Why Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson looks so much better than last spring

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — About 365 days have passed in Spencer Torkelson‘s official climb toward the major leagues.

Since his first swings in a spring training game last season, Torkelson is a different baseball player. He has a full professional season under his belt. He climbed from High-A West Michigan to Triple-A Toledo, crushing 30 home runs along the way. He thrived in the Futures Game at Coors Field in Denver, part of MLB’s All-Star Game festivities, and looked like a top prospect in the Arizona Fall League.

The Detroit Tigers signed Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020 out of Arizona State, for an $8.4 million bonus. The 22-year-old is expected to develop into an elite player and the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense.

“I wouldn’t give it back, I know that,” Torkelson said of his draft spot. “But there was a lot of challenge that came with it, knowing that there’s going to be a couple extra eyes on you. At first, I tried to be a perfectionist. Like, I was ‘1-1,’ and I got to show them why. I thought I had to do some extraterrestrial things to show them why I was No. 1 — instead of just being myself.”

The pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick is something a No. 1 overall pick is supposed to handle. And Torkelson is managing everything just fine, but it didn’t start out that way.

There was the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing Torkelson to go without a minor-league season in 2020. Trying to get comfortable in pro ball while playing against the same group of teammates at an alternate training site wasn’t a recipe for success. Then there was the can-opener incident in spring training 2021, when Torkelson sliced his right index finger trying to force his way into a can of beans with a wine opener. A few days later, Torkelson slipped and ate dirt during a base-running drill.

Nothing hurt more than his performance: Torkelson hit .037 (1-for-27) in last year’s spring training with four walks and 16 strikeouts in 19 games.

“It was like a deer in the headlights almost,” Torkelson said. “I was just kind of thrown into the fire. I didn’t really have a clue. I was new to everything. I wasn’t prepared. I made sure I was going to be ready for this year.”

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Torkelson had never failed like that before.

He doesn’t talk about his long-term aspirations, nor does he want to get too far ahead of himself, but deep down, there’s no doubt Torkelson desires to be one of the best players in the game.

“He wants to be the star,” Torkelson’s father, Rick, said. “It’s not like he can snap his fingers, but he’s going to work and get better all the time. He very much wants that. He wants to be a major leaguer. He wants to be an All-Star. He wants to rival the best players in the game. He’s got high expectations.”

The right-handed hitter, despite a slow-start for High-A West Michigan, crushed his first season in the Tigers’ organization, posting a .267 batting average with 29 doubles, 30 home runs, 91 RBIs, 77 walks and 114 strikeouts in 121 games for West Michigan (31 games), Double-A Erie (50 games) and Triple-A Toledo (40 games).

Torkelson hit .312 with five homers for the Whitecaps, .263 with 14 homers for the SeaWolves and .238 with 11 homers for the Mud Hens. He had a 14.5% walk rate and 21.5% strikeout rate at his three stops combined.

“Being myself got me to No. 1, and that was enough,” Torkelson said. “It took me a little bit to realize that just being myself was enough — and some. That’s the biggest lesson I learned.”

‘We want Torkelson’

The spotlight hasn’t shifted away from Torkelson.

If anything, more people are watching.

“We want Torkelson in the lineup,” said Miguel Cabrera, entering the 20th season of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. “I’ll take the DH spot. I’ll talk to the manager and see what his plans are, but I am open to anything. I’m just here to help the team win.”

[ Tigers legend Miguel Cabrera wants Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene to make Opening Day roster ]

The third-base situation, looking back, didn’t make much sense.

The Tigers drafted Torkelson, a natural first baseman, and immediately told him to learn a brand-new position. In last year’s camp, though, Tigers manager AJ Hinch returned him to first base for the first time since his college career ended.

First base is where the 6-foot-1 slugger is most comfortable and profiles as an above-average defender. He won’t play third base in the majors unless he’s needed as an emergency replacement for an injured player.

“First base defense has always been overlooked until you see a good one,” Hinch said. “And then you see how that can impact an entire infield.”

In 2022, Torkelson is laser-focused on making the Opening Day roster. He is the No. 4 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline, and the No. 1 prospect in his team’s farm system.

Cabrera’s comment boosted Torkelson’s growing confidence.

“I look up to Miggy,” Torkelson said. “He’s an all-time great. It’s really special hearing that coming out of his mouth, and I’m really glad he’s on my side. It gives you some reassurance.”

As long as Torkelson doesn’t repeat last year’s misery, he should find himself in the lineup April 8 against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. But for the Tigers to be successful, Torkelson needs to be a top contributor for years to come.

This time around, Torkelson doesn’t appear overwhelmed.

So, what’s the difference?

“It just looks like he’s comfortable,” said outfielder Riley Greene, the No. 5 overall pick in 2019. “Same deal with me. … Last year, I felt like we maybe tried to do a little too much, putting too much pressure on ourselves. Now, there’s still a little bit of pressure, but being comfortable in so many different ways helps out.”

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Torkelson tied last year’s spring training hit total in his first game in 2022, hammering a first-pitch slider for a double to left field in the fourth inning Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.

He was prepared to ambush a fastball but adjusted to a hanging slider.

“I simplified everything,” Torkelson said. “Last spring, I was kind of all over the place, like, ‘What’s he going to throw here?’ I was giving the pitcher too much credit. I was like, ‘Yo, he’s in the big leagues. He’s got all this great stuff.’ But I realized, they make mistakes too. Being ready for that mistake is key.”

In five games this spring, Torkelson is hitting .333 (4-for-12) with two doubles, one RBI and two strikeouts.

“A lot more confident,” Torkelson said. “It helps building relationships with teammates, too. But I’m just a lot more confident. I have a lot more trust in my ability. I know I can play at this level.”

‘Stick to what got you there’

Inside the Tigers’ clubhouse, there’s another former No. 1 overall pick: right-handed starter Casey Mize.

The Tigers drafted Mize out of Auburn with the top pick in 2018, signing him to a $7.5 million bonus. He steamrolled through the minor leagues, made his MLB debut in 2020 and is now an established big-league pitcher.

The 24-year-old led the Tigers with 30 starts and 150⅓ innings as a rookie last season, to go with a 3.71 ERA.

“For me, there was a reason you were taken that high (in the draft), so do your thing and stick to what got you there,” Mize said, “but also be open to learning from others and adapting when needed. But focus on your work daily, try not to listen too much to outside stuff. I’m all about putting in the work and things will work out. That was my mindset.”

It’s almost like Mize, through his journey as the No. 1 overall pick, is sending a message to Torkelson.

Together, they’re expected to carry the Tigers.

“To me, he’s looked comfortable from the day I met him,” Mize said. “I’m very impressed with his play on the field. He’s such a good dude. Everybody in the clubhouse enjoys being around him. I’m pulling for him and hoping he makes the team and helps us out.”

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, less than two weeks into spring training, has noticed a significant rise in Torkelson’s all-around presence. Maybe it’s another year of maturity, maybe it’s the 30 home runs he blasted in the minors. Probably a little bit of both.

But there’s something different — in the best way possible.

“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” Schoop said. “If you can make adjustments pitch-by-pitch, you’re a superstar. Baseball is hard, so it’s all about adjustments. He’s making adjustments. I hope he can keep it up and get better — we all need to get better — so we can achieve our goal.”

Simply put, Torkelson has found his confidence.

With all eyes on him, he is eying a spot on the Opening Day roster.

“I learned a lot of lessons,” Torkelson said. “I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the game of baseball. I definitely grew a lot from last year, and it’s showing right now.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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