The Yankees have an overlooked bright spot with Gleyber Torres in 2023

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Yankees‘ biggest questions entering the 2023 season was whether Gleyber Torres could follow up a 2022 season where he finished with a 117 wRC+ and had 24 HRs in a make-or-break season for their former top prospect. 2020 and 2021 raised serious concerns about his power, and while he answered the doubters with a strong season at the plate, there were serious concerns about an August slump that saw Torres rendered completely ineffective for an extended stretch.

With a wRC+ of just 100 in the second half and an xwOBA that suggested he overperformed, Torres would have to follow up his strong season with a consistent 2023 campaign, and he’s done just that. In a season where a lot has gone wrong for the Yankees, Gleyber Torres is a rare beacon of consistency and excellence in their lineup, and he’s made huge off-season and in-season adjustments to get to the place he is now in his career.

Finding the Right Balance Between Contact and Power

Gleyber Torres has struggled with finding his contact and power at the same time in his career. From 2018-2019, Torres clubbed 62 home runs, slugging .511 in the process for a 123 wRC+, but that came with a 13.2% Swinging Strike Rate and 23.1% K%. Coming up at the height of the juiced ball era, the promising start to his career led fans and projections to believe that the Venezuelan-born infielder would only get better, and with their longtime shortstop Didi Gregorius signing with the Philadelphia Phillies after 2019, he’d finally get the chance to become the long-term fix at shortstop for the Yankees.

On the R2C2 Podcast, Gleyber Torres reflected on his transition to shortstop and documented that he lost weight in an attempt to gain more range and play a better shortstop, but that came at a price. Coinciding with the lack of juiced baseballs, Torres would hit just 12 HRs in 169 games, slugging .366 and posting a 99 wRC+. Not only was he still a lackluster defender at shortstop, but now he lacked the power that gave him a historic start to his career, and with the Yankees acquiring Isiah Kiner-Falefa to play shortstop, Torres would move back to his native second base position.

In his age-25 season, he would post +9 DRS and +4.0 UZR at second while hitting 24 HRs and posting a 117 wRC+. His fWAR (2.9) was over a win greater than his total from 2020-2021, and this was his clearcut best season since 2019. It wasn’t the 38 HR year that we got in 2019, but given a changing run environment, there was a lot to be encouraged by. Torres did sacrifice contact for power, as his Swinging Strike Rate and Strikeout Rate both climbed up in 2022, and he was a much less passive hitter as well, resulting in a career-low .310 OBP.

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Jul 9, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres (25) throws to first base during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

It looked like 2023 was going to be a weird year for Torres, as it has been for the entire offense, after an April where he had a 121 wRC+, he’d see it fall down to 106 by the All-Star Break. Still a solid offensive season, he had lost a lot of the power he had in 2022, swinging less aggressively (9.9% BB%) and striking out a lot less (14.1%) in the process. His profile mirrored his 2020 season in terms of wRC+, but with his OBP sitting at just .325, it looked like the Yankees were going to consider moving on from him at some point in the offseason.

The second half came with a shift in approach, as Torres wanted to swing more aggressively and generate damage contact, especially since he had generated a new career-best in Max Exit Velocity with a 111.7 MPH rocket against the Oakland Athletics in June. His strikeout rate has actually dipped 0.1%, and- his ISO climbed to .243, with a heavier emphasis placed on pulling the baseball and getting out in front more. He’s pulled 46.2% of his batted balls, and his bat speed has seen a slight uptick as well.

As a result, the 26-year-old set a new career-best in Max Exit Velocity (112.4 MPH), and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in his Exit Velocity (90.8 MPH) and Barrel Rate (11.9%), and while he’s chasing a lot more and walking a little less, this approach shift is one that Torres can stick with. With the increase in quality of contact, Torres has quickly mashed 10 HRs and nine doubles in 41 games, whereas in the first half, it took him 90 games to get to 13 HRs and 13 doubles.

I’ve mentioned earlier you typically need to sacrifice either power for more contact or contact for more power, we’ve seen Gleyber Torres make a genius adjustment to maintaining strong contact rates and have better two-strike at-bats.

That fastball JP Sears blew by Gleyber Torres in May likely doesn’t get by him in August, with his toe tap on two strikes allowing him to get to the ball quicker. When we take a look at the difference in results on two strikes, we see that Torres improved his timing and can get out in front of the baseball in those counts to still do damage on contact.

Torres has struck out more in those two-strike counts in the second half, but his quicker timing allows him to get out in front and drive the baseball, whereas the large leg kick in those counts has him more on the defensive. Aggressive approaches have their drawbacks, most notably in the fact that earlier swing decisions result in more chases, but when done correctly, they lead to hitters generating more damage contact, which can be a worthwhile tradeoff for the right hitter.

While subtle, Torres has made massive strides in terms of balancing contact and power, resulting in the lowest strikeout rate of his career by far (14.1%) and an even higher xwOBACON than his 2022 season, where he traded contact for power. It’s also resulted in his best xwOBA (.363) in his career by a wide margin, as his previous career-best was .340 in 2019. From a results standpoint, this season is his second-best in wRC+ (121), tied with his 2018 campaign, and just four points shy of his 2019 total.

For many, the Gleyber Torres conversation doesn’t just end at how good he is, it’s also about how his future in pinstripes looks entering 2024.

What Is the Future For Gleyber Torres With the Yankees?

After the 2024 season, Gleyber Torres will hit free agency following his age-27 season. This leaves a lot of questions about whether the Yankees will extend, trade, or simply let Torres go, and while we can’t definitively say which direction they’ll take, we can try to project what his contract could look like. First and foremost, we have to establish how the market typically looks for second basemen.

