Reason to be optimistic about Torres at short

March 14th, 2020

Gleyber Torres led the Majors with five errors in this year's abbreviated Spring Training, so when the Yankees return to the field, you know there's going to be considerable questions about whether he's ready to take over shortstop from the departed Didi Gregorius.

Actually, we need not wait that long. There already are those questions.

“It's a little bit frustrating, because I'm coming every day early, trying to get really good work defensively,” Torres told on Wednesday. “[Then] I go into the game and I make errors."

We're not going to worry too much about the spring miscues. He only got into 10 games. He didn't get a full spring, because no one got a full spring. We don't have video for all of the mistakes. We don't have tracking data for any of the mistakes. It's objectively "not great" that his fielding got off to this start, but it probably doesn't matter that much.

But if we can't look forward, we can at least look back, because he did play a decent amount of shortstop last season. Torres was a below-average defender in 2019, recording a minus-7 Outs Above Average. If you split it between second base (where he played 547 1/3 innings) and shortstop (where he played 659 2/3 innings), you'll see that he was roughly equal at both spots:

As a second baseman: minus-3 OAA, 31st of 38
As a shortstop: minus-4 OAA, 22nd of 35

Not a whole lot to see there, right? Somewhat below average at second base. Somewhat also below average at shortstop. When he was rated the No. 17 prospect in baseball back in 2016, MLB Pipeline wrote that "his range may be just average." He was never expected to be a stud defender.

But where this gets really interesting, as we explored in our introduction to infield Outs Above Average, is where those negative plays came. Torres is going to be the everyday shortstop in 2020, which means he's going to spend most of his time on the left side of the infield.

Keep that in mind. Now let's look at a few poor defensive plays that came while he was in the lineup as a shortstop.

Here he is unable to corral this August ball off the bat of Baltimore's Chance Sisco.

On May 31, he couldn't collect this Jackie Bradley Jr. ball.

Here's one from earlier in May against Marwin Gonzalez -- not necessarily an easy play, but one that's often made.

It should be noted, by the way, that each of those plays was marked as a hit, not an error, which is part of why it's difficult to worry too much about the five spring errors.

You might be wondering why we're showing you negative defensive plays when we're trying to make the point that Torres might be a capable shortstop. It's because each of those plays, while they might have come "as a shortstop," actually happened on the right side of second base. If we redo our positional split above, but instead ignore the lineup position and just focus on field location, we instead get this:

Where second basemen play: minus-5 OAA, 32nd of 38
Where shortstops play: 0 OAA, 17th of 33

A "0 Outs Above Average" may not seem terribly impressive, but it's also ... average. Remember, in this context, average is a good thing. Standing at shortstop, Torres was expected to make the play in 87 percent of his opportunities, based on their difficulty, and he converted 87 percent of those opportunities. He wasn't adding anything, nor was he really costing them anything. He graded out better in the shortstop area than more celebrated defenders like Marcus Semien (-2 OAA there) or Jean Segura (-2).

You can see what that looks like when it works, like when he made this barehanded play in the rain to catch a speedy Whit Merrifield at first.

And, somewhat entertainingly, one of Torres' best plays of the 2019 season was this 50/50 play -- so termed because it had a 50 percent chance of being turned into an out based on the time and distance he had to go, plus the speed of the runner when he was playing second base but on the shortstop side of second when he got the ball.

That doesn't mean Torres doesn't have to worry about playing the right side ever again, and that's a real concern considering that the Yankees shifted lefty hitters 61 percent of the time -- the fourth most in baseball. This is still a problem he's going to have to work on.

But there's this, as well: Despite the popularity of Gregorius, the bar here may not be terribly high. Last year, in an abbreviated season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, Gregorius struggled both at the plate (.238/.276/.441, 87 OPS+) and on defense (minus-13 OAA, fourth-lowest, backed up by a minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved).

In fact, over the three seasons where we have Statcast tracking metrics available for infielders, this has been an ongoing issue for the Yankees -- their minus-36 OAA from shortstops are the second worst in MLB, ahead of only the Mets.

If we again ignore "listed lineup position" and go back to "where are they standing on the field," and look at all four infield positions dating back to 2017, we find that the Yankees' shortstop area has been the second-least productive on defense.

Weakest field positions, 2017-19

minus-39 OAA -- Mets' shortstop area
minus-32 OAA -- Yankees' shortstop area
minus-20 OAA -- Red Sox's third-base area
minus-20 OAA -- Orioles' third-base area
minus-19 OAA -- Royals' third-base area
minus-14 OAA -- Dodgers' second-base area

What that means is that Torres isn't really coming in expected to provide shortstop defense at the level of an Andrelton Simmons or a Nick Ahmed, but with the way Torres hits -- 38 homers and a .278/.337/.535 last year -- he doesn't need to. Somewhat below average would be fine. Average would be great, and Torres was average on the left side last year. It doesn't mean he's allowed to be a poor defender, either, but that doesn't seem to be the likely outcome, regardless of his spring struggles.

“I'm really not worried about it,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told's Bryan Hoch. “The work has been good. I think that'll be something that cleans itself up as we continue to go, as he gets more regular reps.”

Torres won't get those regular reps for a while, as the sports world at large takes a pause to deal with the obviously more urgent problems. But at some point, he will. He probably won't be great. He'll likely be fine. Fine, in this case, is good enough.