Gleyber Torres, at just 25 years old, has already lived several lives in pinstripes.
He was the anointed one, the heir apparent to Alfonso Soriano, a two-time All-Star and a playoff hero, all before his 23rd birthday.
Then the pitfalls that many people face in their early-to-mid-20s began to rear their ugly heads. The pandemic certainly did n’t help, but even in 2021 as things returned to normalcy, Torres was dreadful at his job. The former top prospect who looked like a pillar of the Yankees’ next great team instead lost his starting shortstop gig. When he was in the starting lineup, he was often buried in the seventh spot.
When Torres was officially moved off of shortstop at the end of last season, his manager said of his defensive issues at the high-pressure position, “I feel like it’s been a weight on him.” Trade talks swirled, as the combination of poor play and the impending free agency of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and others made Torres seem like the odd man out.
Instead, the Yankees stood pat on free agent shortstops, kept Torres, and traded for a defensive maestro in Isiah Kiner-Falefa. With the stability of knowing that he’d still be a Yankee, plus not having to worry about playing shortstop anymore, Torres has started 2022 with a bang.
As of Wednesday morning, Torres has a 117 wRC+ and .741 OPS, both his highest since 2019, the last time he consistently punished the baseball. After five straight hitless games in mid-April, Torres turned things around with a pinch-hit single in Detroit. Though his eighth-inning knock his ended up being mostly meaningless — he was stranded on the bases and the Yankees lost 3-0 — that plate appearance did something to get him back on track.
Starting with that game, Torres has slashed .301/.342/.521. Seven of his 22 hits in that span have gone for extra bases, including four home runs. As a result, his numbers his on the young season show a completely different player than the one who sulked through two straight soul crumbling campaigns.
“Last year was a very [hard] struggle for me,” Torres said after driving in five runs in a win over Toronto on May 11. “All the work I put in the offseason, I can show that every time I go to home plate. I mean I can still learn the game.”
Glancing at his numbers, the things that Torres has seemed to learn this year are fairly simple, and also a very common school of thought across Major League Baseball right now. He’s mashing fastballs, putting the ball in the air more often, and as a result, he’s making a lot more hard contact.
In 2021, as Torres’ overall slugging percentage sagged to a career-low .366, fastballs were one of the main culprits. He slugged a not-ideal .352 on heaters, and with two strikes, fastballs resulted in a strikeout 19.6% of the time. This year, though things could still change as he gets more at-bats, Torres is slugging .536 on fastballs. They’re only putting him away 12.9% of the time he gets in a two-strike hole.
Hunting fastballs is an effective strategy for most hitters, but on an even more simplistic level, so is hitting pitches that are meant to be hit. First-year hitting coach Dillon Lawson showed up to his new job with the catchphrase “Hit strikes hard”. Torres appears to have taken that to heart. According to Baseball-Savant, in three key areas of the strike zone — middle-up, middle-down and up-and-in — Torres is hitting the ball hard at a significantly higher rate than he was last year.
Hard contact is particularly damaging when it’s in the air. Every stadium can hold a well-struck grounder, very few will contain an airborne missile. For the last two seasons — the ones Torres would like to forget — he ran a ground ball rate north of 40%. This year, it’s down to 35.2% so far, with fly balls getting above 40% for the first time since 2019. As Rangers’ salty manager Chris Woodward can attest to, sometimes getting the ball in the air at Yankee Stadium leads to “Little League home runs.” Whether they go 320 or 420 feet, a home run is a home run, and Torres is already more than halfway to his home run total from last year.
The other adjustment Torres has made in the season’s first month is swinging more often. His swing percentage has shot up to 76.2%, nearly identical to the 76.3% he had when swatting 38 homers in 2019. This could be a sign that Torres isn’t overthinking things at the plate, a welcome sign for someone who has spoken openly about the mental stripe he’s endured.
“First of all, I feel really good,” Torres told reporters last week. “I mean, my swing has gotten better and better. And I’m working hard every day to be the way I want to be. But so far, so good. I think confidence is back and that is the most important thing for me.”
That renewed confidence could also wind up being one of the most important things for the Yankees, a team that, at 27-9, has absolutely been the way they want to be.