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The early returns on Abraham Toro, Seattle Mariner

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My how a few weeks can change things

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In the past few weeks, the Mariners have played very exciting, very competitive baseball. So competitive that they went out and made some moves that are equal parts win-now and win-later. One of those moves was a trade that sent Kendall Graveman and Rafael Montero to the Astros in exchange for Abraham Toro and Joe Smith. Given the betrayal that players voiced immediately after the trade, you have to think that the Mariners think highly of Toro. And after nearly two weeks’ worth of games in a Mariners uniform, you can see why.

Toro had spent three partial seasons with the Astros, in which he put up pretty lackluster numbers. Over 308 plate appearances, Toro posted a .193/.276/.350 triple slash, with a 6.8% walk percentage and 20.5% strikeout percentage. Given that Toro isn’t much of a fielder, such offensive numbers aren’t exactly tenable.

What’s important to remember is that Toro hasn’t gotten a fair shake. He’s been blocked by Alex Bregman and José Altuve, and, aside from a few late-season auditions in 2019 and 2020, he hasn’t been given the benefit of regular playing time. It wasn’t until a significant quad strain from Bregman in June that Toro got an extended look. The initial results were better, but not quite good. But since his move to the Mariners, Toro has been one of the best players in baseball. And that’s not an exaggeration.

Obviously, that’s couched in the acknowledgment that we’re dealing with an awfully small sample, but we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. And what we’ve got is pretty significant improvement thus far. Let’s compare!

  • Astros, thru 7/26: .211/.287/.385, 7.4 BB%, 17.2 K%
  • Mariners, from 7/27: .438/.500/.813, 8.3 BB%, 8.3 K%

This, admittedly, doesn’t tell us all that much. Especially given that we’re working with 122 and 36 plate appearances, respectively. We can see that Toro has been absolutely raking, and he’s cut his strikeout percentage. But everyone knows that Toro was not good in Houston, and that he’s been great in Seattle. So perhaps the focus should be on what’s changed.

One of Toro’s problems in Houston is that he hit too many towering fly balls. To visualize this, here’s a radial chart, showing the combination of Toro’s exit velocity and launch angle on his batted balls, on both teams:

The darker shades of green are the most optimal combinations of exit velocity and launch angle. You’ll notice that Toro didn’t hit many balls in either of the darker green areas with the Astros. Instead, you see lots of pop-ups and balls at 30 degrees or higher that aren’t hit quite hard enough. In fact, a lot of them were hit weakly. With the Astros, 71% of Toro’s batted balls were categorized as weakly hit. With the Mariners, that’s down to 55.2%, again with the obvious small sample caveat that this is (and will be) subject to fluctuation.

Borrowing from the previously used radial chart of Toro’s time with Astros, what he needs to do is avoid the area circled in green:

circled in green is the danger zone

These batted balls are in purgatory. They’re not soft enough to fall in for bloop singles, but they’re not quite hard enough to go over the fence either. As it goes, the higher the launch angle, the harder it is to hit the ball at high exit velocities. This is essentially the idea of Connor Kurcon’s dynamic hard hit rate. Toro hits quite a few sky-high fly balls, but since 2019, Toro’s average exit velocity on his fly balls ranks in the 21st percentile at 90.0 miles per hour. For reference, that’s just above the likes of Ben Gamel and Oscar Mercado, two players who aren’t exactly known for their power.

The thing is, those numbers speak to a player of diminutive stature, or a slap hitter. Toro is neither of those things. He’s always been said to have more gap power than raw power, but he’s not the type of hitter that Gamel and Mercado are, rather more along the lines of a .200 ISO hitter. And he’s flashed some of that in the past few weeks.

There’s an argument to be made that this is just a blip. It wouldn’t surprise me all that much. But also, there is perhaps an impetus for Toro’s surge in production:

I looked at some video myself comparing Toro’s time with the Astros earlier this season against his time with the Mariners. I didn’t find any significant mechanical differences. That’s not to suggest that there isn’t one — the verbiage here suggests it’s still a work in progress — but I do wonder if there’s something to this. Timing was something I noticed that was improved in Luis Torrens’ swing after his Triple-A stint. Perhaps the same is true of Toro.

One thing that this brings up for me is that, when he was in the minor leagues, Toro was a very good hitter. At every stop of the way, he made his money as a heavy pull, heavy fly ball hitter. At the major league level, this is something he’s gone away from, and it’s corresponded with a drop in production.

It’s not only that it was the approach Toro used when he was raking in the minors. There’s also that hitting for power to the opposite field is a difficult thing to do. And he hasn’t been good at it! Given that Toro’s power potential is already limited as is, then he’s got to create more consistent contact or optimize his batted ball profile in some way. It would behoove Toro to catch more balls out front and send them up in the air to his pull-side. If they’re wall scrapers, they’re wall scrapers. A home run is a home run, and the easiest way to hit one out is to pull it. That’s something that he’s starting to do a lot more of.

As an Astro, Toro hit 28.6% of his fly balls to his pull-side. As a Mariner, he’s bumped that up to 50%, and three of those six fly balls have flown out of the park. Perhaps as important, his 24,1% line drive percentage since joining the Mariners is a significant departure from his career 18.8% with the Astros. That’s still a smidge below league average, but as my colleague Alexander Chase put it, that’s plenty fine.

Abraham Toro has always had the skills. Look no further than his minor league track record. He doesn’t chase too many bad pitches, and he hardly swings and misses. For a player who’s just 24 years old — and a switch-hitter, at that — it shouldn’t be a surprise that it took him a while to get his feet under him. He now has the opportunity to play every day in a way that he did not with the Astros. And for the Mariners, it’s looking like they’ve just acquired a young hitter that they so desperately need.