Gleyber Torres’ recent struggles have made it easy to forget the player he once was for the New York Yankees. In his debut season, he hit 24 home runs, which was an impressive total for a middle infielder, let alone for a 21-year-old rookie. A year later he hit 38, which was an impressive total for anyone.
But in the three years since, Torres’ reputation as a slugger has evaporated. He hit three home runs in an abbreviated 2020, and only nine in 2021. He appeared to be bouncing back this year, but his bat has gone cold since the All-Star break.
Last season, an interesting narrative developed around Torres. His offensive struggles were blamed on his shift from second base to shortstop. That was because in 2020 Torres took over as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop when Didi Gregorius departed. That season was a big disappointment for Torres, defensively and offensively.
The tailspin continued into 2021, when Torres put up his first below-average offensive season (a wRC+ of 95).
Finally, in late 2021, Torres was moved back from second base to shortstop. It seemed to help. He put up a .300 average in his 19 games at second base versus a .251 average in his 107 games at shortstop.
And Torres’ success continued into 2022. He hit 14 home runs and batted .268 during the first half of the season. 2022 is also his best defensive year to date. Had his profile not shrunk so much over the past two years, he very well could have returned to the All-Star Game.
But after the Yankees put up a historically bad August, Torres (along with pretty much every Yankee not named Aaron Judge) is once again on the suspect list. So, this raises the question: was the psychological struggle of being a shortstop really the only thing holding Torres back from reaching his peak performance?
The notion that Torres was uncomfortable at shortstop is a believable theory, but it has its limitations. Firstly, when the Yankees acquired him from the Cubs, shortstop was his primary position in the minor leagues. And it continued to be until the Yankees called him up to the majors.
Secondly, 2019 was Torres’ best year. And in 2019, Torres played more games at shortstop (75) than he did at second base (64)! In those 75 games he hit 25 home runs and 16 doubles while batting .289; all better numbers than he put up in the 64 games at second.
Thirdly, the psychological challenges Torres faced in 2020 can’t be oversimplified to mere a positional switch. That was also COVID-19 pandemic shortened campaign that threw off countless players.
On top of that, the idea of Torres playing shortstop in 2020 was different than in it had been 2019. In 2019, Torres was filling in for an injured Didi Gregorius. In 2020, he was replacing Gregorius. Could the pressure or even guilt of having to replace a friend and mentor have affected Torres’ comfort on the field?
And finally, when Torres was struggling in 2021, the pressure to be a great shortstop couldn’t have been higher. With Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story all set to hit free agency, Torres had to show up to work every day knowing his job was very much on the line.
The placebo-effect refers to people benefiting from medical treatment despite receiving medicine that is either completely fake or contains insufficient ingredients to explain all of a patient’s healing.
It would seem that Gleyber Torres’ problem was not simply that he was playing shortstop. It seems that Torres buying into the idea that playing shortstop was the cause of his offensive ailments followed by the brief improvement at the plate after he was moved back to second base was the real issue.
But because placebos are not real, their effects can wear off once the placebo stops feeling exciting and new. By mid-2022, Torres had likely grown used to the idea that he was a second baseman. Getting to play second was no longer an exciting change, but a mundane job. Part of his everyday routine.
Perhaps that started to take hold in the second half of 2022, which now explains his largely pedestrian stats on the season.
So now it’s up to Aaron Boone and his coaching staff to work some motivational magic. What can get Torres out of his current mindset and help him re-achieve his peak form? It would be great if the Yankees found another placebo for Torres, but unfortunately, the option of a position switch is no longer on the table. This will take some more creative thinking.