He remembers the big lead he had at third base and the opposing catcher, hoping for a quick kill, firing a pick-off bullet his way, all during an Arizona Fall League game, Oct. 20, at Peoria Stadium.
Spencer Torkelson was playing for the Salt River Rafters. The catcher worked for the Surprise Saguaros. Torkelson recalls skedaddling back to third — and lunging for the bag with his right foot.
The heavyweight Tigers prospect, with a chance to start as early as Opening Day in 2022, wrenched his right ankle. His day was done. And so was Torkelson’s autumn in the AFL. The sprain was diagnosed as Grade 2 — 4-6 weeks, maybe 6-8 weeks, of recovery time doctors generally project.
Torkelson only wishes it had been two months, maximum. He still is getting therapy three times a week, although there are no worries about spring camp, whenever it might begin.
“I sprained it pretty good,” Torkelson said Tuesday, speaking from Gilbert, Arizona, where he now lives after moving into a swank 3,200-square-foot home there.
“The catcher thought he could catch me sleeping,” he said, remembering the moment from Oct. 20. “I got back standing up, but it was just the way I hit the bag — the ankle totally turned.
“It hasn’t healed as fast as I wanted. But my ankle specialist (Stanley Graves, Phoenix-based orthopedic surgeon) said it’s going to be great.”
Great, also, was his start to the AFL season, where MLB teams’ top talents convene for six weeks of desert dress-rehearsals aimed at sharpening skills and getting blue-chip talent primed for the big leagues.
At the moment he wrecked his ankle, Torkelson was batting .450 in seven games for the Rafters. He had nine hits in 20 at-bats and had lashed two doubles. His OPS was a muscular 1.157.
This was in keeping with his 2021 season on the Tigers farm, which saw him begin the year at high-Single A West Michigan, get bumped to Double-A Erie, and then to Triple-A Toledo, with Torkelson showing at each stop he was moving closer, rapidly, to big-league work in Detroit.
He batted a combined .267, with 30 home runs, and a .935 OPS. He is ranked by MLB Pipeline as the game’s No. 4 prospect, and is in a virtual dead-heat with outfielder Riley Greene as top gun on the 2022 Detroit News list of Tigers Top 50 Prospects.
What can’t be determined until spring camp gets rolling is whether Torkelson, 22, can crack manager AJ Hinch’s 26-man Opening Day roster.
Two hang-ups loom there:
When will spring training begin as the MLB lockout continues with owners and players sweating to forge a new collective bargaining agreement? And will Torkelson be able to so impress with his big right-handed bat, and with his comportment at first base, that Hinch and general manager Al Avila decide he’s ready for Detroit?
What you get, as Torkelson’s response to all this drama, is predictable:
“It’s out of my control,” he said, speaking following a long mountain hike in the hills with his girlfriend, Makenna Mattei.
What is within reach is his daily regimen as he works on that near-certain Comerica Park debut in 2022. It’s ambitious, for sure.
Monday through Friday, at 8 a.m., he heads for the baseball complex at his alma mater, Arizona State. There he takes batting practice thrown by his old ASU roommate, and current Sun Devils baseball graduate assistant, Brady Corrigan. Torkelson takes plenty of ground balls as well, but it’s the bat that’s everyone’s focus.
After workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, there are visits to the physical therapist for 90-minute sessions.
“The first 15, 20 minutes, they’re working on the ankle — scraping it and doing all kinds of stuff to decrease inflammation and help my mobility,” he said.
“I didn’t realize how important that (extended) therapy would be. But you’ve got to get back the stability in making quick cuts, pushing off the bag, and rounding the bag.”
Next in his routine, five days a week, is 90 minutes or so of perspiration-packed sessions at his new home.
Torkelson has set up a gym in his garage. There’s a squat-rack, a cable machine, dumb bells and assorted free weights.
Outside, in what otherwise is part of his yard, he has planted 25 yards of synthetic turf. Here he drags a cardio sled, loaded with maybe 135 pounds of weights.
“Eight reps of 25 yards,” he said. “It’s like a sprint with the sled.
“Yeah, it kind of burns.”
Results have been pleasing.
“It’s weird,” Torkelson said. “I’m eight pounds lighter (216) than I was last offseason. But I’m putting up (lifting) more weight.
“I’m just focused more on diet.”
He’s not going hungry.
In the morning, there is a breakfast burrito, cooked up by Makenna, whom Torkelson refers to lovingly as “pretty much my dietitian.” A fruit smoothie is included. Lunch is a sandwich and protein shake.
Dinner is “whatever sounds good, but it’s all home-cooked,” Torkelson said, with another bow to Makenna.
“My New Year’s resolution was no fast food,” he explained. “So, I’m doing pretty good.”
Hitting, of course, is his basic food group with the Tigers, which is where Torkelson and his batting-practice mate, Corrigan, focus each morning.
Tigers followers will recall that Torkelson’s right-handed bat was why Detroit grabbed him with the 2020 MLB Draft’s first turn. Tigers students will remember as well, with anguish, that things didn’t go well for Torkelson during spring camp last year when he spent most of the time loping from home plate to the dugout following strike three.
Predictably, he settled down once he got to the farm fields and put himself in place for a ticket to Detroit sometime in 2022.
When it happens is unknown. How it happens is known with certainty. He will need to hit big-league-grade pitching in a manner that convinces his bosses he’s ready for Comerica Park.
Everything, on balance, is headed north. Torkelson’s strikeout rate was 21.5% at the three combined stops last season, which is more than acceptable for a man of his muscle. Better yet were his 77 walks in 121 games, which helped account for that handsome .383 on-base percentage.
There is virtually no feedback between the team and members of a MLB team’s 40-man roster as the 2022 lockout wears on. There is limited conversation between clubs and non-40-man players, such as Torkelson.
But he knows what he must do during those morning stints at ASU.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve been working on hitting-wise is being as quick and simple to the ball as possible,” Torkelson said. “You watch any great hitter in the major leagues — they’re just so quick and pretty flawless in their swing path.
“There’s so little room for error with these great batting-practice arms and guys throwing 98. You can’t have any wasted movement with your swing. So, I’m trying to be as simple as possible.”
He was working with Corrigan the other morning when ASU’s new coach, Willie Bloomquist, strolled past the cages in the company of a Hall of Fame hitter: George Brett, the old Royals superstar and left-handed masher.
“He said something to me that was so simple, but so real,” Torkelson recalled. “He said, ‘Just hit it hard — not far.’
“It was a reminder to just focus on being simple with my swing and swing path.”
Corrigan knows how to help there. He was a one-time pitcher for the Sun Devils. He now throws mostly soft-toss flips to Torkelson during those cage sessions, but, Torkelson says, “He knows how to work the (pitching) machine. He’ll take it up a bit (velocity). He’ll throw me some sliders.”
And then he’ll get on with the remainder of his winter workload, waiting and hoping for an owners-players agreement and for the cue that spring camp is finally reality.
There already are plans to share a house in Lakeland, Florida, with Greene and with shortstop Ryan Kreidler, the Tigers prospect triumvirate who lived together last summer at Erie and then Toledo.
All that’s missing is an end to the lockout. And the start to what could be, for Torkelson as well as for Greene, some final tuning ahead of 2022 big-league debuts in Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.