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Can the Yankees trust Gleyber Torres at short?

Early troubles fielding the ball in spring call into question the Yankee shortstop’s ability to reliably man his position full-time

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Before I begin, let me just get this out of the way: I’m a huge Gleyber Torres fan. He is a generational talent, an exemplary representative of the Yankees’ organization, and an irreplaceable cornerstone of the franchise. However, this does not make him immune to criticism.

Didi Gregorius’ departure in free agency left Torres as the heir-apparent to full-time shortstop responsibilities. Despite the existing question marks surrounding his efficacy in the infield, and the availability of numerous shortstop candidates on the free agent and trade markets this offseason, the Yankees’ non-action reinforces their trust in him to inherit that mantle. Is this trust well-founded? Early signs do not inspire much confidence.

It is no exaggeration to say that Gleyber is off to an ugly start defensively in spring training. Yesterday, he committed his league-leading fifth error of spring and mishandled a grounder that led to Gerrit Cole’s lone surrendered earned run. So far, every error awarded to him has been a throwing error.

Torres has never been an outstanding fielder during his time in the majors. Over the last two seasons, he has finished in the top-ten in errors committed, with 17 in 2018 and 20 last season. A lot gets made of Miguel Andujar’s shakiness throwing the ball, however Gleyber committed more throwing errors last season (twelve) than did Andujar in 2018 (seven). This is not an endorsement of Andujar, who is an outright bad third baseman (sorry Papá Dú). It is simply a contextualization of aspects that get glossed over for some players and magnified for others.

Digging deeper, all of the analytics agree with the eye-test that he is a below-average shortstop and a mediocre second baseman. Among all shortstops with at least 800 innings logged over the past two seasons, Torres ranks fourth-worst with a UZR/150 of -8.1. And in 2019, Torres placed 129th out of 139 qualified infielders in Outs Above Average with minus-seven.

Far too often, Gleyber’s unhurried attitude when fielding grounders leads to rushed off-balance throws, needless extra men on base, and extended innings for his pitchers. This lackadaisical approach is at best a sign of youth and at worst unprofessional. Does Gleyber just have a low ceiling for defensive abilities, or is there room for growth? That the issue is effort-based, rather than a physical limitation, suggests the latter is more likely.

What is the root of these hiccups in the field? Is it laziness? Insouciance? Immaturity? Call it what you will, this troubling habit he is developing is one that needs to be reversed by the Yankees’ fielding staff. Indeed, the trend has not gone unnoticed.

Aaron Boone mentioned the “fine line” that Torres walks with his demeanor on the field between the “calm... relaxed way in which he plays the game, which contributes to his confidence,” balanced with “making sure he’s dedicated to being real fundamentally sound all the time.” Bench coach Carlos Mendoza also noted that Torres “is really focusing on making those routine plays, don’t be careless.”

And to his credit, Torres has acknowledged his shortcomings and the improvements he can make. “I want to be a guy that can be counted on playing defense,” he said. “I need to do my job defensively and offensively, not just offensively.” He hopes the work he puts in this spring will translate to the regular season. “I made some errors early, but I’m trying to figure out how to make everything easier,” said Torres. “Making the routine plays is what it is all about.”

Ultimately, the Yankees will live with below-average play at short given what Gleyber offers at the plate. When a player has a batting ability as transcendent as he does, especially at his age, you tend to overlook the handful of misplays in the field that will inevitably come during the season. That being said, firming up on the fundamentals of defense is not a big ask and will only make Torres that much more special of a talent.

A shortstop with an other-worldly bat to go along with a faulty glove is nothing new for Yankees fans. A certain number two was not a particularly good fielder. In fact, Derek Jeter was the worst shortstop in MLB since the inception of Defensive Runs Saved, posting a staggering -162. Not many Yankees fans are complaining about the five championships he helped deliver. If Gleyber Torres can spur the Yankees on to multiple World Series titles, his defensive woes will also fade into irrelevance.