Gleyber Torres’ Ascent to Superstardom [2019 Season Review]

Yesterday, in my review of Aaron Judge’s short-but-excellent season, I claimed that Judge is “still the best player on the Yankees.” While that is definitely true–sorry, DJLM–a new contender for that unofficial title certainly emerged in 2019: Gleyber Torres, who is (still) 22-years-old. The Yankees’ young middle-infielder hit .278/.337/.535 (125 wRC+) with 38 home runs in his first full Major League season.

Torres was a multi-positional player for the Yankees, splitting time between second base and his natural shortstop position. He actually manned more games at short (75) than he did at second (64), raising questions about the future of the middle infield. Randy touched on that debate earlier today, so check that out if you missed it.

It’s also worth noting that Torres was a driver of the Yankees success in 2019, hitting .316/.379/.655 with 33 home runs in Yankee victories. And as was apparent in an earlier post about the biggest hits of the season, Torres was in the center of all of the team’s action this year–even when he wasn’t the author of the big hit himself.

Anyway, the rise of Gleyber Torres, Superstar was probably the most exciting long-term development to come out of the 2019 season. Let’s break down his season.

More Contact

One area in which Torres really developed in 2019 was his ability to make contact and his selection at the plate. There are a number of metrics that help us measure this. O-Swing% measures the percentage of pitches out of the zone a player swings at. Z-Swing% measures the percentage of pitches in the zone. The rest are pretty self-explanatory. Anyway, check this out:

O-Swing%O-Contact%Z-Swing%Z-Contact%Swing%
201834.4%55.9%68.7%81.8%48.4%
201935.1%60.3%76.3%83.8%51.8%

Torres swung more in 2019, to be sure, but there’s real evidence to suggest that he swung at better pitches. First, he attacked the ball in the zone, swinging at strikes 10% more than he did in 2018. Check out his swing percentage overlaid onto a strike zone plot, paying special attention to the middle:

2018 (Baseball Savant)
2019 (Baseball Savant)

There are noticeable jumps across the board there, but especially in the middle of the zone. That feels like a natural progression for a hitter, though. Major League pitching is really difficult to hit, obviously, and it makes intuitive sense that as a player becomes more comfortable at the plate, he becomes more aggressive on hittable pitches. We certainly saw that with Torres.

Second, even though he swung at more pitches out of the zone last year, he made significantly more contact. That suggests that he was swinging at better pitches and that he was recognizing them better, too. Sure enough, look a little deeper, and there’s evidence to support this.

In 2018, Torres hit just .236 (.276 wOBA) with an 84.9 average exit velocity against breaking pitches. As expected, big-league benders were difficult for a young rookie to square up. In 2019, though, that story changed. He hit .261 (.310 wOBA) with an 86.0 average exit velocity against the breaking stuff. He whiffed significantly less (32.3%) of the time in 2019 than he did in 2018 (38.5%), too.

The eye-test sure did suggest that Torres was a much more comfortable hitter in 2019, and the data backs it up. He made more contact, was more aggressive on hittable pitches, and fared better against breaking balls. All of these are really encouraging developments for a young hitter. For one already as good as Torres, it makes it very easy to dream on what’s possible.

Increased Power

The obvious story of 2019 for Torres, though, was his massive increase in power. I mean, our man hit 38 (!) home runs. I still can’t believe that. If he didn’t miss a week or so with that really nebulous core injury, he probably would have hit 40 home runs. Just incredible.

This was, without a doubt, the single most unexpected development of the season for Torres. Last year, he slugged .480 and hit 24 home runs, with 8.5% of his hits going for extra bases. This year, he slugged .535 with 38 big flies and a 10.5% extra-base hit rate. Those are significant jumps. It’s easy to attribute a lot of it to the ball, and I think that’s fair.

However, if that’s fair, then it’s only fair to note that every other middle-infielder also got to hit the same ball–but none of them hit more home runs than Torres did. That feels worth mentioning, too.

Anyway, Torres’ longest home run of the season came in at 438 feet against the Mariners on May 15. Check it out:

Good stuff. I’m surprised that it didn’t come against the Orioles, against whom Torres hit a ridiculous .394/.467/1.045 in 2019, with 13 home runs in 18 games. 13 home runs in 18 games! He only logged 26 hits against the Orioles, too, which meant that 50% of his hits against them left the yard. I know the Orioles are horrible, but that is just truly hilarious.

Baserunning

Finally, Torres’ baserunning really improved in 2019, as I touched upon all the way back in June. This was one area of weakness for Torres in his rookie campaign and he really improved in 2019.

The most useful baserunning metric, in my opinion, is Baseball-Reference’s extra-base taken rate, which measures the rate at which a player goes first-to-third, etc. It’s not perfect but it’s a good proxy for smart, aggressive baserunning. Torres did so just 21% of the time in 2018 compared to 37% of the time in 2019.

He also rated better among Baseball-Prospectus’ more advanced metrics, too, though he was still considered a slight net negative on the basepaths. It’s worth taking this all with a grain of salt, but I think it’s pretty much confirmed by the eye test.

In 2018, there were a number of instances in which Torres made foolish mistakes while running the bases. That was definitely not the case in 2019, at least to my memory. Baserunning was just another area in which Torres improved his game.

What’s Next?

The final pre-arbitration year for Torres, who will be entering his age-23 season in 2020. This could mean that the Yankees will look to pursue an extension with their young star, akin to what they did with Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks prior to 2018. That’s another post for another day, though.

What we do know for sure is that Torres will be one of the team’s most important players next year. That is good news for the Yankees. Given both his age and obvious natural skillset, it’s possible, if not probable, that Torres continues to improve as a player. He certainly looked more comfortable at the plate in 2019 and in the field, too. As we all saw in the 2019 postseason, when Torres became a national star, that there are no lights too bright for him.

I can’t wait to continue to watch Torres play and see if he can continue to take steps forward as a player. Is it March yet?

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3 Comments

  1. I hadn’t really given this much thought until now regarding where Gleyber plays but if the Yankees truly consider him at least an average shortstop they should put him there permanently and let Didi go elsewhere. He will be 23 next year and can play 130+ games a year at SS for the next 5-10 years. They can sign DJ to an extension for a 2-3 years and have him full time at 2nd Base, again for 130+ games, and use either Wade or Estrada as the backup.

    If they are going to be on a budget it’s far more important to get a stud starting pitcher.

  2. RetroRob

    The main question about someone like Gleyber is how he’ll be impacted when the ball is eventually “normalized” again, whenever that happens, and whatever that will actually mean. It seems the medium-range power guys benefited the most with the added extra distance. It wouldn’t be all that bad if Gleyber settles back into a .290/.370/.500 hitter with 25 HRs.

    A challenge many of these hitters will face is readjusting their swings. Right now it’s all about the launch angle. If balls start settling into the glove of OFers for outs, adjustments will need to be made in batting approaches.

  3. mikenyc2007

    i havent run the numbers, but i wonder if G had a “normal” season against Baltimore how his overall numbers would have been adjusted downwards

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