Once it was announced that Sunday’s tilt with the Cleveland Guardians was postponed for inclement weather, the Detroit Tigers had some other news in store. Perhaps it’s fitting on day one of the MLB draft, that Spencer Torkelson was optioned back to Triple-A Toledo.
The rookie first baseman’s struggles have been pretty dire at times. After a solid, if uninspiring start to the season, Torkelson’s numbers really cratered in June, when he slashed .167/.224/.205, good for a miserable 22 wRC+, nearly 80 percent worse than league average. Things improved significantly in July, but still with well below average production centered around a near total lack of power.
What’s been particularly interesting about Torkelson’s case, is that his swing decisions continue to be pretty good. Among all qualified hitters, Torkelson’s chase rate (O-swing %) is 42nd best in baseball out of 157 hitters. Typically, when a rookie is struggling in the majors for the first time, you expect to see them fooled by pitchers with much better command than in the upper levels of the minor league system. They chase sliders down and away and major league pitchers realize this and just spot their breaking ball over and over for whiffs. Or they can’t lay off the high fastball and are always good for a whiff up there when a pitcher needs to throw something over the plate. However, Torkelson’s decision making remains really good, especially for a rookie.
On the other hand, Torkelson’s 68 wRC+ lands him as the fifth worst run producer in baseball among qualified hitters. Jonathan Schoop is the worst over the first half, by the way. The league average for hitters is a 22.3 percent strikeout rate, and 8.3 percent walk rate. Torkelson is at 25.5 and 9.7 percent, respectively. Right in the average range. The problem, is that while he’s not striking out uniquely much, and he’s taking his walks pretty well, Torkelson just isn’t doing any damage at all. For a hitter hailed as perhaps the best college power hitter of the last decade, who seemed to hit nothing but thunderbolts in the upper minors, it’s been a shocking lack of impact.
The Tigers have optioned INF Spencer Torkelson to Triple A Toledo. A corresponding move will be made prior to the doubleheader in Oakland.
— Tigers PR (@DetroitTigersPR) July 17, 2022
The question is what the plan is going forward. Sending Torkelson down for a few weeks to “clear his head” is fine, but doesn’t really address the fundamentals in play here. Whether it’s a timing issue alone, or whether his setup or bat path needs some tweaks, something is going on here that doesn’t equate to the typical rookie’s struggles.
Torkelson is swinging at the right pitches for the most part. He’s making enough contact and hitting the ball fairly hard. His average exit velocity of 89.5 mph is almost a full mile per hour better than the league average of 88.7 mph off the bat. Yet he’s not hitting enough line drives, and he’s not hitting the ball hard in the air, particularly to the pull side, where he needs to be to capitalize on his power. Instead, he’s pulling the ball on the ground, and hitting it in the air to center field and right center field, which in spacious Comerica Park is not ideal unless you’re just barreling tons of pitches and driving line drives to the wall, a la prime Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez.
There is no doubt some bad luck in play, with a .254 BABIP, but the lack of barreled pitches says there’s more than luck working against him. He needs to make some adjustments, not just to swing at the right pitches, but to hit pitches where they’re pitched. He’s often been tied up inside or even down the middle on pitches he should lift out of the park to the pull side, rolling over to that side of the field or lining balls into left field. On pitches away, he may just be dipping his back shoulder too much, with the result of a lot of lazy fly balls and pop ups to right field.
Despite it’s roomy center field acreage, up the middle is pretty less than ideal for a power hitter looking to do damage in Comerica Park. Hopefully Torkelson can find some way to use the lines more, pulling it in the air and strafing hard ground balls and line drives to right field. Whether there are real physical adjustments required, or whether it’s just his approach that needs an overhaul, the Tigers need to find an answer. A mental break may not be worth much if they can’t address the underlying problems.
Torkelson obviously isn’t the first highly touted rookie to struggle in the majors. It happens all the time. Many figure it out, but some never do. Torkelson won’t even turn 23 for another five weeks, so he’s younger than average. He’s also been a good pure hitter throughout his college and minor league career, so this isn’t at all your typical, power hitter turns into a windmill against major league pitching, story.
As the International League has its break during All-Star week as well, Torkelson will get a breather for a few days before presumably joining the club at home against Columbus next Friday. Hopefully he can make a few adjustments there, unlock his power, and return to the majors in a month with a fresh perspective. We just hope the Tigers have some ideas to help him out, rather than just expecting a “mental break” to magically solve things.