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40 in 40: Luis Torrens

After a career path that has been anything but normal, the young catcher is set up for a breakout at the big league level

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There is immense pressure in society to follow a limited, linear, and lionized Path to Success. It’s a spiel we all know by heart at this point: between ages 18 and 25, you have to graduate high school, then immediately enroll in college to get your bachelor’s degree, and after that, you make one of two choices: enter the workforce or continue your studies in grad school, and if it’s the latter, buckle up for at least two more years of higher education. This is the American Dream, honey! The tried and true way to a good, fulfilling life!

Of course, life is never (and I mean never) that simple, and it’s not difficult to stray off this beaten yet rigid path through no fault of one’s own. There are lots of things across a ton of spectrums that could happen over those seven years! Somebody might take a gap year (or three) to travel and sow their wild oats. Another person may need to drop out of high school and get a job to support a family or friend in need, and the crushing cycle of wage labor makes finishing that GED a distant priority. Sometimes a family member gets gravely sick, and someone who had been well on their way down the Path to Success needs to step off indefinitely, while longtime readers of this blog may remember a certain fellow who dropped out of college when he was 20 to move in with his then-girlfriend to a small town, if only to falsely prove to himself that he was an Adult and could handle The Real World.

The grind of the minors for any non-first rounder or blue chip international prospect (read: most guys who are drafted or signed) is held in similar esteem. What, you thought draftees would just be handed an opportunity right out of school? Hah! With the occasional exception of relievers, these guys need to first prove they can handle rookie ball, then Low-A, then High-A, then Double-A, and finally Triple-A before breaking in to the Major Leagues after at minimum four years of hard work and playing the game The Right Way. If they can’t do it, it’s on them and them alone. No shortcuts around these parts, babe!

Sometimes, though, they’re thrown onto a Major League roster a month before they can legally drink a beer, with no minors experience above Low-A, and all they can do is try to keep their head above water.

I’m certain that Luis Torrens never expected to be on the road he ended up taking - do any of us, really? Signed out of Valencia, Venezuela in 2013 by the Yankees, he held his own as a 17-year-old in his first professional action in the Gulf Coast League, making up for low power marks with strong plate discipline (13.2% BB%) and a cannon of an arm (45% CS%!). He kept it up the following year with Staten Island in short-season ball, posting a 115 wRC+ across just over 200 turns at bat, as well as a 42% CS% behind the plate. Still just 18, it looked like Torrens would rise both quickly and on the straight and narrow.

Then, a major pothole struck. In 2015, Torrens’s season was lost before it even began to labrum surgery on his right shoulder; a catastrophic injury for any player, much less a catcher. Would that rocket arm be even a shadow of itself after the long rehab a torn labrum needs? Ever the grinder, he made it back on the field for 52 games in 2016, spending the bulk of his time at a new level in Low-A Charleston. That great eye returned (13.4% BB in Low-A), and even more encouragingly, he kept nabbing would-be base stealers, with a composite caught-stealing rate again north of 40%. Having just left his teen years behind, it was clear that Torrens was worth keeping an eye on, and if he kept the walks up and the run game under control, it was easy to envision him breaking through to the Majors at some point.

I don’t think anyone, not even Torrens or his family, anticipated that moment coming as fast as it did.

In the winter of 2016, Torrens was selected in the Rule 5 Draft by the Reds, who immediately traded him to the Padres for cash and a player to be named later (who ended up being minor league outfielder Josh VanMeter). With 2017 looking like a miserable year for San Diego, they galaxy brained like no org has galaxy brained before - they opened the year with not one, not two, but three Rule 5 guys on their 25-man roster: Torrens, utility man Allen Cordóba, and righty Miguel Díaz. In case you didn’t know, Rule 5 picks need to stay on their team’s active roster for the entire season barring injury, lest they get offered back to their original organization. None of these three had ever played above Low-A, and Cordóba hadn’t even sniffed short-season A ball. You think we’re living in unprecedented times now? The Padres had the market cornered on those before COVID was even a thought.

To each player’s credit, they stuck it out the whole year, and while Torrens was guarded as much as a perpetual third catcher can be, he still made it into 56 games and collected 139 plate appearances. His results with the bat, predictably, left a ton to be desired. A 17 wRC+ alongside a putrid .163/.243/.203 slash line? Average exit velocity south of 86 MPH? An ISO of .041 and a wOBA under .200? Blech. He also saw less and less time as the year marched on once his weaknesses became apparent, starting just a half-dozen games over the course of the season’s final two months. If you’re really hunting for silver linings, his strikeout and walk rates (21.6% and 8.6%, respectively) were decent - especially when you factor in his age and relative inexperience - but that doesn’t mean much when it’s paired with miserable exit velocities and a BABIP of .215.

Beyond the dismal numbers, there were plenty of smaller moments that I’m sure he’d rather forget; after all, who among us has never looked back on our early 20s and cringed at our bad decisions?

