Henning: Tigers have plan for Spencer Torkelson: Get that old bat aggression back

Detroit News

A player who for nearly four months has been working for the Tigers, accepting big-league baseball’s bliss and its bruises, suddenly returns to Triple A.

It is a blow. He has essentially been told that, for all his talents, he failed. He must be further schooled. In the minors.

Lloyd McClendon, who manages the Toledo Mud Hens, knows these moments are more a psychological than physical challenge.

Spencer Torkelson arrived at the Mud Hens clubhouse Friday at Fifth Third Field in Toledo. He is a celebrity prospect. He was drafted first among all players in 2020.

He was batting .197 in 83 games for the Tigers in 2022, with a .282 on-base percentage. It tells you Torkelson’s mind was scrambled when his balls-strikes judgment is one of the reasons he was, and is, a prized 22-year-old hitter.

It was McClendon’s job, in consultation with the Tigers, to restore and repair Torkelson, beginning with his baseball psyche.

“I think the most important thing is to have him listening to just one voice,” said McClendon, outlining the Torkelson strategy, which calls for pretty much exclusive attention from Adam Melhuse, Toledo’s hitting coach.

“Adam knows him very well. He had him in Double A (last season, at Erie). He knows his swing.

“The biggest thing for him is coming down (Toledo) and having some success. Then you start to feel good about yourself.”

McClendon says the blueprint for Torkelson parallels the Tigers’ plan for Akil Baddoo, last year’s bust-out star, who had issues this spring and needed re-tooling at Toledo. Baddoo now is back — not yet hitting, but back because his Toledo time was judged to have done its job.

“It was the same thing with Akil,” McClendon said. “He just needed to get some confidence.

“He’ll be fine (Torkelson). In these situations, the one thing we have to be careful about is having a lot of different voices talking. Adam knows him, and that’s a big plus.”

It’s early in his Toledo hiatus. Two games heading into Sunday’s duel against Columbus at Fifth Third Field. Torkelson was 1-for-4, with a RBI single Friday; 0-for-4, with a pair of strikeouts Saturday.

It’s baseball, after all …

McClendon played eight years in the big leagues. He identifies with Torkelson’s spring-summer stresses. And what he was feeling as he arrived Friday — for a Triple-A game.

“I’ve been there,” McClendon said, speaking of those dark nights, and days, hitters experience, especially when they’re first trying to crack the big leagues. “You step in and it’s 0-and-2.

“The umpire calls strike two and it’s like, ‘Damn, can I get in (the box) first?’

“It’s not easy, especially when you’re young.”

What anyone following Torkelson could see as a refresher course at Toledo drew near was tentativeness.

He is a strike-zone student. Chasing bad pitches is sin to be sworn off.

But you can become too scrupulous.

As the spring and pressures slowly seeped into his approach, Torkelson began losing his slasher’s mindset. He became too choosy. Too selective. Too late in identifying a pitch he should have been bashing.

A spinning slider that he should have been sending halfway to Mars — as he did against Brad Keller of the Royals in an April 15 game at Kansas City — was suddenly turning into, at best, a roped double down the left-field line.

And so there was little choice at the All-Star break but to give him a break — from MLB demands and urgencies.

What will happen, probably, is Torkelson will begin to relax, or simply tire of being taut. He will rediscover his old aggression. He then will want to ambush pitches. His mind will set in motion a sequence of responses that will restore that old slasher’s psyche.

He has shown it before, on all levels, including against big-league pitching. He also has shown the reverse, as he did a year ago at spring camp.

But once he was able to tuck away that Florida learning experience as being just that — a hard lesson in hitting’s realities — he got back into an attack mode. And he had a prodigious 2021, at three levels on the farm. He followed with a big 2022 spring camp, reversing last year’s nightmare.

The up-down pattern continued, not surprisingly, during those first three months in Detroit.

He will be back. Maybe soon. Or, maybe not until next spring. They’ll see how it goes.

But there is a reason this man was nearly universally regarded as the best amateur hitter in all of baseball two years ago, and why his swing, and strength, and batting eye, all but guaranteed a long and prosperous ride in the big leagues.

He is super-talented. He is 22.

That’s all, really, that need be said.

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

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