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Why is Gleyber Torres better at second base?

A case for optimism hidden within the beleaguered player’s 2021 season.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This kind of writing is a funny job, since we have access to thousands of points of data on public sites like Savant and FanGraphs, with little to no real access to the players themselves — I suppose I could try and DM Gerrit Cole on Twitter, but I don’t think he would respond. We have a lot of insight into the physical process and results, but not much into the mental.

Enter Gleyber Torres, who had a terrrrrrible season for the Yankees at shortstop. Lots has been written about the degrees and causes of that terribleness, but behold, dear reader, I am zigging where everyone else is zagging. Here’s why you can be a little more optimistic about Gleyber Torres, but not Gleyber Torres the Shortstop.

On September 13 he lost the starting job, moving to second for the rest of the year, and while he historically hasn’t been any better defensively at the keystone, a funny thing happened to his hitting process:

At the most granular level, Gleyber Torres became much more disciplined in the final two weeks of the season. He swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, swung at more pitches in the strike zone, and made more contact on those swings.

This is one way I like to look at how comfortable a guy is at the plate. Perhaps the most obvious example is Giancarlo Stanton, where once a year or so he’ll get out of whack and really look uncomfortable, unable to pick up the ball out of the hand and flailing at pitches out of the zone. Then he settles, crushes pitches in the zone, and he’s back.

We see that with Gleyber too, after the 9/13 position change. He’s much more in control, making better decisions at the plate. And the trend goes back even farther than the start of the year — he was the shortstop in 2020 too, and we see the same thing. More swings at pitches out of the zone, fewer in the zone, and four points less contact on pitches in the zone in 2020 than post-September 13.

Now part of this is a maturing hitter — in 2018 and 2019, when Torres played second for all but 98 games, he swung more at pitches out of the zone, while his aggressive approach on pitches in-zone has improved in 2021. That alone is a good thing, since Torres has seemingly regressed in so many other avenues, it’s a positive to see that approach being polished.

But after two years of being a very public face of this deteriorating roster, for Torres to make such a significant, granular change after a position change catches my attention. Sure, part of it may be that he’s overall, maturing as a hitter. But I also think there’s an element of focus, of being “locked in” at play.

Controlling the zone the way that Torres did is a sign, to me, that he’s more focused. We can’t speculate on what’s going through his mind — maybe moving off of shortstop took a load off his mind, maybe he just woke up one day and said “I’ve gotta be better in every plate appearance”. All we can be sure of is, once Torres was no longer a shortstop, he was hitting more strikes, barreling them at a higher rate (10.9% vs 7.2% at short), and had a slugging percentage 91 points higher.

There are still kinks to be worked out with Torres. Despite that barrel rate rising, his average exit velo and hard hit rate decreased. He historically has not been a strong defensive second baseman, and his mechanics are still prone to wonks and kinks. But the basics of what he was always supposed to be good at — pitch recognition and good swing decisions — got better once he didn’t have to worry about being the shortstop anymore, and an above-average hitting Torres is more important to this team than trying and failing to have him at that position.