After ‘crazy’ year, Spencer Torkelson finding his footing on climb through Tigers’ farm system

Detroit News

In an hour, he, Dillon Dingler, Billy Lescher, and nine other Erie SeaWolves teammates were to be on the tee, swinging golf clubs in a Monday scramble.

A day earlier, Spencer Torkelson had been working with his buddies playing baseball in a Sunday game that saw Erie whip Binghamton, 9-6. Torkelson had pounded a RBI double and two sacrifice flies, good for a three-RBI day.

Torkelson probably deserved an 18-hole vacation Monday. He has been busy the past year, if “busy” is your preferred word for “manic.” A quick rundown:

June 2020: Torkelson is picked first overall by the Tigers in the 2020 MLB Draft. Then, because of a pandemic engulfing the planet, he moves not to a minor-league team, but first to Comerica Park for a brief baptism with big-leaguers, all before he and others with either big-league stripes or high-minors badges are shunted to Toledo for two months of exquisite fun, locked in COVID-sealed apartments, playing each other in fanless intrasquad games.

July-August 2020: A 20-year-old man who had played first base for three years at Arizona State is asked by the Tigers to shift positions. Learning to play third base, on top of the other disorder COVID has visited upon Torkelson and all of baseball, is now part of 2020’s surrealism.

February-March 2021: Torkelson hasn’t had any minor-league experience but shows up at Tigers spring camp and promptly has your basic traumatic Grapefruit League experience. He hits .037, strikes out 16 times in 27 at-bats, and somehow avoids giving up baseball to live with the alligators in Lake Parker.

May 2021: Torkelson checks in with his first farm-season team: the newly promoted, High-A West Michigan Whitecaps. Finally, some semblance of professional baseball stability and continuity comes his way. He hits .312, with a 1.009 OPS, in 31 games and is hustled off to Double A ball at Erie.

Which is where Torkelson found himself Monday morning, dressing for the tee in a nice apartment he shares with Dingler, his Erie and Tigers prospect mate.

“No doubt, it’s been crazy,” Torkelson said during a 20-minute phone chat. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy. But I’m really fortunate for those experiences. I’m a big believer that I wouldn’t be where I’m at without those previous lessons and experiences.”

Some basic, overarching facts apply in any Torkelson update:

He is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound, right-handed batter who can bust exit-velocity guns and send baseballs on 440-foot flight patterns, which is how you become a first-overall draft pick.

He isn’t yet hitting for average in 33 games at Erie (.227), but his on-base percentage (.341) and slugging percentage (.527) account for a red-blooded OPS of .868. Factoring heavily in the OPS and slugging average are nine home runs and six doubles, which means 15 of his 25 hits for Erie have been for extra bags. He has 18 walks and 28 strikeouts in those 33 games.

Asked to identify a point where baseball began to make sense after his February-March nightmare, Torkelson is specific.

It was the week before Memorial Day. He had stretched a hamstring in a May 23 game at Appleton, Wisconsin — a mild strain, as hamstrings go. But it knocked him out of the team’s next four games.

“I really took those days away to get back into the weight room, sleep in — just go over some video,” Torkelson said. “I’d get into the batting cage with myself, one-on-one with the coach (Bill Springman), just kind of reflect on what was happening and figuring out a way to get better.

“And then, something clicked with my swing. I said, ‘All right, we’re going somewhere. We’re making progress.’

“First game back from the hamstring, I hit two home runs and just gained all the confidence in the world.”

Two weeks later, he was headed for Erie, along with Dingler, the catcher taken just behind Torkelson in last year’s potentially whopping Tigers draft.

Double A baseball long has had a crusty reputation. It tends to take big-league skills, in at least some measure, to get promoted. Once at Double A, players see the difference in ways that are meant to be daunting — and inspiring.

“It’s definitely different, I’ll tell you that,” Torkelson said. “I wanna say there’s a lot more maturity in that guys are older. You’re playing with guys who’ve been in Double A. Maybe they’re married with a kid, or a kid on the way. The dynamic’s different.”

And so is the pitching.

“Just like the locker room, it’s more mature, guys have a little better stuff,” Torkelson said. “They’ve got better command and they’re not afraid to throw anything in any count: 3-2, bases loaded, they’re not going to feed you a fastball.

“They’ll make you earn whatever you get. Even like when it’s 3-0, I think I’ve gotten breaking balls two, three times since I’ve come to Double A. That’s something I haven’t seen before.”

This, precisely, is what the Tigers wanted Torkelson, Dingler, and the man who preceded them to Erie — hot outfielder Riley Greene — to experience in 2021. If the three can handle Double A’s rigors, as all three have been accomplishing to different degrees, they move closer to a day when a trio of players, ages 20-22, can move to Detroit and help revamp manager AJ Hinch’s everyday lineup.

But nothing happens, neither an upgrade to Triple-A Toledo, nor that dreamy ticket to Detroit, unless they master their class at Erie.

“I think I’ve definitely progressed,” Torkelson said. “I came here and I was still hot coming from West Michigan, and that was an easy transition. No one had a scouting report, so it was: ‘Let’s see what this High-A (West Michigan) guy can do,’ and I made ’em pay for it.”

Fastballs, that is — fastballs you either fundamentally can handle at Double A, or you can’t. Torkelson showed that heaters weren’t going to beat him. It would take a pitcher’s full repertoire, preferably well-located.

“The last few weeks guys have really been challenging me,” he said. “But I’ve been learning, trying to find my way. I’m feeling comfortable. If I’m really confident a guy is going to throw a slider here, I might as well sit on it.

“I think my approach has really developed, situationally. Like, not sitting only on a fastball away, because this guy’s stuff is really good. But sometimes you’ve got to sit on a slider because that’s what you’re going to eventually get. You don’t get away from your approach, because, at some point, he’s going to throw you a couple of those.”

As for that other adjustment … third base.

It’s going smoothly enough, convincing the Tigers they were smart to expand Torkelson’s infield range and add luster to his overall big-league portfolio.

He is splitting time between third and his old home, first base, which is where he very likely could find himself, depending how roster mixes shake out in coming seasons.

“I’m having a great time over there,” Torkelson said of third base, where he has been getting heavy tutoring from Erie manager Arnie Beyeler, a one-time infielder on the Tigers farm, and later, a big-league coach for the Red Sox and Orioles. “It definitely helps having Arnie. He’s seen the highest level of third basemen. He’s been able to coach them, so he has good criticisms — little things I can work on every day. I’m just letting it happen, and I enjoy it.”

A few months ago, leaving Lakeland, those words — “enjoy it” — might have not have been the verbiage Torkelson would have used. But you are drafted one-overall for certain reasons. The reasons have been on display, at two stops since, with another, ultimate site in Detroit moving closer to Torkelson’s and the Tigers’ horizons.

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

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