Last Sunday, Gleyber Torres dug in for a 1-0 pitch in the fifth inning against the Blue Jays. Right-hander Adam Cimber delivered a slider that didn’t slide, and Torres took advantage, sending it on a line to the left-center-field wall. Torres was both all over Cimber, attacking the reliever aggressively early in the count, and in control, letting the hanging slider come to him, staying behind the ball and giving himself the chance to drive it out into the gap.
The at-bat typified Torres’ resurgent season. After a shaky first few weeks, the 25-year-old has morphed into one of the most dependable bats in the Yankees lineup, erasing the memory of his largely disappointing 2020 and 2021 campaigns. He’s run his offensive numbers up to career-best territory, thanks in large part to the aggressiveness and power he displayed in taking Cimber to task.
In fact, in order to restore his production with the stick, Torres has renewed the plate approach he used during his first two (excellent) seasons in the bigs. At the moment, he’s swinging hard and swinging often, looking to strike the ball with authority at every opportunity. In the process, Torres has compromised the small handful of things he was able to do well during his down years, namely, his patience and swing decisions. The strategy has obviously paid dividends, thus far propelling Torres to his finest performance to date. It also forces one to wonder if Torres could ever put it all together.
You see, Torres has shown us two distinct versions of himself: the 2018-2019 and now 2022 hard-hitting second baseman, and the patient, soft-swinging 2020-2021 shortstop. Each version has had his own particular tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses.
The current version of Torres stands out as one of the most assertive hitters in the game, just as he was when he first debuted. Here’s Torres’ rate at swinging at pitches both out of and in the zone, across this year and his first two:
Torres Swing Rates 2018-2019, 2022
When a pitch comes out of the zone, Torres is more likely than most to offer, and when pitchers do throw one over the plate, Torres swings more than about nine out of every ten hitters, just as he did when he smashed 38 homers in 2019.
Torres has embodied Yankee hitting coach Dillon Lawson’s mantra “hit strikes hard” as well as any player on the roster. The current Torres — and the younger Torres — actively hunts for his pitch, and when he sees it, immediately pulls the trigger. He does so with a purpose, not looking to slap singles, but to send the ball to the wall or over it:
This stands in direct contrast to the skillset Torres utilized last year and during the pandemic-shortened season. Across those campaigns, Torres struggled mightily when it came to driving the ball, but instead showed suddenly excellent swing decisions at the plate. Torres’ output ultimately suffered, but his disciplined plate approach kept his overall numbers at least around league average.
A free-swinger when he came up, Torres cut over 10 points off his O-Swing rate in 2020, chasing much less than the average player. He maintained those gains in 2021, chasing about four percent less than average. Torres’ highest walk rates, and lowest strikeout rates, came in those years, as did a career-high .356 OBP in 2020.
This plate appearance from the 2020 Wild Card Round showcased that version of Torres at his best:
Facing top-tier playoff competition, Torres fought and won a tremendous battle, fouling off tough pitches from Carlos Carrasco and spitting on ones off the black, ultimately taking a nine-pitch walk.
But it’s telling that the best this form of Gleyber could produce was a walk. 2020-2021 Torres worked numerous long plate appearances, making life hard on pitchers while in the box. Once he was forced to put the ball in play, though, the threat of his bat disappeared. Torres proved that he could work a walk, but he rarely found himself able to drive the ball.
The following chart gives away the whole story:
Here we have Torres’ Statcast percentiles for his walk and chase rates, juxtaposed with his expected slugging figures (a higher chase rate means a lower percentile rank). When Torres swings hard and often, he doesn’t walk, but he drives the ball. When Torres uses a disciplined plate approach, he stops swinging at bad pitches, and he gets on base, but can’t hit the ball hard.
All that said, there’s no real ambiguity regarding which type of Torres is preferable. I could’ve thrown any all-encompassing hitting metric into the chart above, whether it was wRC+ or OPS+ or wOBA or xwOBA. Any of them would’ve risen with Torres’ slugging ability, and fallen with his on-base ability. The jury is in; Torres is better when he’s hitting strikes hard, rather than controlling plate appearances and attempting to grind opposing pitchers.
It’s just that the clear existence of the two Torres’ had me wondering whether the pair could ever merge. Is there a form of peak Torres that can combine his current ability to crush the ball with his 2020-21 skillset? Is it getting greedy to imagine a Torres that not only can run slugging percentages in excess of .500, but also reach base at a high clip?
This is in no way meant as criticism of 2022 Gleyber Torres. He’s done everything the Yankees could have asked of him, and again looks the part of a high-level starter on the right side of the infield. Torres could never improve again, simply churning out seasons like this one in which he swings hard and often at everything, and we and the Yankees should and would be thrilled.
Finding a way to bring the two versions together is likely just the one way Torres could ever break into the realm of superstardom. His previous path, one of a power hitter who could handle shortstop defensively, evaporated once his shortcomings on the dirt became clear. More feasible now, if still unlikely, is finding the double-digit walk rates of 2020/21 and plugging them in with the extra-base hits of 2019/22.
Of course, Torres’ journey might simply stand as a demonstration of the innate difficulty of genuine improvement. See, for most players, or people for that matter, to develop or deploy a particular skill often means sacrificing or compromising elsewhere. To sell out for power, you have to swing and miss more. To throw as hard as you can, you have to sacrifice control. To spend more time training your strength and conditioning, you have to spend less time honing your plate approach and pitch recognition.
Only the best of the best, like Mike Trout, who made a GOAT-case out of showing up every year having patched a hole in his game while remaining elite at everything else, can really find ways to improve without regressing in other areas. For the rest of us mere mortals, including Gleyber, we have to pick and choose our spots. To be great at one thing probably means being a little less great at another.
For now, we should be glad that Torres has picked the right thing to be great at. He strikes fear into the heart of an opponent, not because of the prospect of a hard-fought, 10-pitch walk, but the prospect of a ball flying 430 feet over the fence. It’s tempting to ask if there’s more, if one day Torres could meld all the best parts of his game that he’s flashed over the years. If he never does, we’d all be so lucky if he stuck with the approach that has him performing like the lineup cornerstone he was always meant to be.