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Yankees star Gleyber Torres can challenge for the MVP award this year

Gleyber Torres has another level in him, and the short season provides a prime opportunity for him to compete for some hardware.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Gleyber Torres is good. Very good, especially when you consider his age (he’s 23!) Usually, when we assess player performances and developmental curves, there is not much room to improve when a hitter puts up 38 home runs in a season. However, with the New York Yankees shortstop, you kind of sense that there is more untapped potential, don’t you?

So how much better can Gleyber Torres be? Is he ready to take the next step and enter the true elite of Major League Baseball? Could he challenge for the MVP award in the shortened 2020 season? I tend to believe that the answers to those questions are “a lot,” “yes,” and “heck yes” (note that the word choice is ‘challenge.’ After all, there’s that Mike Trout guy in Southern California...)

First, let’s remember that there will only be 60 games in the regular season calendar, so if we say he’s capable of surpassing 45 home runs, we mean perform at that pace. He’s not going to knock 45 balls out of the park in a couple of months.

Second, let’s analyze his 2019 performance. Overall, he had a very good season, but not quite elite. His overall slash line looks impressive at .278/.337/.535, with a 125 wRC+. When you factor in totals, they look equally strong: 38 homers, 96 runs, 90 RBI in 144 games. That slugging percentage is remarkable, not to mention his ISO (.256.)

However, 41 qualified hitters had a higher wRC+ than his, and 45 had a better wOBA. He was a very good offensive player for the Yankees, but he is still not an excellent one. That doesn’t mean he can’t be one.

Why Torres can take the next step

First of all, Torres is an advanced hitter for his age, and history tells us that a 23-year old hitter will get better and is still a few years away from his true prime. He is doing things that few of his peers have done at that age.

Why do I think Torres could challenge for the MVP award this year? Age/developmental curve, and quality of opposition. The Yankees have the third-easiest schedule according to ZiPS, and they get to face the Baltimore Orioles 10 times, or a sixth of the regular season.

Not that I need to remind you, but Torres owned the O’s last season: he hit .394/.467/1.045 with 13 homers in 75 plate appearances. That won’t necessarily happen again in 2020, but with Baltimore’s terrible pitching, it certainly could. The Orioles were the worst pitching staff in the league with a pitiful 5.67 ERA.

In addition, he will play lots of games against several middle-of-the-pack pitching staffs: Blue Jays (4.79 team ERA in 2019, 21st in the league) Marlins (4.74, 20th) Red Sox (4.70, 19th) and Phillies (4.53, 17th.)

He has done it before

But enough about the schedule. Torres has another level in him. Consider his 125 wRC+ in 2019 with the Yankees: he ran a 138 mark in Double-A in 2017, 145 in Triple-A that same year, and 151 in the same level a year later, all in small sample sizes, it should be noted.

While hit .278 in 2019, he has surpassed .290 several times in the minors. He has some swing and miss to his game, which will likely limit his ceiling somewhat, but he can improve and settle in the .280-.290 range if he hits the ball harder more consistently.

While he had a 7.9 BB% in 2019, he has posted +10.0 BB% marks in the minors several times. That’s another area I think he will improve, starting this season.

There is precedent for a third-year leap

In his first full season with the Yankees in 2018, Gleyber had 2.0 fWAR, and last season, he accumulated 3.6. Various players have managed to increase their WAR output in the third year, which is why it is easy to imagine Torres improving his game even more.

For example, Mookie Betts went from 1.8 to 4.8 to 8.3 in his first three seasons. Nolan Arenado went from 1.8 to 2.6 to 4.5, and settled in the 5-6 range. Javier Baez maintained about the same level in 2016 and 2017 (2.2 and 2.4) and in 2018, he broke out with 5.3 fWAR.

The thing that may hold Torres back a little is defense. He managed to improve a little last season (judging by the numbers) but was still mediocre on the whole according to advanced metrics. In fact, the three guys I mentioned in the last paragraphs are all elite glovesmen, unlike Gleyber.

I think Torres will settle as a .285, 40-home run, .355 OBP-type in his prime, with a few years of better performance. Such a pace could make him a candidate to win some hardware this year.

All in all, Torres has the goods, the potential, and the past performance to suggest that he can make another leap in 2020. And when you factor in the quality of his competition, he may even compete for the MVP award in the short, odd season.