Detroit — You expected the Tigers to sign a veteran first baseman this offseason, preferably one who batted left-handed. Names like Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, even right-handed-hitting Trey Mancini were bandied about.
The thought was that president Scott Harris would have to bring in someone to either platoon with or be a safety net for Spencer Torkelson, in case he was still reeling from a rocky rookie season.
But here we are, three-plus weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training, and Torkelson stands virtually alone at first base on the Tigers’ depth chart. Is that a subtle vote of confidence for Torkelson, or has Harris just not gotten around to checking that box off his to-do list?
“The vote of confidence came in September when we brought him back up and played him every day,” said manager AJ Hinch, who, along with players Matthew Boyd, Matt Manning and Eric Haase, were in town Thursday as part of a scaled-down winter caravan that made a couple of stops in the city. “Tork earned that by getting the ball to the pull-side in the air a little more, by having more competitive at-bats in the strike zone.
“Just his overall confidence grew and that led us to having a ton of confidence in where he was leaving last season, going into what was going to be a busy offseason for him.”
Torkelson hit three of his eight home runs in September, including two mammoth 400-foot shots during a double-header in Seattle in the final series of the season. It wasn’t enough to salvage his season, certainly, but it was a reminder of the talent that made him worthy of being the first overall pick in the 2020 draft and one of the pillars of the Tigers’ new foundation.
“We have other options at first base if we need them, but our best team clearly has Tork as a major contributor,” Hinch said.
The everyday first-base job, as it was going into last season, is Torkelson’s to lose. He lost it last year. In the midst of the worst hitting funk of his life, he was sent back to Triple-A Toledo at the All-Star break and didn’t return until Sept. 2.
He wasn’t hitting for power, wasn’t hitting much at all. He was not only striking out at a 24.5% clip, but worse, he was missing pitches in the heart of the strike zone. According to Statcast data, he hit just .212 on balls located middle-middle.
Always confident, perhaps too stubborn about making changes to his swing and approach, Torkelson’s body language drooped dramatically.
“It’s not easy to be under a microscope and struggle,” Torkelson said at the end of the season. “Just to show up every day with somewhat of a positive mindset sometimes was a win for me.”
That’s why the first thing Hinch told him to do at the end of the season was to go home and decompress for a few weeks. Once the Tigers’ new hitting department was in place (Michael Brdar, James Rowson and Keith Beauregard), adjustments were discussed, hitting plans were made and Tork got back to work.
On Thursday, in fact, Torkelson was in Phoenix, meeting with Rowson and Beauregard, who, like Tork, live in Arizona in the offseason.
“This isn’t a remake or a rebuild of a swing,” Hinch said. “It’s a young player who came up to the big leagues and got his eyes opened to the competition level up here and some of the difficulties you can face if you don’t make adjustments. Or, if you don’t feel completely comfortable with your stance or your weight distribution or your swing path.
“You can go down so many rabbit holes and get yourself in a really bad mind space. We like how he left in terms of his demeanor and body language and with the way he started producing in the strike zone.”
Torkelson is far from the first talented rookie hitter to struggle in his first season in the big leagues. Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Aaron Judge — they all scuffled out of the gate. But, it is a harsher, less patient or forgiving light that shines on first-overall picks.
“There’s nothing wrong (with Torkelson) as much as he needs time to develop,” Hinch said during the Winter Meetings last month. “We’ve got to give an avenue for guys to come up, succeed, fail, bounce back, make adjustments. I know in this day and age we want everybody to rocket to the big leagues. They’re getting to the big leagues so quickly, expected to make fast adjustments and be the player they’re going to be right out of the gate. It wasn’t the case for Spencer.
“But, he learned a lot. It’s probably the first time he’s really struggled at baseball, and specifically, hitting. And when he came back, he was in a much better mental space, a much better physical space to be good.”
The Tigers are banking on Torkelson being better than good. They didn’t add any proven hitters to the roster this offseason. Not as of Thursday, anyway. The offensive improvement is going to come through bounce-back seasons (Jonathan Schoop, Javier Baez, Austin Meadows) and the development of a big batch of promising young talent (Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter, Akil Baddoo, Matt Vierling, Nick Maton, Ryan Kreidler and Torkelson).
There is no contingency plan in place for Torkelson. If they have to audible later on, so be it. Right now, there is only a plan of support and development. When asked about his expectations for Tork this season, Hinch talked more about process than results, more about mental readiness than mechanics.
“My expectations are for Tork to be himself and bring his best self every day,” Hinch said. “The numbers will speak for themselves. Whether he can stay within that plan, what he can do against elite pitching, how he reacts to an 0-for-20 versus a 10-for-20 — these are all growing and maturity things that will happen.
“The results are the results. But to me, solidifying his process will get him the results.”
Torkelson, by now, should have shed all the emotional baggage he dragged alongside him last season. Experiencing failure for the first time in his life and doing it on the game’s biggest stage, struggling to understand how he kept mis-hitting pitches he’d always clobbered, walking up to the plate and seeing a sub-.200 batting average and single-digit home run totals under his picture — starting next month, he’s not the victim of that stuff anymore.
There’s a new chapter to write.
“We’re facing the best people in the world and he was doing it at a super young age with very few at-bats in the minor leagues to reflect on,” Hinch said. “It was probably part mechanical, part approach, part trying to survive, trying to stay up … All those are big hills to climb.
“I think the more consistent he can become with his setup, the better he will be. His pitch decision-making is pretty good. Hit bat-to-ball skills are really good. Ironically, for whatever reasons, he was missing more balls inside the strike zone than chasing. But, he’s going to be a pretty good player. There’s no worry about that.”