‘It was tough’: Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson remains upbeat after spring camp struggles

Detroit News

One dead giveaway in appreciating the human psyche, in knowing if a person is dealing with bruises or with better days, is the voice.

Spencer Torkelson sounded — mostly — Thursday as if he had hit .370 rather than .037 during March’s spring camp at Lakeland, Florida. It was his first spring training with the Tigers, his first such ritual as a professional baseball player.

And it didn’t go very well.

As if the .037 batting average wasn’t reason enough to wonder about changing sports, if not occupations, there was the matter of 16 strikeouts in 27 at-bats during a long month of Grapefruit League auditions that didn’t quite reflect skills that last June made Torkelson the MLB draft’s first overall pick.

“It was tough,” a 21-year-old, right-handed hitter and corner infielder said during a phone conversation from Lakeland, where Tigers minor-leaguers Thursday began their first day from a second round of spring drills at the TigerTown complex. “I’d never struggled like that.”

Torkelson paused. And then a 21-year-old right-handed hitter and corner infielder’s tone turned brighter.

“But I’m actually glad it happened,” he said. “You get to learn off things like that, to not let you get in a rut, to understand it’s not the end of the road.”

Forgive those who thought differently. Who worried that Torkelson might have needed therapy after a ghastly Grapefruit League ordeal?

He had only one base hit. He had a surplus of failures. A player respected for his strike-zone judgment, appeared too many times to be looking at home plate through a microscope as he overly analyzed pitches he might better have been swinging at.

Called strike threes. Swinging strike threes. Torkelson became expert at that slow, excruciating walk from home plate to the Tigers dugout after yet another whiff.

“That was me just being in between, kind of maybe giving the pitcher too much credit,” Torkelson said. “Is he going to do that? Or throw this? By the time you’re done thinking, the ball’s in the catcher’s mitt.

“Whoever said you can’t think while you’re hitting is so right.”

But he was thinking. A lot. Thoughts were pounding at his mind and at his emotions. At the ballpark, and away from it.

“I was hard on myself — probably too hard on myself,” Torkelson said of tough moments, and days, that turned tougher as March wore on. “I want to win and wanted to show everyone why the Tigers took me No. 1.

“But I had to realize that they took me No. 1 is because of who I am, and not who I’m trying to be.

“Sometimes it wasn’t the right psychology,” he said of his more introspective moments after another tough afternoon. “You kind of second-guess your ability. But you’ve got to take a step back and realize it’s a different game, that you have to step up, without making excuses, and just compete your butt off and get on with the next at-bat.”

Torkelson worked out Thursday along with some 140 other Tigers prospects, ranging from teens to players like himself, athletes who a year ago might have been finishing up their college careers. This has been an initiation week for kid professionals whose boot camp convened more than a week after the Tigers’ big-league squad headed for Detroit and Opening Day.

It also coincided with the Tigers’ kids getting this week a dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine designed to keep them from developing, or spreading, the coronavirus.

Torkelson was feeling good Thursday about the J&J shot and the reassurance it brings. He liked more that he could work Thursday with players more of his vintage. It was 13 months ago, in March of 2020, that COVID-19 infiltrated college baseball and most of America’s everyday life. College schedules were shut down. An entire 2020 minor-league season was lost.

Minus a pandemic, Torkelson would have been looking at three months of games at Arizona State while tuning up for the 2020 draft and for a couple of meaningful months on the farm.

But after a four-month layoff working on his own, he was shipped to Detroit and to Comerica Park where he now was playing alongside Miguel Cabrera and Matthew Boyd and the best of the Tigers’ big-league crop. By late July, when a 60-game big-league season began, a “taxi squad” of advanced players, most with big-league experience, convened at Toledo as a backup crew to the big-leaguers.

Torkelson’s skills more than any first-overall draft status earned him a two-month stint at Toledo — and one more lesson in how sophisticated pitching can be at the game’s higher rungs.

He has yet to be picked on, so to speak, by players his own size — by young pitchers who are at that earliest level of professional baseball development. Finally, once this month’s rehearsals are finished, he will play minor-league baseball against minor-league competition.

The grooming for Torkelson is expected to begin in full at West Michigan, which is now the Tigers’ high Class A outpost.

Already, he can feel the difference — the fun of being back playing baseball after a week when he played golf and cleansed himself of any poisons that might have lingered from March.

Along the way, he has gotten feedback and a boost from those who know, all too well, how baseball treats even its best performers.

“Everyone kind of let me do my own thing,” he said, explaining that those same savvy players and counselors knew also that a bit of distance would be essential. “I’m kind of glad I got it out of the way right now.

“Everyone had their two cents to put in, but no one was in panic mode. They told me: Just stick to the process and it will come. It was definitely nice to hear from guys who’ve been in my shoes.”

A.J. Hinch, the Tigers manager, told Torkelson to “relax and have fun,” a command Torkelson said he took — successfully — into Thursday’s workout. Tigers bench coach George Lombard sent Torkelson a text:

“Loosen up out there,” Torkelson said, quoting Lombard. “You’re here for a reason.”

The words soothed a rookie who, he knows, is just that.

“I know I was pressing,” he said. “I wanted to show everyone what I could do.”

It perhaps didn’t help that Torkelson is also working on a relatively new position: third base.

It can be a beast, playing third, although Torkelson was happy with the way life developed there. He also enjoyed time back at his old college position, first base, where the Tigers might yet plant him, and where Hinch was careful to station him for assorted defensive cameos.

Everything else about a man’s first official spring in professional baseball is moving comfortably.

He and Riley Greene have moved out of the Airbnb they were sharing with Jake Rogers — he is part of the new taxi team in Toledo — and have a roomy apartment close to TigerTown.

It’s a continuation of better times, which Torkelson believes began during his last Grapefruit League at-bat, against the Rays on March 30.

Torkelson drove a pitch from Hunter Strickland that, had a typical spring Lakeland breeze not have been blowing in, could easily have been Torkelson’s first official Tigers home run.

“I grew up a Giants fan,” Torkelson said, speaking of Strickland’s earlier years with San Francisco, “and I remember seeing him in a Giants uniform.

“I think he had me with a couple of strikes and he threw me one, middle in, and I flew out to the warning track.

“That was pretty neat.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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