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Analyzing Gleyber Torres’s strange start at the plate to 2021

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The Yankees’ shortstop has struggled catching up to the heat.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Much has been made about Gleyber Torres’s defense early on in 2021. He’s had a hard time acclimating to shortstop at the big league level, leading to questions about his long-term fit. However, there weren’t supposed to be serious questions about Torres’s bat. He’s a career 120 OPS+ hitter who has a 38-homer season to his credit and should only be growing at age 24.

However, Torres’s offensive performance has been inconsistent since the abbreviated 2020 season. That year, he became more selective at the plate, but he was also sapped of his power and hit just .243. Given his strong finish to the season and solid playoff performance, it seemed fair to say that Torres’s dip was just a 43-game sample size aberration rather than a true issue.

Some of those same questions are popping up again now that Torres has been minimized offensively to begin the 2021 campaign. He started in the first 10 games the Yankees played, and he had exactly one hit in eight of them (while failing to record a hit in the other two). That equates to a .205/.295/.231 triple slash through a modest 10 games. Because 10 games is such a small sample, and comprises just 1/16th of a full season, it’s key not to overreact. At the same time, Torres’s analytics don't paint a pretty picture.

Torres has struck out 12 times on the young season, but uncharacteristically, nine of those K’s have come on fastballs. Torres is hitting a mere .143 against the heat this season, and whiffing on nearly 40 percent of his swings on fastballs. When Torres was at his best in 2018-19, he hit .285 against fastballs and popped 42 of his 62 home runs on such pitches. Obviously, this came over a 267-game sample size. But, over Torres’s last 52 games, he’s batting just .238 with three home runs off fastballs, a dramatic decrease.

Another hallmark of Torres’s struggles the last two seasons has been his inability to capitalize on pitches right down the middle. According to Statcast, he’s been worth -6 runs on pitches in the “heart” of the strike zone since 2020. From 2018-19, he was worth +11 runs on those pitches. His strike zone maps back this up (the top picture is from his 2020 season, while the second graph is from 2019):

Again, this is a very small sample. Nonetheless, his chart from last season shows a player who didn’t square up pitches down the middle quite as well as in the past. In his dominant 2019, Torres owned the strike zone, particularly in the middle third of the plate. I didn’t embed his strike zone chart from this young season, Torres is hitting just .250 right down the middle, .200 in the upper-middle third, and remains hitless in the lower-middle third.

Pitches down the middle are the easiest ones to square up and drive, and Torres has had a hard time doing that. His 22.2 hard-hit percentage and 84 mph average exit velocity were in the bottom 10 percent leaguewide, and his sweet-spot percentage has decreased from the 38-percent range in 2018-19 to the 30-percent region during the last two seasons. In 2021 specifically, Torres’s launch angle has heightened dramatically, which has resulted in a sky-high 11.1-percent popup rate. For whatever reason, he’s just not making solid contact like he used to.

One aspect of Torres’s game that is a positive is his plate discipline. His chase rate is in the top 20 percent in the league, a far cry from his free-swinging ways when he came up in 2018. While this has resulted in more walks, it hasn’t yet manifested in a higher OBP because his average is so much lower than it used to be. At least Torres is swinging more this year than last, when he was a little too passive at the plate.

It would still be premature to truly worry about Gleyber Torres as a hitter. That being said, his last 53 games since the start of 2020 have rung some alarm bells. I can’t imagine that he keeps getting flummoxed by fastballs down the middle – he’s just too good of a hitter for that. The pressure that he’s facing to improve in the field could very well be carrying over to his hitting. And when you factor in that the Yankees don’t have a true backup shortstop, thus making it hard to give him more than a single day off, it’s easy to see how the things can snowball.

The Yankees desperately need Torres to get back to being himself at the plate, and that means demolishing fastballs. Hopefully, he finds that groove soon.