For as rough of a year that Torrens had, it’s important to remember that there is no shame in struggling when you’re put in a situation before you’re truly ready, especially at such a young age. In fact, it can be invaluable help down the line when you’re looking back at what not to do. It wasn’t all flailing and failure for him, either - despite that cringey throwing error you just watched, his defense was passable, and he threw out five attempted base stealers for a CS% of 26%, which was right in line with the league average. Here he is throwing out Eduardo Núñez trying to take third, snuffing out a sixth-inning rally which paved the way to a Padres win:

Yeah, yeah, Núñez pretty clearly overslid third base. You can take points off if you’d like; I’m not gonna stop you. If you’re looking for something a little more convincing, here’s a laser to second to beat former Mariner farmhand Patrick Kivlehan by about ten feet:

He had his moments at the plate, too, and even managed a decent June, slashing .267/.333/.333 over 33 plate appearances. No hit, however, was more glorious than this bases-clearing triple against the Mets that proved to be the margin of victory:

With Torrens being relieved of his Rule 5 status after the 2017 season, he spent some time in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was able to play alongside established veterans and soak up information. San Diego assigned him to High-A for the 2018 season, where he was a regular player for the first time in his pro career. Racking up 515 plate appearances, the 94 wRC+ doesn’t look great - especially for a guy who got a taste of the Majors - but his gap power started to arrive. Smacking three dozen doubles and six homers (as many as he had had in his previous four years as a pro), he found himself back on the vaunted Path to Success, and opened 2019 at Double-A for the first time in his career.

Torrens got off to a rough start, going just 1-for-17 in his first five games, but quickly rebounded with a torrid eight-game hitting streak and didn’t look back the rest of the year. As a part of the Texas League champion Amarillo Sod Poodles, he tormented pitchers by way of a wRC+ that eclipsed 140 across 397 plate appearances, and was just 27 points in on-base percentage away from a .300/.400/.500 slash line. He wiped out almost half of attempted base thieves, bashed fifteen home runs, kept his strikeouts in check, put up an even .200 ISO with a double-digit walk rate, and as an extra twist, did considerable damage against our very own Arkansas Travelers, slashing .333/.421/.576 in nine games against them. Torrens was rewarded for his efforts with a September callup, one that was truly earned after his trial by fire just two years before. Though he only got sixteen turns at the plate and the slash line of .214/.313/.286 wasn’t much better than his first crack at the bigs, he had clearly taken a step forward, and his stock going into 2020 was the highest it had been in years.

Alas, the world shut down, and Torrens’s development stalled a bit without a true minor league season. He collected a baker’s dozen plate appearances with the Padres, and despite a solid .273 batting average in that small sample, there wasn’t much on-base skills or power behind it. Still the third catcher behind Austin Hedges and Francisco Mejía, it seemed like his window to make an impact was starting to close. That all changed on August 30th, though, thanks to the Mariners and Padres swinging a blockbuster trade. Torrens was one of four players headed to the Northwest in the swap, and because Seattle sent their primary catcher in Austin Nola as the headliner of the deal, a consistent opportunity was finally his, much to the delight of his family.

Indeed, Torrens played in eighteen out of twenty-three remaining games (sixteen starts) for the Mariners, and he seized his chance. While it’s just 65 plate appearances in a weird pandemic year, he was a joy to watch on both sides of the ball. His framing, especially on the lower edge of the strike zone, was a joy to behold, and that strong arm made a couple appearances:

At the plate, his .254/.323/.373 slash line, 97 wRC+, and 20.0% strikeout rate were all nice to see from a catcher, and there’s evidence that suggests he could be more than that. His average exit velocity with the Mariners was a staggering 92.3 MPH, good for tops on the team. Who would have thought! He brought plus bat speed, too, as evidenced by this double where he turned on 96 in on his hands and roped it into the left-field corner - at triple digits, no less:

Not satisfied with the starting catcher role and a solid slash line, Torrens also crossed a huge first off of every baseball player’s bucket list. On September 14th in the first game of an ill-advised doubleheader, he was handed a 1-0 sinker that didn’t sink by Jesús Luzardo, and did what one should do with a pitch like that:

To make a long story short, Torrens made perhaps the best first impression a catcher has made in Seattle since John Jaso, and in case you haven’t seen enough green flags in his profile already, he was a remarkably balanced hitter last year, with a spray chart showing a pleasing tendency to go up the middle and the other way:

Baseball Savant

Tom Murphy, by all accounts, is fully healthy and ready to get back into action after missing all of 2020, and Luis Torrens looks to be on the shorter side of a 60/40 job share at catcher come Opening Day barring injuries. Highly regarded catching prospect Cal Raleigh has also started knocking on the door, and if Murphy is back to his 2019 self, Torrens may have to prove pretty quickly that his thump and defense is for real. No matter what, though, he’s here to stay for a while. Like so many of us, his late teens and early twenties were tumultuous, with some high highs and some devastating lows, but Torrens will enter his age-25 season with a true, defined role on a Major League ballclub, and his ceiling is as high as it’s ever been. It should be a joy to watch him work ever harder to reach it.