After Gleyber Torres popped a surprising 38 home runs in the 2019 season, it seemed likely that there would be some regression. Torres was always considered a power threat but never projected as a consistent 40-homer masher. A shortened 2020 season and a stint on the injured list likely had something to do with the decreased power output, but nobody could have expected a modest three home runs in 42 games, good for a paltry .368 slugging percentage.
Would we have panicked as much if this relatively frugal power output happened over 42 games in the middle of a full season? Probably not. But, with 2020 being an abbreviated campaign, it was all we had to evaluate Torres. And it represented a steep decline from not only the highs of his power projections, but even from his expected regression to the mean.
Now that the 2020 season is all but a frustrating memory at this point and with an eye turned to the future, it’s time to analyze what happened to Torres’ pop last year. If the Yankees are to hit their full potential in 2021 and beyond, they’ll need Torres to rebound closer to his 2019 — or even 2018 — levels, particularly if the team moves on without DJ LeMahieu.
Looking at Torres’ metrics from last year, the biggest drop-off is in his barrel percentage. A “barrel” is defined as a ball hit over 98 mph in exit velocity with a launch angle in the geometric “sweet spot.” Basically, it’s those well-hit balls that are almost always extra-base hits when they find grass.
The MLB average barrel rate is 6.4 percent, but Torres’ was 9.6 percent over his first two years. However, last year, he only “barreled up” four of the 108 balls he put into play — a dismal 3.7 percent rate. Although his exit velocity and hard-hit rate were approximately the same as in past years, his launch angle dipped and so did his sweet spot percentage. This helps explain why his barrel rate fell so much — Torres was hitting more ground balls, and fewer of his fly balls were driven at the optimal angle.
Torres’ shift in plate discipline also stands out in his 2020 metrics. Despite a down offensive year across the board, he improved his strikeout and walk rates in a big way last year. In fact, his 17.5 percent strikeout rate and 13.8 percent walk rate were in the top quarter of MLB hitters. This is a drastic change from Torres’ first two years, when he struck out at a higher rate than MLB average and didn’t walk at an especially high rate.
But, was it a good change? Ordinarily, yes. However, I think this newfound plate discipline sapped Torres of some his power and aggression. During that potent 2019 season, Torres swung at the first pitch more than a third of the time, and it worked — he hit .362 and hit nine home runs on first pitches. This year, he only swung at the first pitch less than a quarter of the time, and hit just one home run.
In fact, Torres swung less often in general. His swing rate was over 50 percent in 2019, but was just 42 percent last season, which is actually below the MLB average of 46.6 percent. If anything, Torres might have been a bit too patient. While this newfound patience was one way to salvage an otherwise poor offensive season, it also may have cost Torres some of his confidence.
Babe Ruth once said, “I swing big with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” Well, Torres swung big in 2019, and it resulted in 38 dingers and 90 RBI in what became a breakout season. In 2020, Torres didn’t swing as “big.” He was more hesitant at the dish, and it cost him his power numbers.
Improving your plate discipline takes a lot of work and should be appreciated. Torres went from a hitter who chased on 31 percent of his swings in 2019 to one who only chased 20 percent of the time in 2020. But, some of that patience also leaked into the strike zone, which is not good. Torres swung at fewer middle-middle pitches — what Baseball Savant likes to refer to as “meatballs” — and did less damage with them.
On pitches down the heart of the plate, Statcast says Torres was worth 11 runs above average from 2018-19. In 2020, Torres cost the team a run on those same pitches. If he’s going to do the work to get ahead in the count, Torres has to actually do something with those pitches. For his career, Torres hits .341 and slugs .635 when he’s ahead in the count, but he only hit .288 and slugged a light .423 when ahead in the count in 2020.
For whatever reason, Torres didn’t capitalize when he was in the driver’s seat last year. That has to change in 2021, and if that means there’s a few more strikeouts along the way, then so be it. I’d rather have a .270-hitting, 30-home-run Torres who strikes out 25 percent of the time than a .250-hitting, 15-home-run Torres who strikes out 18 percent of the time, and so should the Yankees.
Torres’ 2020 season was likely just one example of a player toying with a new approach during a shortened season that didn’t have time to course-correct. The Yankees should in no way be worried about Torres’ future potential, but it will be interesting to see which Torres shows up next season — the more refined one who hits for less power, or the more wild one who misses a bit more often but has 40-home-run potential.