaffes were heavily criticized.

Knowing how to make adjustments is crucial in the majors and Torres has shown he’s capable of doing this. Following his rookie season, his baserunning improved significantly. In 2019, Torres’ improvement was most evident in his extra-base taken rate (XBT%), which measures how often a runner successfully advances to an extra base, given the opportunity. In 2018 Torres took extra bases 21 percent of the time. One season later, he took extra bases 37 percent of the time, an increase of 16 points (league average is 43 percent).

After improving in 2019, Gleyber’s XBT% dropped back down to 25 percent in 2020. Both the eye test and his numbers confirm Torres was less opportunistic on the bases this season. And although Gleyber’s XBT% in 2020 is based on a smaller sample size, as there were fewer games and fewer opportunities to advance on the bases, the decrease is significant.

Run-scoring percentage (RS%), a metric representing how often a baserunner eventually scores a run, is another area where Gleyber’s numbers stand out for the wrong reasons.

Torres scored 26 percent of the time when he was a baserunner this year. Gary Sánchez (who’s painfully slow) and Giancarlo Stanton (who’s very conservative on the bases due to injury concerns) are the only other everyday players on the Yankees with run-scoring percentages lower than his. If Torres scores runs less frequently than most of his teammates, it’s probably because he makes more outs on the bases. Note that ‘probably’ is the operative word here, since confirming that correlation would require more analysis to confirm that he simply wasn’t getting unlucky with the players coming up behind him failing to drive him in.

Baserunning runs above average (BsR), a FanGraphs statistic which assesses how many runs above or below average a team gains from a player’s baserunning, is one area where Gleyber’s numbers reflect a slight improvement. His -0.5 BsR in 2019 rose to -0.3 BsR this year. It’s an improvement, albeit not an impactful one.

That Torres’ BsR is a negative value means the Yankees are likely to score fewer runs with Torres on base than they’d typically expect. Torres also fares worse than most of his peers in this metric; he ranked 36th among shortstops in the majors with at least 20 plate appearances this year.

At the end of the day, Torres’ ability to stretch a single into a double doesn’t concern me so much as the pattern of his poor decision-making on the basepaths does. On a few occasions this year, Torres appeared to make rash decisions that resembled the sort of baserunning mistakes he made as a rookie in 2018. Making an out at third base, as he did here on August 8 against the Rays, is the type of mistake that Torres shouldn’t be making anymore.

Because baserunners can typically score from second base, trying to get to third offers little advantage. Even though he had little to gain from advancing, and despite Rays’ outfielder Kevin Kiermaier’s reputation for having a strong, accurate arm, Torres inexplicably makes a go for it at third. Having a runner on first with two outs in lieu of runners on first and second with one out makes a big difference in a tied game.

Good baserunning requires awareness. Good baserunners keep tabs constantly on every variable that could affect their ability to advance: the particular game situation, the way infielders are positioned, the opposing pitcher’s tendencies, the relative strength of each outfielder’s arm, and so on. Ideally, these instincts would be second nature to Gleyber by now. Fully developing them will benefit him a lot.

Baserunning isn’t the most important element of the game, and I realize its importance continues to lessen as teams rely more and more on home runs to score. But in games that count—games in which a team can’t afford to make mistakes—smart baserunning is invaluable. Torres must hone his ability to make the kind of split-second decisions that enable baserunners to take advantage of an opposing pitcher’s slow windup, or to capitalize on a fielder bobbling a ball and not covering his base.

Gleyber is a special player. He needs to sharpen these skills. His baserunning gaffes will detract from his amazing talent if he doesn’t, and that would be a shame.