Playing for a New York sports team can be quite difficult. With the consistent expectation of championships, the extra media spotlight, and every action of a player being analyzed to microscopic levels, New York is a sports market like no other.
This is particularly true for the Yankees. Not only are they MLB’s most valuable franchise, valued at over $6 billion, but their league-leading 27 World Series titles has inserted a “World Series or bust” label on them; they can win 120 games, but if they don’t win the final game, the season is generally seen as a disappointment.
Something else to keep in mind is that players are often judged in a, “what have you done for me lately way.” Sure, you can have a track record of strong production, but with one poor season, all of that can suddenly be overlooked. Of course, this only gets exacerbated in a big market like New York; whatever the general levels of frustration would be after a down season should be multiplied by 100.
Why do I bring this up? Well, this adds needed context for today’s case study- Gleyber Torres. After appearing to be a rising star early in his career, the shine has faded for Torres. Suddenly, though, things are trending in the right direction for him. What should we expect from him in the future. Let’s break that down here.
The Rise of Gleyber Torres
Lofty expectations is something that Torres is more than accustomed to at this point. Coming out of Venezuela, he was the third-highest ranked international prospect in the 2013 signing class by MLB Pipeline, and received a $1.7 million signing bonus from the Cubs. Along with Eloy Jimenez, the two of them were expected to be key pillars of the rebuild in the Windy City.
Initially, Torres wasn’t seen as a player with immense upside; he was cited as being an advanced hitter, he wasn’t seen as someone who would hit for much power, as MLB Pipeline alluded to in their 2015 report of him:
“An extremely advanced hitter for his age, Torres has a quick, short right-handed stroke and handles the bat well. He uses the entire field and has good knowledge of the strike zone. He’s not physically imposing but has some strength that could produce close to average power once he learns to turn on pitches more often. “
Labeled with a 45-power grade, there wasn’t much anticipation that Torres would become a rising star. If there is one thing we should know about hitting prospects, though, it’s that power is one skill that tends to take the longest to develop. In 2016, despite just being 19-years-old in High-A, Torres’ improved his power output (.153 ISO/isolated power), standing out as an above-average with a 120 weighted-runs-created-plus. As a result, he vaulted up MLB Pipeline‘s prospect rankings, coming in as the 28th overall prospect, while now being given an average power grade.
This certainly was not the most notable event for Torres in 2016; at the trade deadline, he was traded from the Cubs to the Yankees in a package for star reliever Aroldis Chapman. In the end, Chicago was able to win a World Series, but was the added benefit of Chapman worth giving up a potential young star player? This continues to be debated today. Anyways, Torres went from being seen as another future part of a hopeful dynasty to a rebirth for the Bronx Bombers, who failed to make the postseason in 2016 and seemed to be heading to a re-tool approach to strengthen their farm system; the pressure was raised significantly.
With a 141 wRC+ and further development in power (.193 ISO) in Double-A and Triple-A despite being just 20-years-old, Torres continue to tease superstar potential. Unfortunately, that ascension was put to a brief halt, as he missed the final 2.5 months of the season after tearing his UCL, causing him to undergo Tommy John surgery. Regardless, he had shown enough to be considered a top-five prospect for MLB Pipeline in both 2017 and 2018, and the tone of his overall outlook suddenly was much rosier than 2015:
“Torres has exceptionally quick hands that allow him to excel from the right side of the plate and make plays in the field. Always an advanced hitter for his age, he recognizes pitches well, uses the entire field and has improved his walk and strikeout rates in each of his seasons in full-season ball. He makes adjustments easily and also has hit for more power each year as well as he has gotten stronger, projecting as a hitter who can contend for batting titles while providing 20-plus homers annually.
Though he’s just an average runner, Torres covers enough ground to stick at shortstop and has the hands and arm to be a solid defender there. With Didi Gregorius entrenched at shortstop in New York, the Yankees played Torres regularly at second and third base in 2017. He could contend for a starting job at either position this year and has the tools to be a star wherever he winds up.”
Having a 70-grade hit tool and 55-grade power is not something that can be overlooked- all signs were pointing to Torres being an offensive superstar. At just 21-years-old, he found himself on the Yankees’ big-league team by late April of 2018, and he did not disappoint, posting a 121 wRC+ with plenty of power (.209 ISO) in the process. To put up those types of numbers at just a 21-year-old is remarkably impressive, and only further increased the hype around his perceived stardom.
Then, 2019 came around, and Torres continued to be an above-average offense producer (125 wRC+), while slugging 38 home runs. Juiced ball or not, those are tremendous numbers for your second season. Think about this; by the age of 22, he had played two seasons in the MLB, and had made the All-Star team in both of those years. That is simply absurd.
So, clearly, Torres continued his ascension into an offensive superstar, right? Well, that’s where things get much more complicated.
Gleyber Torres’ Sudden Power Outage
2020 was a weird year – we cannot deny or confirm that it even happened – and we have to take everything from the shortened 2020 season with a grain of salt. Torres was a fringe second-round pick in NFBC Main Events prior to 2020, and after a down season from a power perspective (.125 ISO), only fell to the fourth round in 2021 drafts. Clearly, there was still immense expectation that he’d get back to being the player he was in 2019.
