A Yankees Infielder Fixed His Approach. The Results Should Follow.
Gleyber Torres was the best player in the Yankees’ lineup over the first two weeks of the season. Stroking the ball to all fields for both average and power, his swings were reminiscent of the ones he flashed as an All-Star in 2018 and ’19, his first two years in the league.
Through the Yankees’ first 12 games, he was leading the team in batting average (.357), on-base plus slugging percentage (1.179), walks (11) and stolen bases (5).
Then the Yankees returned home on April 13, and Torres went into a 2-for-28 skid — a frustrating stretch for a player who has been streaky throughout his career. This time, however, neither he nor his team was worried.
“I don’t think he’s slumping right now,” Manager Aaron Boone said last week. “I think his approach is where it needs to be. And as a hitter it’s hard to get caught up in a week’s worth of results. Sometimes you get lucky, and you get some bounces one week. Some weeks you put it on the screws a handful of times and get nothing to show for it.”
Torres and the Yankees recognized his production over those first two weeks had not come out of nowhere. It was the result of changes he began putting in place after the 2021 season. At the time, he was coming off back-to-back underwhelming years during which his development had been stunted by an unsuccessful move to shortstop from second base.
The easy narrative was that Torres was uncomfortable playing shortstop, and as he struggled to adapt to a more demanding position, he pressed to make up for it at the plate. There may be some truth to that. The larger impact of the switch, however, was physical. Torres said he lost a lot of weight to play shortstop.
“I just got myself really skinny because I was focusing on increasing my range,” Torres said. “When I lost weight, I lost a little bit of power.”
Swapping bulk for quickness isn’t necessarily bad for a middle infielder. The problem for Torres, though, was he did not think about his trimming as a trade-off. A right-handed batter, Torres was trying to generate the same amount of power at the plate with a lot less force behind it, throwing off his mechanics in the process. After hitting 38 home runs in 2019, he combined for just 12 over the next two seasons — three in the abbreviated 2020 season and nine in 127 games the next year.
Torres hit the weight room after the 2021 campaign, knowing he would be making a return to second base, though it was unclear when the 2022 season would begin. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players’ union was set to expire in early December, and a work stoppage was seemingly inevitable. Before Major League Baseball locked out its players on Dec. 2, the hitting coach Dillon Lawson and Torres put together a plan to fix his swing.
“The big thing for Gleyber is him getting into a position where he can feel athletic, he can feel strong,” Lawson said. “Because he has such a big move, there has to be this combination of mobility and stability.”
That “big move” was Torres’s load, the movement he makes before swinging. He uses a high leg kick to build the momentum he transfers through the baseball at the point of contact, but it had gotten too big and uncontrolled as he tried to squeeze every ounce of force out of his slimmer build. This had thrown off his balance and damaged his timing, which affected his pitch recognition, swing decisions, bat path and hip rotation.
“People talk about trying to get into their back hip, they’re loading their hip,” Lawson said. “This is how you would generate more force. So when you tend to load better, more efficiently, then you also — it’s nice that it works out this way — you tend to unload, rotating into impact more efficiently.”
He added: “In 2020 and 2021, he was not loading his hips as well, so then he wasn’t unloading his hips as well, and he was having to try to go into more extension with the hips, which then can have effects on ball flight. It can have effects on bat path, that type of stuff. And so now you’re seeing similar loading mechanics to 2018 and 2019, coupled with more experience.”
When M.L.B. returned, so too did Torres’s power. He batted .257 with 24 home runs and a .451 slugging percentage. His .194 isolated power, a metric that measures a player’s raw power by subtracting his batting average from his slugging percentage, ranked second among the league’s second basemen, behind Houston’s Jose Altuve. Torres’s average exit velocity jumped 3.3 miles per hour from the season before, the largest year-over-year improvement in M.L.B.
Last year would have been even better for Torres if not for a career-low walk rate (6.8 percent) and the worst 30-game slump of his career. From July 30 to Sept. 5, Torres had a .441 O.P.S. and struck out in 33.9 percent of his 124 plate appearances. The beginning of this period coincided with rumors that he could be traded before the Aug. 2, 2022, deadline. Shortly after the deadline passed, it was reported that the Yankees had nearly dealt him to the Miami Marlins for the right-handed starter Pablo López. Torres has said the trade talks affected him.
This past off-season, Torres returned to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, where he grew up, to play in the country’s winter league. The homecoming served two purposes. He would get to play in front of his family and friends, and he wanted to improve his recognition of breaking and off-speed pitches. Most of the pitchers in the league are older and can no longer overpower hitters with velocity, so they rely on baffling batters with junk. His goal, he said: “Don’t strike out a lot.”
So far, so good. His chase rate against breaking and off-speed pitches was 22.9 percent entering Monday’s game, down from 26.3 percent last season, according to Statcast.
In Venezuela, Torres also rediscovered what it means to play baseball without getting caught up in the external stressors of being a big leaguer. The effects of this are much more difficult to quantify, but Torres looked far more relaxed during his recent skid than he would have been in previous years.
“Pressure is part of the game,” he said. “I’m more mature in those situations.”
Boone is quick to point out that, at 26, Torres is still a young player who is just now entering the prime years of his career. His ceiling remains incredibly high.
“When Gleyber is at his best,” Lawson said, “it’s a very balanced game that allows him to hit for a good average and have good power and good walk and strikeout rates, which then results in what we would call him being great.”
On Saturday, Torres went hitless in his first two at-bats, extending his slump to 2 for 30. Toronto’s starting pitcher, Alek Manoah, had allowed only one hit when Torres stepped in with one out in the seventh inning of a scoreless game. He quickly fell behind in the count, 0 and 2. Manoah threw a nasty slider low and away, the pitch Torres had worked to recognize better all off-season.
Torres loaded, saw the pitch out of Manoah’s hand and waited for the break. His hip leaked open a tad early, but his hands stayed back long enough. He waved at the pitch before it could dive out of the zone and flipped it into left field for a single.
It wasn’t a pretty swing, but it didn’t have to be. His next time up, in the ninth, he reached on an infield single. And with a single on Sunday and an infield single in the second inning Monday in Minnesota, he had built a three-game hitting streak. The process is working.