Here's why Gleyber's resurgence is no fluke

June 7th, 2022

For much of the first two months of the season, it’s been easy for Gleyber Torres to fly under the radar. Then the injury bug hit several of his Yankees teammates, and it became much harder to ignore him. Now, with first-place New York an MLB-best 39-15 (.722) heading into Tuesday’s series opener at Minnesota, it’s a good time to take note of the club’s 25-year-old second baseman.

Torres has had an odd career arc -- from an All-Star in his first two seasons to an underperforming enigma in his past two. In 2018-19, he slugged .535 and bashed 38 homers in 546 at-bats; in 2020-21, he slugged .366 with just 12 long balls in 595 at-bats.

This season has been different. Entering Tuesday, Torres ranked in the 94th percentile among Major Leaguers with a 92.3 mph average exit velocity. His .575 expected slugging percentage ranks in the 92nd percentile. His hard-hit rate has risen 12.9% from 2021, the largest increase among qualified Major Leaguers. He’s already hit 10 home runs, one more than he had in 127 games last year. His OPS+, a direct measurement against the rest of the league, is 118, after the career-low 93 he posted last season. At his current pace, he’s likely to top 30 homers and 80 RBIs, in the ballpark of his first two seasons.

So clearly, something happened here.

Maybe he’s just older (he’s still younger than the average position player in Triple-A.) Maybe shifting from shortstop to second base has done wonders for his psyche. Those are both real factors here. But there are also concrete, Statcast-backed reasons to buy into his resurgence.

So if frustration over the last two seasons made you jump off the Gleyber Torres bandwagon, here’s why you should consider getting back on.

1) He’s back to being aggressive
Torres has never been a player overly concerned with taking his walks. We don’t generally think of that as a positive. But not every player is going to be best served by a patient approach.

Case in point: 26% of Torres’ strikeouts were looking in 2021. That was only a hair above league average, but it was a drastic increase for him, after averaging 13.3% from 2018-’20. That kind of surge would suggest that, rather than becoming more patient, Torres had become more hesitant, and as a result, was more prone to getting locked up by hittable pitches. So far in 2022, just over 15% of his strikeouts have ended on called third strikes.

That’s just one byproduct of his change in approach. This season, Torres’ overall swing rate is up seven percentage points. His rate on first pitches specifically is up 16.1 points. So in addition to the drop in called third strikes, it’s gotten harder for opposing pitchers to expect him to take the first pitch and immediately have him at a disadvantage.

28.9% of Torres’ at-bats in 2021 opened with called strikes, largely because the competition knew that, as is the case with most hitters, Torres' success in 1-0 counts was radically higher than that in 0-1 counts -- try a .788 OPS against a .611.

2) He’s putting the ball in play, everywhere
Torres was asked recently about how his heightened confidence has impacted his game. His answer boiled down to the following: “Try to put the ball in play and have fun.”

Generally, swinging more means missing more. It’s usually the cost of doing business. But Torres’ whiff rate has held steady, a pretty clear indication that he has a game plan beyond “swing at anything close.”

So his aggression isn’t costing him in terms of his ability to make contact. Here’s the secondary concern – often, when a player chooses to pursue a more aggressive approach, they pull the ball more, either in an attempt to tap into their power or because they’ve become more anxious at the plate. That would be a real problem for Torres, who has thrived in the past on his ability to take pitches the opposite way, particularly those on the outer third of the plate.

You can set that worry aside, too. About a third of his base hits in 2022 have been to right field, compared to a previous career high of 26.1% in 2021 (and the 17.8% clip he posted in 2018.) His hard-hit rate on opposite-field batted balls is a career-high 51.3% – which is also 7th-highest in the Majors (min. 25 batted balls) and just behind teammate Aaron Judge (51.4%), the perennial Major League leader in hard-hit rate.

3) Bad luck isn’t permanent
Here’s the thing – expected stats don’t reflect results, but they do reflect reality. So let's say, for argument's sake, that Torres’ 2021 expected slugging percentage (.423) had been his actual slugging percentage. With his .331 on-base percentage, that's a .754 OPS. That’s almost exactly the year Trey Mancini had, and he hit 21 home runs. The perfection-driven Yankees fan might not have been impressed with it, but a year like that probably wouldn’t have drawn any specific ire. 

Point being, despite everything concrete that went wrong for Torres during his downturn, luck played a major part, too. 

Torres’ SLG (xSLG), 2018-’22
2018: .480 (.461)
2019: .535 (.492)
2020: .368 (.384)
2021: .366 (.423)
2022: .476 (.575)

Ironically, Torres has never had worse luck than he does this season – an expected consequence of putting his fate in the hands of opposing defenders. But a 100-point gap between SLG and xSLG is extremely difficult to sustain – only one player who had at least 250 plate appearances in 2021 ended the season with such a large disparity – rate stats tend to naturally regress towards their expected counterparts. Great news, in Torres’ case.

4) He's crushing the ball
Torres was extremely productive in his first two Major League seasons. But while his output made him look like a polished hitter, his batted ball data didn’t actually back it up. The narrative of his career is significantly undermined by his hard-hit rate year to year.

Torres’ hard-hit rate by season, percentile rankings
2018: 45th
2019: 35th
2020: 42nd
2021: 26th
2022: 89th

That’s about as pure a metric as you can get. This season, hard-hit balls have generated a .478 batting average and .923 SLG. Balls hit with an exit velocity of 94 mph or lower have a .217 BA and .253 SLG. Your odds are better when you hit the ball harder. If Torres wasn’t doing that early in his career, he’s certainly doing it now, which is a great sign moving forward.

Torres’ year-to-year percentile rankings don’t really paint the picture of a former phenom who flamed out. They look more like those of a young player who struggled as the league adjusted to him, and now, given the benefit of time and experience, has figured out how to respond. Just ask the man himself.

“My swing is getting better and better. I'm working hard every day to be the way I want to be,” Torres said in May, when asked whether his swing has felt more like it used to. “But so far, so good.”

Much as Torres’ early results in 2022 may look like a return to form, based on his perspective – and the data – it’s worth considering that we may really be witnessing a breakout.