Sadly, that did not come to fruition. In 516 plate appearances, Torres failed to reach double-digit home runs, plummeting to a career-worst .107 ISO and 94 wRC+. For fantasy purposes, he was just the 32nd-most valuable shortstop, per Fangraphs’ 5×5 dollar values; he was essentially un-rosterable. Had it not been for him chipping in a career-high 14 stolen bases, that would have only been more problematic.
It was easy to see what went wrong for Torres. Simply put, with just an 87.1 MPH average exit velocity, he stopped hitting the ball hard. Considering his 111.6 MPH max exit velocity was a career-best number, this would not appear to be a case of him being injured, but rather him just not making consistent hard contact. As you would expect, his barrel rate (7.8%) also went down to a below-average mark, as he also hit slightly fewer fly balls (26.3%) than normal. All of a sudden, he was trending much closer to the player he was initially expected to be as a prospect.
This obviously hurt Torres’ outlook for fantasy heading into this season, but that was before accounting for how the Yankees viewed him. See, with him ranking in the 1st percentile in Outs Above Average (OAA) and with -12 defensive runs saved (drs), he was one of the worst defenders in all of baseball; a below-average offensive performance combined with putrid defense equates to a replaceable player. Looking to improve their infield, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, they acquired Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa from the Twins, and then signed Anthony Rizzo just a few days later. All of a sudden, they had five infielders with just four spots to utilize. Especially after not starting on Opening Day, Torres appeared to be the potential odd man out. Had we gone from a potential superstar to a part-time player in just a few years? That was the fear, but, now, that may no longer be the case.
Is Gleyber Day Officially Back?
Before we get to this season, let’s shift our attention back to last season, where there were signs that Torres’ power output was bound to naturally improve.
For starters, while a 7.8% barrel rate isn’t great, it shouldn’t equate to a 6.9% home run/fly ball rate, especially when playing half of his games at Yankee Stadium. Plus, based on his career-high 111.6 MPH max exit velocity, the raw power was still there.
Plus, from July 1 on, Torres posted a 10.5% barrel rate. While this didn’t show due to a remarkably low 9.7% home run/fly ball rate, it was an encouraging sign that he may have made some adjustments necessary to rekindle some of the power he seemed to have lost. For what it’s worth, he was one of the top underachievers of his expected home run/fly ball rate, which would have had him in line to be a 20-home run hitter.
Well, we are still early into this season, but the results have been positive:
Right now, the gap between Torres’ ISO (.194) and the league-average ISO (.139) is higher than it was in 2018. While his 6.5% barrel rate doesn’t stand out, that’s deceiving when considering he has an 11.3% solid contact rate, while he’s hitting the ball extremely hard (48.4% of his batted balls are over 95 MPH) right now.
There are plenty of potential underlying reasons why Torres’ power is much improved over last year. Something that cannot unnoticed, though, is his increased aggressiveness. So far this season, Torres has swung much more in the zone (76.2%), and simply overall (55.1%). While it isn’t optimal that he is chasing outside the zone (34.1%) as much as he is, it is important to note that most of this aggressiveness has come on the first pitch- it’s clearly a sign of him trying to hit for more power. This mirrors his aggressiveness from 2019, and while you’d hope the chase rate eventually comes down, the process is encouraging.
If there is one nit to pick, it’s that Torres hasn’t attempted to steal a base yet this season. That being said, once his .224 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) normalizes, he’ll be a plus in batting average with 20 home run power; you hope the speed comes, but he still holds a lot of fantasy value.
Plus, Torres is starting to see much more playing time. He’s found himself in the Yankees lineup in five of the past six games, and will continue to force New York’s hand as his surface-level statistics start to match up with his underlying numbers. These things also have their way of working out eventually- I wouldn’t assume all other members of the typical Yankees’ starting nine stay healthy for the full season. That opens up opportunities for Torres, which I fully believe he can run with.
So, is the old Gleyber Torres back?
For the most part, yes. The power he demonstrated in 2019, even when adjusted for the run environment, is likely not coming back. However, 20+ home runs with a .260+ batting average is well within the cards, and there’s extra upside if he starts stealing bases again.
In the off chance that the Yankees’ entire team magically manages to stay healthy, it can be frustrating to roster Torres in weekly leagues. That being said, it is something that needs to be done, especially considering the likelihood of an opportunity presenting itself due to injury. Meanwhile, in daily leagues, he has no business sitting on your waiver wire.
To top it off, Torres may be the ultimate buy-low target in dynasty leagues. With him, you’re not only buying into a player with tremendous pedigree and a track record of success at a very young age, but also are buying into a hitter accomplishing a lot under the radar, even if it hasn’t been recognized completely. Remember, he is still only 25-years-old?
After a hot start to the season, the Yankees completely have World Series aspirations. To get there, having the old Gleyber Torres back in the fold will be critical for them. Fortunately for them, that appears to be happening, and adds an extra layer to their roster that they weren’t sure they were going to have. As long as he keeps hitting the ball often and with authority, he’s going to continue to work his way into the lineup, and may truly be their X-Factor down the stretch.
Isn’t it funny how things can change so quickly? In just a three-year span, we’ve gone from treating Torres as a future superstar to a part-time player back to an above-average offensive contributor. Hey, not all rides are going to be without some bumps in the road, and that couldn’t be more true in baseball. Either if you’re a fantasy baseball manager, a Yankees fan, or a general baseball fan, expect more “Gleyber Days” ahead for the foreseeable future.