Losing isn’t fun. However, for many teams in recent years, losing has served their purpose. The Detroit Tigers are among those teams, using a series of miserable seasons to propel them toward a brighter future by way of top draft picks. The plan is already bearing fruit, but things will kick into another gear this year. The Tigers are poised to welcome several more of their top prospects to the major leagues during the 2022 season, including our second ranked Tigers’ prospect, Spencer Torkelson.
Despite going undrafted out of high school and playing for the Arizona State Sun Devils, hardly a baseball powerhouse of a program, Torkelson earned himself national repute as one of the greatest NCAA sluggers of all-time. He was the leading candidate for the top spot in the 2020 draft for most of the cycle, and the Tigers wisely made little effort to hold him back as he embarked on a reign of terror throughout the minors in 2021. Now, he’s poised to put his stamp on the major leagues.
As a draft prospect, Torkelson was regarded as one of the safest players to come out of college baseball in years. Historically speaking, corner infielders who perform extremely well in the college ranks often have an easy transition to pro ball, and the athletic and powerful Torkelson checked all the boxes for the eye test. Though debates raged regarding positional value and the potential benefits of selecting a player with a more diversified skill set, Detroit had eyes only for the first baseman.
One of the first stats you’ll hear cited about Torkelson is that he broke ASU’s single season home run record, one set by the luminary slugger Barry Bonds. What’s more impressive is the fact he did so in his freshman season, less than one year removed from going undrafted. He spent the rest of his time as a Sun Devil accomplishing one statistical feat after another and finished his three year career as a .337/.443/.723 hitter. His final year, though it was shortened due to coronavirus, saw many teams just gave up pitching to him and he was walked intentionally a whopping 15 times over 17 games.
The Tigers made Torkelson the belle of the ball on draft night in 2020, and he’s done nothing to disappoint them in the time since.
Throughout stops at the High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A levels during the past season, Torkelson made life hard for opposing pitchers. Despite an early-season slump that dampened his first introduction to full-season ball, Torkelson never lost faith in himself, and for good reason. He wrapped up each stint as a well-above average hitter by nearly any metric. The easiest one to digest is wRC+, which saw him as a 48 percent above average batter in Double-A, where he put together the largest sample of games in 2021. Torkelson didn’t miss a step in a 40-game stretch in Triple-A either, closing out the season with 11 homers and consistent damage for the Toledo Mud Hens.
The most obvious strength Torkelson has on the field is his power. He doesn’t hit for quite the jaw-dropping distances that a player like Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge can reach, but he’s in the tier directly below that with bona fide double-plus power.
When reading scouting reports about Torkelson’s abilities at the plate, the praise seems to have no end. Here’s a list of attributes commended by various scouting reports: contact ability, easy power, discipline, approach, bat speed, barrel control, loft, finish to his bat path, timing, ball/strike recognition, ability to drive the ball authoritatively to all fields. In short, the entire industry is very sure that he’ll hit for a long time and do tons of damage at the major league level.
The results bore that out in 2021. Even at their worst among the three stops Torkelson made, his walk rate would have placed him in the top ten percent of MLB hitters, and his line drive rate would have been in the top quartile. Granted, minor league stats can’t be translated one-to-one to a major league stage, but those batted ball results and walk rates are two of the more controllable elements of a hitter’s game. Those some impressive figures that tend to drive results at any level.
Many might envision a power-hitting corner infielder being a poor athlete, but Torkelson is capable defensively compared to others with his offensive promise. He’s generally considered to have pretty good body control and moves well for a first baseman, where he played as an amateur. The fact he was announced as a third baseman on draft night speaks to the Tigers’ faith in his physical gifts, though that experiment was blessedly short lived.
Finally, Torkelson is particularly young for a player of his level. He was still 20 years old when he declared for the draft and didn’t turn 21 until after the signing deadline. Entering an increasingly youth-obsessed climate, the fact he’s been able to perform against players older than him all along the way plays well in the projection models that MLB brain trusts are increasingly using to aid decision-making.
It’s difficult to identify a major weakness that poses a threat to Torkelson’s ability to become a productive major leaguer. At few points in his career has he routinely faced pitching good enough to expose flaws in his ability to prepare, adjust, and perform. That will change at the major league level, and yet the relative flaws that may be exposed shouldn’t hold him back.
Early in the his 2021 campaign, Torkelson showed a tendency to be too patient at times. Probably a carryover from the unwillingness of college pitchers to challenge him, and the low wait between draft day and his pro debut, Torkelson would sometimes watch himself into a bad count by taking fastballs for strikes early in an at-bat. Once he got accustomed to being challenged again, that quickly dissipated and baseballs were soon screaming off his bat to all parts of the field.
At times, Torkelson could also be baited into fishing for breaking balls down and away. However, this wasn’t much of a weakness either, as Torkelson had little trouble recognizing breaking pitches and just needed time to calibrate his approach. By season’s end there were really no obvious holes, and a pitcher had to command quality stuff to multiple parts of the zone to really deal with him. The more successful were able to pound the zone down and away, keeping him off balance and limiting the damage done. Major league pitchers have the command to pull that off more consistently, but late in the 2021 season even that approach wasn’t successful as Torkelson started chasing less while driving pitches on the outer third hard to the right field wall and over it.
It is certainly possible that Torkelson may strike out enough to post more pedestrian batting averages than hoped, particularly early on in his major league career, but the power and discipline should comfortably carry him to very good offensive numbers anyway. The fact that he hits so many balls hard and on a line also foreshadows him outperforming league average BABIP marks.
The few other identifiable problems in his game aren’t likely to dog him too badly. For example, his footspeed isn’t good. He’s essentially a full standard deviation below average and that lack of speed limits him as a defender as well as on the bases. However, at first base, it isn’t an issue of concern, and compared to many first sackers around the game, Torkelson moves very well. There’s also not a consensus about how well his arm plays. Because of his suboptimal range and arm strength, some felt shortly after he was drafted that he’d be a better fit in left field if the Tigers didn’t want him to be pigeonholed at first. However, the Tigers have shown zero interest in pursuing that whatsoever. Torkelson isn’t going to provide any added defensive value even by first base standards, but with a little more work he should handle the position well enough.
Does any of this really matter much, though? The draw with Torkelson is the fact that he’s good bet to be a dangerous and highly productive hitter in the middle of a big league lineup sooner than later. There is a high likelihood that he fulfills that promise, and it may not take very long for him to get up to speed at the major league level.
Even projection systems, which are typically conservative in their forecasts, agree. Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projection system, for example, estimates a debut of 541 plate appearances for Torkelson this season. ZIPS expects Torkelson to hit 28 home runs, predicting a slash line of .249/.333/.489. Not where we hope his peak production sits, but a strong start for a rookie which would make the 2022 Tigers’ offense a far more dangerous one.
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
In a mailbag article back in December, Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic wrote that the Tigers wouldn’t hesitate to give Torkelson a spot on the major league roster if he earned it in Spring Training. Even so, it’s still difficult to be convinced that he’ll go north with the team. Without knowing where the Tigers set the bar for “earning” the first base job, it’s tough to gauge how likely Torkelson is to clear that bar.
Perhaps this really will come down to his performance in spring camp. If he absolutely dominates, the Tigers are going to be hard pressed to hold him down. Anything short of that, however, and it’s pretty easy to imagine the Tigers deciding to deny him the first full year of service time. Either way, it won’t be long before Spencer Torkelson is holding down a spot in the heart of the Tigers’ lineup.