A sluggish start can’t stop the legend of Spencer Torkelson from growing

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When the Detroit Tigers drafted Spencer Torkelson with their first overall pick in 2020, the reaction was a near-unanimously positive one. He’s a transcendently talented hitter, with refined poise and patience to pair with his smooth stroke and impressive power. He brings the thunder in a way no other Tigers prospect can.

For all the superlatives [ed. note: and alliteratives] that can be heaped on Torkelson for his hitting, there’s more to Detroit’s prized infielder than his skills with a bat. By all accounts, he’s a personable and intelligent player with a fierce drive to succeed. That’s the kind of personality that creates an asset to the team, not just on the field, but in the clubhouse and in the cages.

Whitecaps manager Brayan Peña couldn’t say enough positive things about Torkelson. After the West Michigan home opener, the team’s skipper sat down for postgame media availability and overflowed with compliments for his star player.

“He competes. He gives you everything that he’s got. He really makes sure that, regardless what happens, he goes out there and gives you 100 percent,” said Peña. “I’ve never seen nobody who is working harder than he does. He is just one of those young men with a lot of talent. God blessed him with a lot of talent, but at the same time, he’s a great teammate. He’s very coachable. He’s willing to learn. He’s willing to get better.”

Peña’s enthusiasm to talk up Torkelson confirms what everyone already knew. The Tigers loved his production, polish, and athletic ability on the field. They loved his rise and grind mentality off the field. They loved his modesty and openness in interviews. When the team had their moment on the clock, he was always going to be the pick. The story doesn’t start there, though.

As 2020 draft coverage started picking up steam, it was impossible to escape the growing legend of an Arizona State slugger who broke the single-season home runs record set by Barry Bonds. Turn the clock back to 2017, and that was hardly the case. Torkelson wasn’t on the national radar as a serious draft prospect when he was in high school. He missed FanGraphs top 100 list. He missed MLB Pipeline’s top 200 list. He even was left out in the cold when the now-defunct Minor League Ball published their top 500 players. “I just saw a good high school player,” said Paul Mayotorena, who coached Torkelson as a teenager in California.

Nonetheless, Torkelson has always wanted to make baseball his career. When he became draft-eligible after graduating from Casa Grande High School, he naturally wanted to be drafted. When it became clear that teams weren’t biting, he even lowered his price tag in a last-ditch effort to turn pro. If a team had met him in the middle, he would have never been a Sun Devil. He would have never broken Bonds’ record. He would have never been the first overall pick.

“I remember saying, ‘If he wants to lower his number, the heck with him. We already have righthanded power,’” head coach Tracy Smith said, but the call never came.

Torkelson went undrafted in 2017, and he fulfilled his commitment to ASU. After working with him for three years, Smith’s assessment did a complete 180.

“Thank God he came to Arizona State.”

There aren’t many good things we can say about the year 2020. The baseball world didn’t escape intact either, as the major league season was cut to 60 games, and minor league play was rendered impossible. As a result, every prospect in baseball was sent on an unusual career trajectory. Even the ones who were sent to alternate training sites and the subsequent instructional league are on a developmental arc without mainstream precedent.

That meant Torkelson, who would have ordinarily spent his first months in the Tigers’ organization adapting to a professional lifestyle while wrecking Class-A pitching, was dunked into a much deeper pool at spring training 2.0 in July. His subsequent assignments to the alternate site and 2021 spring training camp have hardly constituted the pillowy landing often afforded to premium prospects.

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“You know, every day is a learning experience,” reflected Torkelson, thinking back on his turbulent year as a professional. “Whether it’s the struggles of early spring training or a tough first week, you take it with a grain of salt and you build off everything. This is a very humbling game, obviously, and if you take it too seriously, it’ll getcha.”

Those words aren’t just platitudes — Torkelson’s first week with the ‘Caps has been tough. Through his first five games, he hit a mere .160/.333/.200 with a .267 batting average on balls in play. He’s clearly struggled to make quality contact so far, which was a consistent problem through both of his stints with Detroit during spring training. That’s a far cry from the heights he reached with the Sun Devils. Don’t give up the faith so quickly, though. Torkelson certainly hasn’t.

“You treat the baseball gods with respect, I think they’ll repay it. It is nice to see strikes, and one of these days, I’ll pull the trigger on one of those things,” he remarked with a self-aware chuckle.

