The Yankees have really spoiled us. In each of the last three seasons they’ve brought up a highly regarded prospect who immediately produced. It was Gary Sanchez and his two-month assault on American League pitching in 2016. In 2017, it was Aaron Judge rewriting the rookie record books. Last year it was Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, who finished second and third in the Rookie of the Year voting, respectively.
Torres was the most heralded prospect of the quartet and he was also the youngest at the time of his MLB debut, by almost a full year:
- Judge: 24 years, 109 days
- Sanchez: 22 years, 305 days
- Andujar: 22 years, 118 days
- Torres: 21 years, 130 days
Last season Torres became only the sixth middle infielder this century to put up +3 WAR at age 21 or younger, joining Ozzie Albies, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Starlin Castro. He’s only the second Yankees middle infielder ever to do it, joining Willie Randolph. The last five middle infielders with a 118 OPS+ or better at age 21 or younger is a hell of a list (min. 450 plate appearances):
- 2018 Gleyber Torres (118 OPS+ in 484 plate appearances)
- 2016 Carlos Correa (124 OPS+ in 660 plate appearances)
- 1997 Alex Rodriguez (120 OPS+ in 638 plate appearances)
- 1996 Alex Rodriguez (161 OPS+ in 677 plate appearances)
- 1965 Joe Morgan (131 OPS+ in 708 plate appearances)
Gleyber came up last season and more than lived up to the hype. He hit .271/.340/.480 (120 wRC+) with 24 home runs — Torres hit 24 home runs in 373 career minor league games — with overall solid defense despite some dopey errors. In big spots, Torres was someone the Yankees wanted at the plate. He hit .309/.368/.589 (147 wRC+) with runners in scoring position and .475/.512/.875 (275 wRC+) in high-leverage situations. Golly.
Although he was a well-regarded prospect, Gleyber’s production was a pleasant surprise last year. I’m not sure you could ever count on a 21-year-old coming up and doing what he did last year, especially in New York and in the middle of a postseason race. It was impressive. This year Torres will be on the Opening Day roster and make the transition from pleasant surprise to expected contributor. Let’s preview his upcoming sophomore season.
What can Torres improve?
Well, a lot of things. Players never stop trying to get better and a kid this age and with this little big league experience has plenty of room to grown. As good as Torres is, to me there are three key areas that stand out as places he can get better this season, and going forward in general.
1. Fewer errors, please. At times Gleyber will leave you shaking your head with his defense. He has good range and a strong arm, enough to make plays like this on the regular:
Andujar is a poor defender and it is clear his issues are physical. He sometimes stumbles over his own feet and often double-clutches on his throws, robbing him of time and accuracy. Those are physical issues. Torres doesn’t lack the tools physically, which is a big reason why the error total is so baffling. The tools are there. He makes enough highlight plays to show us there’s a better defender in there.
Fair or not, the lack of an obvious physical deficiency and the propensity for errors create questions about focus. “He takes plays off,” is something you’ll commonly hear in these situations. The jump from Triple-A to the big leagues is a big one. The game us much faster up here, especially on the infield. My hope is Torres will be less error prone going forward simply because he has more experience now, and knows what to expect.
2. Smarter baserunning, please. Torres was a shockingly bad baserunner last year. Some of it was youthful exuberance. Getting thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, that sorta thing. There were also a lot of poor decisions mixed in there though. Gleyber took the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) as often as a slow-footed catcher last year (not kidding) and some of his slides were cringe-worthy. They were flops more than slides.
Statcast’s sprint speed says Torres is almost perfectly average as a runner. He’s not a burner nor is he a baseclogger. I don’t know if the baserunning issues stem from poor instincts or poor instruction or something else. Whatever it is, Gleyber was a net negative on the bases last year, which took a bite out of his overall value. If you’re going to be bad at something, baserunning is a good thing to be bad at. Even the best/worst baserunners only add/subtract a few runs with their legs across a full 162-game season. Still, there’s room for Torres to improve on the bases going forward. No doubt.
3. Tighten up the strike zone discipline. To me, this is something that can and should improve with experience. Plate discipline tends to improve with age. Last season Torres walked in 8.7% of his plate appearances, almost exactly league average, though his 33.4% chase rate was a bit higher than the 30.4% league average. There was a chase rate spike at midseason when Gleyber went through a slump:
Plate discipline is not about drawing walks. Walks are a byproduct but not the goal. As he tightens up his strike zone discipline, Torres will see more hitter’s counts and thus get some better pitches to hit. That’s the real goal here. To get pitches in the strike zone to drive. He was very good last year even when expanding the zone from time to time. With a little more discipline, he’ll be even better.
Gleyber struck out in 25.2% of his plate appearances last season but, to me, he does not look like a true talent 25% strikeout guy at all. The tools and innate hitting ability are there for Torres to eventually get his strikeout rate down into the teens. It may take a year or two. These things don’t happen overnight. A 21-year-old kid chasing out of the zone is not the most surprising thing in the world. I hope to see fewer chases this year. Once the plate discipline really clicks, Torres is going to explode offensively.
Will he move to the top of the lineup?
Barring a Brett Gardner resurgence, the Yankees only have one profile leadoff hitter on the roster, and that player also happens to be their best left-handed bat. With a healthy Didi Gregorius, I don’t think there’s any question Aaron Hicks would hit atop the lineup on an everyday basis. With Gregorius out, Hicks may wind up hitting third between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, creating a void at leadoff.
Aaron Boone mentioned Torres as a potential leadoff hitter last month without making it sound like a serious consideration. His tone indicated it is something he’d be open to doing but not permanently. The batting order is never set in stone, however. It changes throughout the season, and if Torres continues to produce at an above-average rate and tightens up his plate discipline, he’s as good a leadoff candidate as anyone on the roster.
Last year Gleyber received more plate appearances in the No. 9 spot (41.1%) than anywhere else in the lineup, and you know what? I am perfectly fine with that. It’s not like the Yankees were short on guys to hit higher up, plus he was a 21-year-old rookie, and letting him settle into things at the bottom of the order is not unreasonable. Remember when Torres slumped at midseason? Imagine if that happened after he’d been pushed to the top of the lineup. It would’ve become A Thing.
In year two the Yankees should be — and will be, I believe — more willing to bat Torres near the top of the lineup. Since batting Judge and Stanton back-to-back doesn’t appear to be something the Yankees want to do, sticking Hicks between them with Torres leading off makes sense. His poor baserunning is not a good fit for the leadoff spot, I know, but his on-base ability and everything else he brings to the table is. My hunch is Gleyber will, at the very least, force the Yankees to seriously consider moving him to the leadoff spot at some point in 2019.
* * *
Torres will play the entire 2019 season at age 22 and, technically, this will be his first full big league season. He was in Triple-A just long enough last year to
push his free agency back shake off the rust following Tommy John surgery. Torres is unbelievably talented and thus far he’s lived up to the hype associated with his prospect ranking. Bumps in the road are inevitable with players this age. In Gleyber’s case, it felt like he was only scratching the surface last year. This season he’ll take another step toward becoming one of the game’s truly elite players.