Among primary second basemen, only Marcus Semien and Jose Altuve make over $20 million a year, but both of those players had multiple seasons at or above 5 WAR, which is something Gleyber Torres doesn’t have, and that’s due to their defensive and base running value. Where Torres has -2 OAA and 0 Statcast Runner Runs, Semien and Altuve are brilliant base runners, and Semien, in particular, is a great defensive infielder. For those reasons, they got the $20+ million AAV over seven years, and it’s safe to assume Gleyber Torres won’t be valued at that price point.

We do have some recent extensions that we can evaluate to allow us to gauge what the market could look like for Torres, and these three players are much closer to Torres’ talent level and production than Semien and Altuve.

  • Andres Gimenez: 7 years, $106 million
  • Ketel Marte: 5 years, $76 million
  • Jeff McNeil: 4 years, $50 million

Gleyber Torres is likely going to get more money than McNeil, who was entering his age-31 season in year one of that extension. Marte and Gimenez are within $15,000 in terms of average annual salary, and both were younger than 30 years old when signing their deals, with Gimenez getting his deal following a 6.3 fWAR season and Marte signing his after putting up a 2.4 fWAR and 141 wRC+ in 90 games in 2021. Torres could find himself getting an extension that sits in between those two deals, and if we just take the median of those two contracts, we end up with a six-year deal worth $91 million.

This would extend him through his age-32 season, giving him the opportunity to hit free agency again at an age where he would still get a solid payday if he plays well. We can’t guarantee that Gleyber Torres would or wouldn’t take this deal, as he could bet on himself the way Aaron Judge did in 2022 and see if it results in the $100 million deal he’s looking for, or the Yankees could give him a seventh year under a player option that would raise the value of his deal to $100 million.

If Torres really wants the $100 million over six years, he’d likely be worth that, too. The AAV on that contract would be a tick shy of $16.7 million a year, making him the third-most expensive second baseman per season and giving him the fourth-largest active contract for any second baseman. To many, that seems like a misevaluation of Torres, as he’s only 10th in fWAR among primary second basemen in the league. The issue is that inflation, contract length, and players on that rookie contract muddy the waters on how much a player gets paid.

MLB: New York Yankees at Los Angeles Angels, gleyber torres
Jul 18, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres (25) hits a home run in the second inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For example, a six-year $100 million deal would still be less than Andres Gimenez, who, coming into 2023, was projected at a 3.8 fWAR, whereas Torres was at a 3.3. This season, Torres has outperformed Gimenez, and while entering 2024, they’ll likely find themselves extremely close to each other in WAR projections, it means that he’ll ask to be compensated at a similar rate to the Guardians’ young infielder. Marte and McNeil got deals with fewer years, so while the AAV could look similar, their older age led to lower contract lengths and less guaranteed money.

In terms of whether Torres will net the value on a deal ranging between $90 million and $100 million, his 2.5-3 WAR median for outcomes roughly comes out to $20 million to $24 million a year for him to return $8 million per WAR, the going rate for WAR in the modern age. Data even suggests teams pay closer to $9 million per WAR if a player is a 2+ WAR player, as in 2022, the going rate for players that accumulated over 2 fWAR that season was $8.5 million, and by that scale, we go to $21.25 million to $25.5 million for his average annual value.

This doesn’t mean that Gleyber Torres is going to get Jose Altuve and Marcus Semien money, but it means that if the Yankees can extend him on a six-year $100 million deal, they’d likely get surplus value on the market for his contract. ZiPS, THE BAT X, and Steamer have Gleyber finishing with a 3.1, 3.2, and 3.2 fWAR, respectively, on the season, and if the Yankees can continue to get that sort of value from their still 26-year-old second baseman, he’ll be a staple in the Yankees’ lineup for the next half-decade.

The future for Gleyber Torres in the Bronx remains to be seen, but there’s one thing that’s for certain, and that’s that the Yankees are a better team right now with Gleyber than without him. Is he the player that we anticipated he could be when he first debuted? Probably not, but should good instead of elite production warrant trading a player with plus contact skills and plus power at the age of 26? Definitely not.

It doesn’t help that the way Gleyber Torres is covered oftentimes paints him as part of a culture problem with the team and that his actions reflect everything that’s “wrong” with the Yankees. Painted as a lazy, absent-minded, and low-IQ athlete, Torres is at the mercy of those who cover him and the team, and unfortunately, there hasn’t been a fair depiction of the Venezuelan-born infielder.

As stated earlier, Torres is a net-neutral in base running decisions and slightly below-average defensively at second, and when you’re hitting at the rate Torres is, being passable at the other two aspects of baseball makes you a pretty good player. People often cite his errors, mental lapses, and poor plays that happen from time to time to say he’s lazy, and those moments are weaponized toward Aaron Boone to make it seem like the Yankee skipper is okay with a player taking a play off whenever they choose.

Boone has been on record saying that Gleyber Torres’ laid-back style of play helps him stay calm and collected, and with a career 126 wRC+ in the postseason and 122 wRC+ with Runners in Scoring Position, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t help him stay locked in. He does lead all second basemen in errors (12), but for a team that’s struggled to find any semblance of offense, is moving a 115-120 wRC+ hitter the right decision?

Here’s the real story: Gleyber Torres is a 26-year-old who’s tied for the most HRs by any second basemen since 2022 and is having their second-best season at the plate this year. Sure, the Yankees have middle infield prospects that could become above-average MLB players, but Torres, in his career, averages a 116 wRC+ and between 2.5-3.0 WAR over the course of a full season. As the Yankees graduate various prospects across various levels, they need as many established bats as they can to surround those rookies, and Torres can be that and more for this organization.

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