At a time when young players are coming up and having an immediate impact moreso than at any other point in baseball history, New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres is among the game’s brightest young stars. The 23-year-old is a career .275/.338/.511 hitter (125 OPS+) with 62 homers in 267 big league games. He swatted 38 homers a year ago.
Torres has obvious power and innate hitting prowess — he is a career .328/.374/.617 hitter with runners in scoring position, which speaks to his ability to not be overwhelmed by the moment — and he’s rated well defensively at shortstop, his new full-time position following the free agent departure of Didi Gregorius. He’s an all-around impact player. There’s not much Gleyber can’t do on the field.
Unless we include baserunning.
In his two big league seasons, Torres has rated as a well-below-average baserunner. He is 11 for 15 (73 percent) stealing bases but there is more to baserunning than stealing bases. Torres has made 16 outs on the bases the last two years, one of the highest totals in baseball, and he is prone to mental mistakes. Consider this July 2018 blunder:
Torres doubled in a run to cut his team’s deficit to one (good!) and then needlessly tried to advance to third base and was tagged out (bad!). Had he stayed put, he would’ve been at second base representing the tying run with zero outs. That’s a situation where it’s best to play it safe and trust the guys behind you drive you in, especially given New York’s lineup. The risk of that extra 90 feet isn’t worth the reward.
“He put himself in a good position because he could see the play,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including Newsday‘s David Lennon, that afternoon. “And when he saw the (throw home), he took off, which was a mistake, obviously. And obviously in that situation there, with no outs and us kind of coming back in that spot, that definitely hurt and definitely was a mistake. I like the fact that he’s in position to make a read, but it wasn’t the right read.”
Torres is not a burner but he is not slow either. Statcast says his sprint speed and 90-foot sprint time are roughly league average. Not great, not bad, just average. Average is workable. Gleyber’s issue is not speed, however. It’s decision-making. Trying to take third base on the play above is a good example. So is getting doubled off third base on this play last September:
Where was Torres going on a low line drive? Beats me. Hitters are taught to freeze on low line drives and Torres instead took off for home, and was easily doubled up to end the inning. That’s not a speed issue. That’s an issue with decision-making. The instincts were lacking on that play.
Torres has taken the extra base in only 32 percent of his opportunities as a big leaguer. That’s going first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, etc. The league average is 41 percent. Among the players with a 32 percent extra-base taken rate last season were Nationals catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, two slow-footed veteran backstops with thousands of innings on their knees. You’d expect them to have a low extra base taken rate. Not a 23-year-old middle infielder.
Among the 114 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances the last two seasons, Torres ranks 82nd with minus-1.5 baserunning runs, according to FanGraphs. That’s not truly awful, but it is comfortably below average, and it represents a weakness in Gleyber’s game. The weakest part of his game, to be exact. He’s a great hitter and a very good defender, but a really poor baserunner.
The good news? Baserunning is a relatively small part of the game. Don’t get me wrong, an extra 90 feet can have a huge impact in an individual game, but across the 162-game season, baserunning pales in comparison to offensive and defensive impact. The best baserunners add about 10 runs a year with their legs. The best hitters create about 100 runs with their bats and the best defenders save about 25 runs with their gloves. Torres picked a good thing to be bad at.
Getting better at baserunning is much easier said than done. So much of it involves instincts and thinking quickly on your feet, and you can’t really replicate that on a backfield during spring training. The best way to improve baserunning is to actually run the bases in game situations, and react accordingly. With no baseball being played during the pandemic, Torres is losing potential reps and an opportunity to get better on the bases. Any improvement will have to wait.
Development never stops and that is especially true with 23-year-old players. As good as he’s been in his career to date, Torres still has a lot to learn at the MLB level, with baserunning standing out as the area most in need of improvement. As long as he hits at an All-Star level and plays a solid defense, the Yankees will live with the occasional baserunning blunder. But to become the best player he can possible be, Gleyber must improve on the bases.