Why Spencer Torkelson’s real development for Detroit Tigers is a secret to many

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers third baseman Spencer Torkelson isn’t a secret. 

Being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft (and breaking a record set by Barry Bonds) comes with enough publicity. He quietly roamed summer camp with the likes of former MVP Miguel Cabrera and budding right-hander Casey Mize. He got comfortable at the alternate training site in Toledo with Riley Greene, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2019 draft. And now, in the instructional league in Lakeland, Torkelson is smashing the “Tork Bombs” he displayed for two-plus seasons at Arizona State.

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, it’s impossible to mistake Torkelson for someone else. He bats third in the lineup, with Greene in front of him — an imposing one-two punch.

For subscribers: Why Tigers fans should take this crop of prospects seriously

But in the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably haven’t been at any of these events. Fans couldn’t get into Comerica Park. The minor leagues were nixed. Only hints of information came from Toledo. Also, the Lakeland facility is a ghost town compared to the always energetic spring training.

That’s why Torkelson — and his well-rounded, mature adjustment to professional baseball — is actually a secret to the world outside of the Tigers’ headquarters.

“Torkelson is as advertised,” vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said. “He works the count well. He’s got power. He can hit. We’re trying him out at third base. He’s an athletic guy, great makeup, ballplayer.”

By now, most know about Torkelson’s 375-foot two-run homer in Monday’s instructional league clash with the Toronto Blue Jays. He put a 104-mph charge into a 2-2 fastball from right-hander Luis Quinones and sent it over the left-field wall at a 39-degree angle.

[ Torkelson digests home run after crushing a fastball ]

Yet they don’t know about everything else because people haven’t been able to see him. Focus solely on his plus-power, and it’s easy to miss the most important parts of his development.

“My trainer at ASU always said, ‘Your tombstone is not going to say: Stud baseball player, stud athlete, blah, blah, blah, your career stats,'” Torkelson said Monday. “It’s gonna say family man, great person, friendly, funny, stuff like that. I took that to heart.

“Life isn’t about hitting homers, it’s about being a good person, making an impact on other people and having fun. Because we only got one shot at this thing, and you don’t come out alive.”

A teammate first

Torkelson is wise for his age; he turned 21 in late August. A Scott Boras client, Torkelson’s contract with the Tigers included an $8,416,300 signing bonus — $1,000 above slot value. Still, he relies on Greene to drive him to the ballpark each day. They pick up a coffee on their way.

Two friends, just hanging out.

“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Greene said. “He’s a really good guy, works really hard. He wants the best for everyone. Just the person he is, it’s pretty impressive.”

For subscribers: Why Riley Greene might be the best Detroit Tigers prospect of all

Greene snagged a $6.18 million signing bonus after he was picked out of high school in 2019. So, maybe these guys are just a pair of prima donnas living in their self-idolized bubble.

Think again.

“You wouldn’t know what round these guys were drafted,” said Single-A Lakeland manager Andrew Graham, who is managing the instructional league squad. “You wouldn’t know how much signing bonus they got. They’re very humble, level-headed kids who love playing the game and want to get better every day. We’re going to have two great players there.”

That says a lot about Torkelson, who drew comparisons to New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso during the draft process. In 2019, Alonso cranked 53 homers and 120 RBIs with a .260 batting average, won NL Rookie of the Year and finished seventh in the MVP voting.

Torkelson’s humility was easily noted in summer camp when he walked around Comerica Park as if he was the visitor in Cabrera’s house — not the other way around.

Sometimes, it’s questionable if Torkelson truly enjoys the spotlight. He provides depth and insight during conversations with reporters, but when he focuses on himself, he shares points of personal reflection rather than proudly beating his own drum.

And in Lakeland, it’s rare to find Torkelson alone. He doesn’t mope around. He isn’t angry. Those are sure-fire examples of just how advanced he is as a person.

More than power

Just as Torkelson isn’t self-absorbed, he’s not a stereotypical slugger. As impressive as his home run Monday was to see, the layers of his game span much deeper than an annual 30-homer projection.

“We’re not here to just either hit a home run or strikeout,” Torkelson said. “We pride ourselves in our approach to know when you get to two strikes, you’re choking up, punching something the other way, staying alive.

“All winning teams get on base and score runs, not just striking out or hitting homers.”

On Friday, Torkelson doubled down the left-field line with two outs. Had the first inning not ended because of a pitch-count limit, he might have scored. On Sunday, he scorched a first-inning single off the extended glove of third baseman Colt Keith in an intrasquad scrimmage. In the third inning, he worked a walk.

For subscribers: What Spencer Torkelson showed in an instructional league game

It wasn’t until Monday that Torkelson homered. He almost crushed one over the center-field wall Wednesday, but it was caught on the warning track.

As for third base, Torkelson is still learning. He hasn’t gotten many in-game ground balls, so it’s tough to properly assess his growth. In warmups, his arm strength comes and goes — a byproduct of learning to be fluid in his movements. If things don’t pan out at third, he can always move back to first base.

“I played three years of college at first, so I was a 10 out of 10 there,” Torkelson said, grading himself. “At third base, I’m probably eight out of 10 right now, but I’m working hard to be 10 out of 10.”

Torkelson’s development shows he is a complete player at the plate. That’s not a projection or assumption. This is proof of what he’s able to do, and the Tigers hope he continues this trend of selflessness, slugging and supreme baseball IQ for years.

And Torkelson wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It’s my job,” Torkelson said. “Literally living the dream.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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