Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson has massive offseason ahead: ‘I would stay with this guy’

Detroit Free Press

Spencer Torkelson‘s swing is short, simple and compact without excess movement.

He struggles when he expands the strike zone and his swing becomes long and steep.

When he is locked in, like in his college years at Arizona State, his bat path is direct to the ball and powerful.

Torkelson, who turned 23 in August, said in early October he plans to keep his same swing throughout the offseason and into what he hopes is an improved 2023 season. His approach would benefit from more athleticism, and maybe a timing mechanism, but he doesn’t want to change the raw mechanics of his swing.

After all, that swing made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

“There won’t be any huge mechanical changes other than just cleaning stuff up,” Torkelson said Oct. 5, before the final game of his rookie season. “My swing works. At this point, it’s all approach and the mental side of the game, I think.”

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The problem, though, is Torkelson’s swing — combined with his approach — didn’t work with the Detroit Tigers in 2022. He hit .203 with eight home runs and a .604 OPS in 110 games. Mixed in was a demotion to Triple-A Toledo at the All-Star break. He felt pressure as the former No. 1 overall pick. He overanalyzed data and video in search of answers, often feeling overloaded with information. He maintained his composure, at least most of the time, but experienced too many downs and not nearly enough ups.

The Tigers need more ups from their everyday first baseman if they want to turn the corner and contend in the future.

“I don’t think it’s time to be delicate,” manager A.J. Hinch said Oct. 4, before his exit interview with Torkelson. “I think he has a large enough sample size to have to address some things to be a better player now. We want to instill confidence in him. We still believe in him. He’s going to be a really good player. This has been a tough year for him, but I think we need to go in the front door and not try to go in a side door or back door and let him know what he needs to be productive.”

Former Arizona State hitting coach Michael Earley, now in his second season at Texas A&M, built a reputation for developing hitters in part because of Torkelson’s success in college. Under Earley’s watch, Torkelson broke several Arizona State records and went from undrafted out of high school to the No. 1 overall pick out of college.

“Yeah, that swing works,” Earley told the Free Press in October. “From the mental side, it’s that day-to-day grind of how to be consistent.”

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Earley in 2020 compared Torkelson’s potential to Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, citing his combination of power and plate discipline. Torkelson hit .337 with 54 home runs, 110 walks and 104 strikeouts over 129 games in three seasons with the Sun Devils. He was disappointed with a .475 batting average and just one homer through his first nine games in his 23-homer sophomore season, but never experienced failure.

Torkelson knew what he wanted to accomplish and relentlessly pursued solutions to his questions, which pushed Earley in his coaching efforts. Both were obsessed with baseball and hitting.

“When it’s right, it’s as good as anyone, but it’s just about finding that consistency piece playing that kind of competition day in and day out,” Earley said. “This is something he can look back on as a huge positive in his career. It’s the hardest, toughest go-around he’s ever had. Knowing his work ethic and his makeup, all this is going to do is harden him and propel his career.”

Torkelson and Earley plan to meet again this offseason.

Before the 2022 season ended, Torkelson said he would step away from baseball for a couple weeks. He lives in Arizona, not far from Arizona State’s campus in Tempe, and recently welcomed a puppy, a French bulldog named Coco, into his life. He will start hitting by mid-November in preparation for next season.

“I knew that guy was going to be special from the day I met him,” Earley said. “And I still believe that.”

To get there, something has to change.

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The Tigers hoped small mechanical adjustments would show in September, when they recalled Torkelson from Toledo. He was sent down to the Mud Hens on July 17 and hit .229 with five homers in 35 games. The Tigers let him finish what he started in the big leagues, but he eventually returned to old habits and slumped again.

In an Oct. 4 doubleheader in Seattle, Torkelson went 5-for-9 with two home runs and two strikeouts. He snapped a 1-for-31 slump (with one walk and 11 strikeouts) when he blasted his Game 1 home run on an 85 mph cutter over the heart of the plate. He turned on an inside slider for his Game 2 homer.

“I think it’s just sticking to my approach, what I got going right now, and just hammering that,” Torkelson said. “It’s not really mechanical. The approach deals with the mechanics. Staying true to that approach and not getting away from it is going to be huge.”

The doubleheader was one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy 27-game return to the majors, batting .219 with three homers and a .293 on-base percentage. He hit .197 with five homers and a .282 OBP in 83 games before his demotion.

Fastballs and middle of the zone pitches were his weaknesses.

“It goes back to inconsistency overall,” Earley said. “I’d be lying if I told you I saw every pitch that he saw, but to be at the big-league level, you got to be on fastballs and you got to be able to hit fastballs. … He knows he’s got to be on fastballs and can’t miss fastballs. That’s baseball, right? If you can’t hit a fastball, you can’t play. And everyone in the world knows the guy can hit a fastball.”

Torkelson batted .224 against fastballs, .216 against middle-middle fastballs and .212 against all middle-middle pitches. Fellow rookie Riley Greene, the 2019 No. 5 overall pick, hit .283 against fastballs, .464 against middle-middle fastballs and .391 against all middle-middle pitches.

Torkelson had a run value of minus-11 on pitchers in the “heart” zone of the plate, according to Statcast, and minus-27 runs in the “shadow” zone. In the other two zones, “chase” and “waste,” Torkelson was a combined plus-21 run value. Early on, Torkelson displayed advanced plate discipline to help offset his lack of hits. He drew 20 of his 37 walks in his first 44 games, then 17 walks in his final 66 games. As his struggles mounted, he lost his feel for the strike zone and chased down-and-away breaking balls.

“The very simple essence of the game is swing at the strikes, take the balls,” Earley said. “He’s done it at every level, and he’s even done it at the big-league level, just not at a consistent basis. The more experience and at-bats he gets, you’re going to see that same guy. It’s funny. I’ve known him since he was a freshman, and he’s only 23 years old. That’s wild to me. For him, it’s going to be more at-bats and finding something that’s consistent.”

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The Tigers expected consistency from Torkelson. Growing pains were always expected, considering his early trouble at each level of the minor leagues, but the Tigers would have liked to enter the offseason with him penned as the 2023 Opening Day first baseman. If all goes as planned, Torkelson will compete for a job in spring training, win his spot on the roster and thrive in his sophomore season.

But that scenario is far from a guarantee.

Torkelson has a lot to prove.

“I would stay with this guy,” Earley said. “He’s just one of those people you don’t bet against.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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