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Dissecting Gleyber Torres’s early-season defensive struggles

After a rough 2020 in the field, 2021’s been even gloomier for Gleyber Torres.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There were two outs in the top of the tenth on Wednesday when Pedro Severino stepped into the box against Chad Green, hoping to drive in Anthony Santander from third base to break the 2-2 tie between the Orioles and Yankees. On a 1-0 count, Severino put good wood on a low-and-away fastball, driving it 105 mph straight into the ground towards Gleyber Torres at short.

With plenty of time — too much even — Torres fielded the ball on his heels, shuffled twice, and short-hopped a throw past Jay Bruce at first, allowing the run to score.

While the Yankees went on to cash in their inherited runner in the bottom of the inning, they were unable to do so after the O’s scored again in the following inning. By failing to convert the routine grounder into the third out of the inning, Torres squandered an extra-innings advantage, and ultimately helped fumble away the game.

Even though this gaffe was almost certainly the low point of Torres’ season to date, it hasn’t been his only defensive mistake in the young season. Through his first six games, Gleyber had recorded -3 OAA, on pace for a -81 OAA season. Of course, this compressed streak of incompetence would be beyond improbable to maintain over an entire season, but the already poor grade is telling as to just how bad Torres has been at shortstop in 2021.

In 2020, Torres’s defensive campaign was marred by issues fielding balls to his backhand. Hard hands and heavy feet led to botched grounders and inaccurate throws. Already in 2021, Torres has displayed the same mechanical deficiencies that have plagued him in the past.

On Opening Day, Torres proved not quick or smooth enough to get around this well-hit grounder. He gets his glove to the ball, but fails to corral it, instead deflecting it into left field.

Gleyber makes a good play on this similarly placed, and softer hit ball in the hole, but his clunky pop-up into a throwing position undermines any small opportunity he may have had to get Hernandez at first.

With Domingo Germán on the mound, Torres was able to get to this one-hopper to his arm-side, but failed to generate enough momentum with his legs to make his throw to first a good one. Instead, he makes this throw relatively flat-footed, sending the ball up the line and out of the reach of Jay Bruce’s outstretched glove.

Pulled towards third base, Gleyber makes a clean transfer to get this ball in and out of his glove in one step, but lacks the arm strength to hit LeMahieu on the fly, forcing LeMahieu to make an extremely difficult scoop of this in-between hop. Had Bruce been over at first instead of DJ, it’s possible this ball ends up getting past him, like it did in the play that cost the Yankees a game against the Orioles.

While these plays aren’t necessarily damning in and of themselves, they showcase a failure to eliminate a preexisting weakness in Torres’ defensive abilities. He has not proven to be particularly apt at making the plus-plays that separate middling shortstops from truly solid ones. His fielding, arm strength, and throwing accuracy all take a hit due to his poor footwork and choppy transfers.

Even worse now, Gleyber’s foibles have crept into the routine plays on balls hit at him or to his glove-side.

Instead of allowing his momentum through the grounder to carry his throw to first, Gleyber allows a slightly funky hop to interrupt his rhythm, stopping his momentum on the plant of his right foot, lobbing a non-competitive throw towards first that doesn’t even make it to Bruce.

Just a strike away from victory, Torres makes sure to toss an accurate throw over to first this time, but in doing so, takes so long that even this bullet fails* to beat Ryan Mountcastle to the bag.

*In the record books anyway; Mountcastle might have actually been out despite the call, but of course it shouldn’t have been that close regardless.

These additional lapses on even easier defensive opportunities seem to indicate Gleyber’s waning confidence in his ability to make strong and accurate throws, especially considering how long he often takes to make these plays. Torres’s defensive attitude reads as deliberate, but not decisive, going through the proper motions gingerly as if to avoid making another mistake. Steadier major league shortstops move with a clarity and brevity absent from Torres’s game.

While no shortstop is likely to make all seven of the plays I’ve highlighted every single time, few (if any) fail to make them as often as Torres does — more than once per game so far. Failing to support his pitching staff has a tangible fallout beyond the occasions in which his errors directly impact the game’s tally. In addition to the wear and tear of increased pitch counts when earned outs aren’t recorded, defensive mistakes can erode a pitcher’s trust in his defense, making him less willing to attack batters in the zone for fear of his fielders’ inability to make the easy plays the next time.

In the second instance of Gleyber failing to record a game’s 27th out, Torres put an undue burden on Lucas Luetge in his second major league inning in over a half-decade. Instead of finishing the inning with a clean sheet, Torres’ misstep cost Luetge a “single,” forcing him to earn a fourth out to close the door on the O’s. Unfortunately, Luetge gave up a homer and a double to the next two batters before striking out Freddy Galvis to end the game. For a reliever looking to solidify a slot in the bullpen, an ERA-exploding outing like this can harm not just his confidence, but potentially derail or shorten his entire career.

While Torres’ mistakes haven’t always necessarily led to disastrous innings or games for the Yankees, unconverted outs leave the door open for more bad things to happen to the club and increase the amount of effort required for his teammates to close it. As the linchpin of the infield, his sloppy play puts a burden on those around him to be even better, when he should be the one taking the pressure off of them. An unreliable defensive shortstop is a team-building recipe for disaster. Playing a bad shortstop wastes the opportunity to extract enormous value from the position, especially with the bevy of studs at short around the league.

Torres can only be even a quality starter so long as he’s mashing. With a .625 OPS through the young season, Torres’ play has been an all-around detriment to the franchise’s high hopes. While he likely won’t continue to be this bad in perpetuity, Gleyber’s shown no positive signs of improvement on either side of the ball, and the win-now Yankees can’t afford for him to take too long to straighten things out.