Spencer Torkelson was stuck in a tornado of doubt and indecision for the first time in his life. He looked confused and overwhelmed at the plate in the middle of a slump that had lasted nearly 11 months.
And he had no idea how to get out of it.
“Don’t change anything,” Rick Torkelson, Spencer’s dad, told him. “You’re just as good a hitter as you ever were.”
Torkelson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, and the Detroit Tigers gave him a record $8.4 million signing bonus. Considered the best hitter in the draft, Torkelson looked uncomfortable and frozen with indecision. He was taking strikes, chasing sliders out of the zone and making soft contact.
“Looking back at it, that was the worst I’ve ever felt, ever,” Torkelson said.
Assigned to High-A West Michigan, hestruck out 17 times in his first 11 games. It was like somebody had put a bucket of kryptonite next to Superman.
“I don’t think he’s ever gone two games in any league anywhere where he’s gone oh-for two games in a row, ever,” Rick Torkelson said.
But this wasn’t just a few games; it was nearly a year.
Torkelson had been invited to the Tigers’ training camp at Comerica Park in July 2020. Facing big leaguers with vicious off-speed pitches, Torkelson was overmatched. It didn’t get much better when he went to the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo. “In Toledo, he did kind of OK, but not that great, not enough to encourage him,” Rick Torkelson said.
Torkelson then went to spring training in February and he had just one hit in 27 at bats. “It’ll come,” Rick Torkelson told his son. “You’re right there.”
Rick Torkelson talks to his son nearly every day, either by text or phone. He tried to stay positive, tried to stress glimmers of hope. “It was, ‘you struck out but you saw seven pitches,’” Rick Torkelson said. “I said, ‘Boy, you hit a pop-up that went 100 yards high. The difference between that pop-up and a home run is about is about three-eighths of an inch.”
Torkelson had never experienced anything like this.
He had no problem jumping from middle school to varsity baseball; he was a four-year starter in high school. He didn’t struggle when he went from high school to college; as a freshman at Arizona State, he led the country with 25 home runs and became an All American.
He never tasted real failure, real struggles, even though everybody told him it was natural.
“They were all like, ‘Dude, it’s part of it; literally everyone goes through it, just keep going, keep grinding, you’ll figure it out,’” Torkelson said.
But those words sound empty when you are going through it.
“We were both in the same position,” said Dillion Dingler, the Tigers’ second-round pick in 2020 and Torkelson’s roommate at West Michigan. “I had a couple of iffy weeks there.”
“He wasn’t doing as well as he wanted,” Dingler said. “But you wouldn’t know it. He was the same guy off the field. Obviously, there’s jokes here and there about sucking, as baseball players do.”
Then, Bill Springman, West Michigan’s hitting coach, said something that changed everything.
“He said this really cool thing,” Torkelson said. “He was like, ‘You’re building up these mental calluses.’ I’m like, that makes pretty good sense. You know, it really clicked with me.”
Yes, it clicked.
Like somebody had removed that bucket of kryptonite.
Torkelson got into a routine and started to feel comfortable.
“We knew he was coming out of it even before the statistics showed he came out of it,” Rick Torkelson said. “He was starting to hit the ball hard. He wasn’t striking out nearly as much. He was walking more — that’s always been his strong suit. Then, all of a sudden, that chase percentage was lower, and he was hitting the barrel more.”
Over a 17-game stretch, he hit .424 with five home runs.
This was the guy the Tigers were expecting. This was the college home run king.
And he was promoted to Double-A Erie.
“I think it was just comfort level,” Dingler said. “Once you start to get in a rhythm and get a routine, you feel so much better.”
ANOTHER ERIE STANDOUT: Why Tom Izzo would love shortstop prospect Ryan Kreidler
Now I got my swagger back
Torkelson looks completely different at the plate. The swagger is back. So is the confidence. And he’s hitting the ball hard.
“I feel unbelievable,” Torkelson said, after hitting three home runs and two doubles in his first nine games at Erie. “I feel like I’m seeing the ball really well and trusting myself.”
He’s learning how to pick up tiny clues and make adjustments — another sign of growth and maturity.
One week, a team will try to challenge him with fastballs.
“This week, they’re really soft, all the pitchers are throwing breaking balls and changeups,” Torkelson said while standing outside the dugout last week in Akron, Ohio.
So he sat on a changeup Wednesday night against the Akron RubberDucks, and he crushed a home run that hit the video screen beyond the left-field fence.
In his next at-bat, he flew out to the warning track in center field. “Guess I aimed wrong,” he joked.
He has a lightness about him now. He has such a likable personality — unfailingly polite and genuine — that Tigers fans are going to love him.
No, actually, they already do.
He is getting so much fan mail that he can’t open it all.
“He built himself a little man cave in our house,” Rick Torkelson said. “And we are storing his stuff in there. And I’d say a third of it is covered with fan mail. It comes to my office, it comes to our house and it comes to where he’s playing.”
Lessons from the struggle
Torkelson can look back now at his struggles and see the benefits.
“I’m really glad it happened because it really made me find myself,” he said. “It’s kind of knowing that if I get out of this, I can get through anything.”
That confidence will be invaluable in the future.
“When I’m in the World Series one day, and you know, I’m 0-for-4 the night before and I gotta bounce back and play the next day, or in two days, I can’t keep that 0-for-4 in my head,” Torkelson said. “I’m gonna have to flush it. I’m gonna have to focus on today and win today.”
In the World Series someday?
As I said, Tigers fans are going to love him.
“I learned that no matter how good you are, this game is very humbling,” Torkelson said. “The good ones will get out of it. And the good ones will stay hot longer. Everyone’s gonna go through their run, but the good ones get out of it faster.”
More struggles are sure to come.
But now, he has the confidence that he can pull out of it. He has already lived it. He has those mental calluses.
To stop that spiral before it turns into a tornado.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.