Andres Torres: 2010's biggest surprise

You might remember this post when the Giants signed Andres Torres to a minor league contract:

Finally, Sabean does something worth applauding this offseason. Torres is one of the best kept secrets in professional baseball. He has gap power, and he might be the fastest player on the team already. His defense in center is Gold Glove caliber. He’ll be used as a spare outfielder, but it won’t be long until he fights his way to a starting job. When he does eventually make it, he’ll be one of the best leadoff hitters in the league.

Yep, I really nailed that one. It was just so obvious to me.

What? I wouldn’t just go back and edit a year-old post to pretend like I’m some scouting genius. For that would be shameful. But for most of you amateur fans, this Torres character really came out of nowhere. If you believe the combined RAR rankings for offense and defense on FanGraphs, Torres has been more valuable this year than Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Utley, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, and Juan Pierre. No joke, and those numbers don’t even adjust for Torres being a bench player for the beginning of the season.

Players come from out of nowhere all the time. One year you’re a busted first overall pick, and the next you’re a patient, middle-of-the-order slugger. Baseball’s funny like that. But Torres is different. Pick a memorable late bloomer -- Nevin, Eric Byrnes, Dante Bichette, etc... -- and you’ll probably find a player who was giving a team some sort of value in his late 20s. Maybe they weren’t hitting 30 home runs or batting .300, but they were on a major league roster, exhibiting some sort of average-or-better skill.

Torres had an OPS+ of 46 (.210/.258/.276) in 285 plate appearances prior to his first season with the Giants. He was a decent enough player in AAA -- a career AAA line of .276/.351/.410 is buoyed by the season he had for the Iowa Cubs right before the Giants acquired him, but it’s not a bad line for a great defender in center. But even the flashy .306/.391/.501 he had in Iowa only translated to a .245/.314/.384 MLE. Combined with his defense, that’s almost certainly a player who should be on a major league roster somewhere. But it isn’t the profile of someone who will turn into one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, even if only for a couple of months.

I messed around with Baseball-Reference’s Play Index for hours, and I could only come up with two valid comparisons. Admittedly, I’m still a Play Index greenhorn, but I really did spend a while looking. The first player was actually the one I thought of off the top of my head: Dave Roberts. Don’t ask me what that means in a cosmic sense, but Roberts was kind of puttering around as a nice AAA insurance policy, and all of a sudden he was ripping off .350 OBPs in his 30s for various NL West teams. He didn’t have the defensive skill of Torres -- he wasn’t really a center fielder at all -- and he didn’t have the power of Torres, so it’s an imperfect comparison.

The second player that makes sense as a comparison to Torres only makes sense if you disregard position entirely. Melvin Mora was a positionless AAA utility man in the Mets’ system, kind of Matt Downsish, until he was Melvin Mora, middle-of-the-order force and All-Star for the Baltimore Orioles at the age of 31. He was even better the following year, and while those two years were his best years, he didn’t completely disappear into the fluke ether as one might have expected. He was a nondescript minor leaguer for his 20s, and he was an All-Star in his 30s.

What does that mean for Torres? Well, nothing. Torres has only two months of All-Star-caliber play behind him this year, so let’s not get too goofy. If he sustains his otherworldly pace, it will be one of the more unique development paths for a hitter in major league history. If he regresses to something akin to Dave Roberts’s peak with better defense, he’ll still be a complete rarity. Players who futz around the minors before busting out aren’t a rarity. The ones who do it after they turn 30 are.

Last year, I exchanged e-mails with someone who helped Torres retool his swing. He wrote this about Torres:

The bottom line is that Andres is obviously a very gifted athlete who has received a lot of really bad hitting advice over the years (due in part to his great foot speed). All he was taught up until the last year or so was to slap the ball and try to beat out the throw. Now that he's studying and copying Pujols and trying to hit the ball hard, he's really been unleashed.

The idea that Torres had to rebuild his approach combines with this...

For much of his life, it looked as if Torres would one day be impressing on the track rather than the diamond. He was a high school sprint star in Puerto Rico, excelling in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 400 relay. Baseball was an afterthought until a scout handed him a business card during his senior year.

"It wasn't like I was trying to be a pro," Torres said. "I was a track guy. I've been made into a baseball player."

...to make me think, why not? As unlikely of a career path as it would be, why is it so crazy to think that Torres would have a longer development path than almost any other productive hitter before him? He was a hitter who a) didn’t really focus on baseball until he was out of high school, and b) was taught how to hit by people employed by the wretched Detroit Tigers organization of the late-’90s/early-’00s. That, combined with an exceptional athlete, sounds like a perfect storm for developmental shenanigans.

Over a thousand words in, just to get to this: Andres Torres has been awesome for the Giants. He has surprised everyone. I have no idea if he can keep this up, or anything close to it, but I’m hoping he does. He’s been fun to watch. Andres Torres, you beautiful creature, keep doin' what you're doin'.

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