As far as fellow Tigers prospect Parker Meadows is concerned, there’s no need to worry. When asked about his impression of Torkelson, Meadows couldn’t veil the excitement and conviction in his normally laid-back voice.

“We know what he can do. We’ve seen it. It just takes time, and he knows that. He knows how good he is, we know how good he is. It could happen at any time — he could break out and go 5-for-5 and I won’t be surprised.”

There’s no one more excited for the Whitecaps to have Torkelson around than manager Brayan Peña. Despite the third baseman’s initial struggles, Peña couldn’t be less worried about his future. He’s sure that Torkelson will get out of his slump and is setting his sights even higher.

“We are not preparing him to be the MVP of the Central League,” said Peña. “We’re preparing him to be the MVP at the highest level.”

At this point, Torkelson is used to everything being a process. The whole of the 2017 draft slipping by without his name being called was a pretty emphatic way to drive that lesson home, but it worked.

“I think getting undrafted out of high school was the best thing to ever happen to me and made me work so much harder. It put everything into perspective for me,” he said to Arizona Sports.

Nothing drives someone who wants to succeed harder than experiencing failure. Being undrafted was a failure. ASU hitting coach Michael Earley described Torkelson’s mentality as being comparable to that of Michael Jordan. The competitive spirit isn’t an ethereal ideal for Torkelson. It’s built into his personality. For people like him, failure is less than incompatible; it’s totally unacceptable. Being undrafted again was not going to happen.

However, he needed to progressively demonstrate tangible improvement to make that happen.

“Nobody saw the power numbers coming because he didn’t do that in high school,” coach Smith said. “His recruitment was relatively simple. I wish we could tell you we were some gurus in the recruiting process but what we did like was the athleticism in the swing and he’s just a fierce competitor.”

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 19 Arizona State at Arizona

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However, the story of how he found his trademark power isn’t as interesting as you might think. “He’s a student of his swing,” coach Tracy Smith said. “When he works in the cages, unlike a lot of young hitters, he’s really in tune with what he’s doing.” Naturally, then, his jaw-dropping production was not precipitated by a major overhaul. Rather, it was a shift in his mindset that allowed him to unleash his full potential.

During a front toss session, Early challenged him to hit a home run as easily as possible. Thinking it would be tough, Torkelson was surprised when the ball started flying out of the yard to even the deepest parts of the outfield.

“It takes all your body out of it and just lets your hands work. He helped me realize I’m strong enough, my hands are good enough to not have to try to hit a home run. I can just put my swing on it and the home runs will happen,” said the now-renowned slugger.

In the end, all he needed in order to succeed was to see things from a new perspective. It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

The second movement of Carmina Burana sees the story’s narrator musing about the danger of arrogance. The soliloquy draws on the myth of Queen Hecuba, which would have been an impactful comparison to 11th or 12th-century listeners who heard the original collection of poems. The fictional queen’s excessive self-assuredness resulted in her eventual humiliating death.

Far too high up sits the king at the summit — let him fear ruin! proclaims the final eerie warning of the song.

In 2020, Torkelson was the king of college baseball. He sat at the summit, so to speak, when the Tigers made him the first pick in the draft. His selection wasn’t a choice, it was a coronation. However, being king isn’t all that’s important. It’s also crucial to understand that being humble may keep him from ultimately plummeting off his lofty metaphorical throne. He marks that as his most important takeaway from his time in the organization so far.

“I think the biggest thing from spring training is just being me,” said Torkelson with a smile. “When someone with my ability tries to be [something more,] they find themselves struggling. I had to learn over those couple weeks that being myself is enough. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned.”

“I don’t need to try to be a big leaguer in big league camp. I’m happy it happened then, and not in a couple years.”

Everything that Torkelson does now will impact what happens in a couple years, not only to Torkelson himself, but the whole Tigers organization. It’s good to get his lessons in early. The front office has gambled Detroit’s future on the farm system they’ve assembled, and he’s one of the key pieces to their vision of what lies ahead.

As far as the man himself is concerned, what’s most important is the now.

“I find that when I think into the future, that’s a no-no for me. I try to stay day-by-day, I focus on the day and see what I can do to get better that day. You put enough of those days together and that results in those milestones.”

His manager wasn’t nearly so humble.

“We believe that he’s going to be helping us in Detroit one day,” gushed Peña, “and he’s going to be helping us win the World Series.”

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