Nick Castellanos had a fascinating quote speaking with Matt Gelb of The Athletic last week. He discussed his early struggles in a Phillies uniform after inking his five-year, $100 million contract last winter.
“I think my opposite-field power has always come from being ready to f— hack. In the past, I’ve always been ready to get my swing off. And I would swing at pitches that would bounce. But I would crush the ones that come over the plate. Sometimes, when you take your foot off the gas … my swing decisions are better, but I lose some violence. So it’s just really trying to find that happy balance.”
This sounds hauntingly familiar to the situation Gleyber Torres faced in 2020 and 2021. We’ve spilled much ink on this site about Torres’ odyssey to evolve even further as a hitter after his 38 home run campaign in 2019. He identified plate discipline as the area with the most gains to be made and applied a concerted effort to be more selective at the plate.
We all know how that went.
His production, particularly in the slugging department, cratered. Sure, he was able to cut his chase rate from over 30 percent in 2018-2019 to just over 20 percent in 2020-2021 and bump his walk rate 2.5 points from his first two seasons to the following pair of seasons. However, the gains in those departments were dwarfed by the complete loss of pop from his bat, going from a .511 SLG in ‘18-19 to .366 in ‘20-21. As a result, his wRC+ went from 123 in his rookie and sophomore campaigns to 97 across the following two years.
He partially recovered his power stroke last season, clubbing 24 home runs and finishing the year with a .451 slugging and 115 wRC+. He realized that the gains in plate discipline were not worth carrying a noodle bat to the plate each trip. Echoing Jake’s sentiments from the midpoint of last season, I advocated in my series preview of Torres for him to stick to this revived aggressive approach, at the expense of perhaps a few more strikeouts and fewer walks.
To give a visual representation of what we’ve been discussing, I plotted the percentile Gleyber sat in for chase rate, walk rate, and expected slugging each season, exactly as Jake did in his piece. From his rookie season in 2018 through 2022, Gleyber’s chase and walk rate percentiles were almost directly correlated while his expected slugging percentile displayed an inverse relationship with the other two metrics. The more selective he was at the plate, the more he walked, but at the expense of slug.
This year, the aggressive approach is back — he’s chasing more and seeing a resultant return of batted ball quality — but something remarkable is taking place as well. Torres has drawn eleven walks, a tally it took him until June 9th to reach last season, placing him in the top one percent league-wide at an eye-popping 23.9 percent walk rate. Yet he’s made zero sacrifice in the slugging department, sporting what would be the highest xSLG of his career by more than 70 points.
What’s more, Torres is currently running what would be the lowest strikeout rate of his career by a landslide at a measly 10.9 percent — good for the 92nd percentile. But wait, how can he be chasing more, but walking and striking out better than at any point in his career? The answer lies in chase contact. Prior to this season, Torres made contact with just over half the pitches he chased out of the strike zone. This year, he’s making contact with almost three-quarters of the pitches he chases, while also dropping his overall whiff rate by eight points relative to his career average. In other words, he’s fouling off the pitches that otherwise would’ve sent him back to the dugout, extending at-bats so he can later draw a walk or punish a mistake pitch.
Last week, my colleague Esteban detailed the return of Torres’ opposite field power. He showed a mild correlation between Torres’ opposite field rates and his plate discipline (as represented by walk rate) — the longer he lets the ball travel in the hitting zone, the better swing decisions he’s able to make. We know Gleyber is a more productive hitter when he stays disciplined to this opposite field approach, so perhaps there is some sustainability to walking at a career rate as well.
Is this finally the version of Gleyber the entire fanbase has been dying to see — the version where he’s able to marry high slug with a disciplined approach? Given that some of these metrics take a far larger sample size to stabilize than what’s been amassed thus far, we cannot draw too many significant conclusion other than Torres’ process has been sound in the early going. Through the first month of a season, that’s all you can ask for.