Entering the Yankees’ 2021 season, an enormous “X-factor” was the question of whether or not shortstop Gleyber Torres would be able to improve his defense. After ranking 37th out of 39 qualifiers at shortstop last season in Outs Above Average (OAA), Gleyber didn’t leave himself much room to go anywhere but up.
On most teams, this would be a concern — defense at a premium defensive position always is — but on the Yankees, this was an imposing issue. Re-signing DJ LeMahieu to a six-year contract essentially removed any parachute the Yankees had with Torres’ name on it should he fail to improve his glovework. Luke Voit and Gio Urshela aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so LeMahieu isn’t going to first base or third base on a regular basis, and Giancarlo Stanton has the DH spot mostly blocked off to the group as well since the Yankees don’t seem to have much interest in using him in the outfield. There’s simply nowhere to go for Torres if he can’t play shortstop on a competent level.
Additionally, the Yankees’ front office decided that a 40-man roster with a grand total of zero players on it who have demonstrated that they could play shortstop on the Major League level — aside from the offensively inept Tyler Wade — wasn’t an overly large concern. A puzzling roster arrangement for sure. and one that exacerbated what was already an issue about which to be concerned.
Almost as if holding a lit match over a can of gasoline, Torres did not come out of the gate well. As noted by Cooper Halpern in a PSA article earlier this season, after six games, Torres had an OAA of -3. OAA is a cumulative statistic, so had that rate of defensive (in)efficiency continued, it would not have been tenable for the team — something would have to be done. As fans, I’m sure if you watched the first week of the season along with me, you also had visceral reactions of breath-holding and muscle tensing along with me every time a ball was hit in the general vicinity of shortstop.
Now, more than three weeks and twenty-something games later, concerns about Torres’ glove have mostly abated. From an amateur, sitting-on-the-couch perspective, it sure seems that he’s become more reliable. Do the numbers back up the perception, though?
Thankfully, the answer is “yes.” Not only has Torres improved since the season’s first week, but he’s in fact been pretty good.
(Rtot: Total fielding runs above average; Rdrs: Defensive runs saved above average; RF/G: range factor per 9 innings; lgRFG: league range factor per 9 innings.)
A few quick, but important notes on the above: In 2020, Torres played 40 games and had 135 defensive chances. So far in 2021 he’s played 26 games and has had 101 chances, so the 2021 sample size isn’t much smaller than the 2020 sample size. Secondly, Rtot and Rdrs are cumulative statistics – if he continues at his current rate the 2021 numbers will be far better than the 2020 numbers.
Count me as low man on using errors and fielding percentage as effective tools for measuring defensive efficiency, but even the old-school fans have reason for optimism: In Torres’ first six games, he logged 23 chances and committed a pair of errors – in 20 games since he’s seen 78 chances and made just a single error. (And if it’s any solace, that error came on a relay throw home rather than a routine grounder.)
Most significantly, while Torres’ improvement in relation to his own 2020 performance is important, he could have made advancements and still been awful and unacceptable. The fact that his range factor is close to league-average this year when it was nowhere near close last season is a great sign.
Further emphasizing that point, we can come back to the -3 OAA Torres had after one week this season – currently, it still stands at -3. So he’s at least been essentially league-average since then by that metric as well. Also according to Baseball Savant, his success rate on chances is 78 percent this season and the estimated success rate on those plays was 80 percent — again, in the ballpark of league-average for a defensive metric.
Is defense somewhere around league-average worth celebrating? In this case, absolutely. When we’re talking about a player who has a career 120 OPS+ over 1,359 plate appearances, an average glove at shortstop projects to somewhere between a better-than-average starting player and an All-Star.
Here’s a basic 6-3 from April 26th:
Why is a basic 6-3 significant? Because as Cooper noted in his aforementioned post, Torres’ early-season struggles were marred by poor footwork and hesitant, delayed throws. In the video above Torres went to the ball, scooped it with two hands, executed a perfect and quick right/left step sequence, and delivered the throw. That’s been the norm over the past three weeks, not the exception.
If you’ve been watching consistently, you also may have noticed that Torres has been capably handling more than mere basic grounders, too. He has also made plays that would not have been errors in the scorebook if he didn’t come up with them, but were very good rally-killing efforts. This past Saturday alone, he made a superb, Jeter-esque, over-the-shoulder catch of a popup in short center field ...
... and made a great, high-reaching catch on a tricky throw from Mike Ford for a force-out at second base:
Of course, it’s only the beginning of May, so Torres still has a long way to go to fully prove himself a big league shortstop. Yet, along with the teams’ bats coming around, and starting pitchers not named “Cole” pitching well, we can add Gleyber’s glove to a list of wins to celebrate.