Strikeouts are a funny thing. 99% of the time, they’re just another out. They are also perhaps the thing that gets an average baseball fan most upset. “Ya gotta put the ball in play!” they’ll say. “Make the defense work!”
Gleyber Torres has done an outstanding job making the defense work so far in 2020. He’s cut his strikeout rate 8.5 percentage points, among the best single-season improvements in baseball to this point in 2020. He’s also, unfortunately, cut his wRC+ by 66 points, down to a paltry 59, one of the slowest starts by a regular in the league.
A lot of this stems from making the wrong kind of contact - you can root for a player to put the ball in play all you want, but if he’s doing it via soft groundballs and lazy flyouts, production is going to crater. Torres has made more contact - 80% of his swings now connect, versus 74.4% last year - but each hit is significantly softer than any other point in his career:
He’s well below MLB average in exit velocity and barrel percentage, and it’s not surprising then that his xwOBA is down sixty points from last year. He’s not hitting into bad luck, he’s just hitting bad.
There can be two reasons for this. First, a dedicated shift in Torres’ thinking - he wants to cut down on strikeouts. I can’t find any quotes from a hectic preseason that explicitly state that, so while it’s logical that Torres may be actively working to strike out less, even if it costs him offensive performance, we can’t exactly prove it.
The second, related reason could be mechanical. Paired with an increased focus on contact, if Torres’ swing is off, that’s often when and where you see the kind of weak contact hurting his production.
To that end, a few of his swings from 2020 and 2019:
That’s from last week, against the Orioles. A swing from 2019:
Torres is pretty notable for having a very high leg kick, and I think a slight change in his load is part of the problem. Let’s go frame by frame, using the Orioles swing first.
The front leg kick is a timing mechanism, and in Torres’ case, his leg comes all the way up, pretty well ninety degrees at peak. The pitcher’s delivery has begun, Torres’ leg rises, and the rest of his body cocks, ready to start the transfer of weight through the ball.
Here’s what I think is different for Torres in 2020. The ball is halfway to the plate, and Torres’ kick is paused. His leg is still ninety degrees and hasn’t started to step down yet.
Against the Angels, in 2019, Torres’ kick is the same, nearly ninety degrees and peaking during delivery. As the pitch comes in though, the step happens much earlier:
At the same point, with the ball almost halfway home, Torres is stepping forward. The angle of his front leg is dropping, and you can see the body begin to uncoil. This means he doesn’t need to rush the remaining parts of his swing - the timing is natural and he’s attacking the ball out in front of the plate, striding through it to generate more power. This year, because he’s “hanging” with the front leg a little longer, he has to rush every other part of his swing.
The good news is that players can tweak their timing. Small mechanical kinks like this can happen, and we only notice because it happened right at the start of the season. In a normal year, if Torres had a short rough stretch in late July/early August, we might not even notice other than saying “huh, haven’t really seen him hit much the last couple games”.
The commitment to striking out less, however, is a little more concerning. If Torres has in his head every time he steps to the plate, “Can’t strike out can’t strike out can’t strike out”, he’s always going to be reaching, and those mechanical kinks may just stick around. Gleyber Torres’ biggest liability isn’t that he strikes out too much, it’s that he doesn’t reach base enough. Committing to fewer strikeouts only helps you reach base more if those plate appearances that were strikeouts turn into times on base. If Gleyber would have struck out, but weakly flies out because he’s rushing his swing, he’s not helping the team.