While Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, Matthew Boyd, Eric Haase and Matt Manning were meeting with reporters at Comerica Park last week as part of a miniature version of their old Winter Caravan, Spencer Torkelson was meeting with new Tigers hitting coaches Michael Brdar and Keith Beauregard near Torkelson’s home in Arizona.
It wasn’t an intervention towards a swing change, Hinch said, more of a get-to-you-know meeting to connect the slugging first baseman with the coaches who will be tasked with unlocking Torkelson’s power potential at the big league level, following a rookie season in which he slugged below the average of a team that finished next-to-last in the league in slugging percentage.
“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.”
Barring injury or something unforeseen in these waning days before Spring Training, Torkelson will get every opportunity to show whether he’s ready to break out.
The Tigers have made no secret that they want to use the at-bats and innings they opened up with their offseason moves to slot in and evaluate their younger players. Hinch and president of baseball operations Scott Harris need to figure out who might fit long-term, where the organization has depth and where it needs help.
Arguably no Tiger is as important to evaluate as Torkelson; the 2020 No. 1 overall Draft pick is critical to Detroit’s plans for building a lineup. Given Detroit’s preference for positional versatility, adding another first baseman this offseason was never a realistic option, but needing to solve the Torkelson mystery reinforced the point.
“We have other options if we need to,” Hinch said, “but clearly our best team has Spencer Torkelson as a major contributor. And we’re looking forward to seeing what adjustments we’ve been able to tweak a little bit, the new relationship with the hitting department. It’ll be nice to get his feedback on the year, to obviously let him decompress from a very stressful season last year.
“We want him to be a big contributor, because he’s a really good player.”
It’s not a vote of confidence, Hinch insisted. Bringing Torkelson back from Triple-A Toledo last September and playing him nearly every day — he was the starting first baseman for 26 of Detroit’s final 31 games — was the vote of confidence. Torkelson did enough with those at-bats to provide hints that he’s figuring some things out about himself and how pitchers approach him.
Statistically, Torkelson’s .219 average and .678 OPS for the season’s final month are slight improvements on his .203 average and .604 OPS for the season. His two-homer doubleheader in Seattle on the penultimate day of the regular season gave him three homers for the month to go with five doubles and a triple, producing a .385 slugging percentage that was his best of any month.
Statcast shows where most of his damage came from. Two homers and four doubles came off fastballs, a pitch that troubled him for most of the first half until his demotion to Toledo at the All-Star break.
Torkelson hit .264 (14-for-53) with a .453 slugging percentage and a 94.8 mph average exit velocity against fastballs from Sept. 1 on, his second-best month against fastballs behind only April. Unlike April, Torkelson had a larger sample size against fastballs in September/October (46 batted-ball events, compared to 18 in April). His swing-and-miss rate off fastballs was also lower in September (16.1 percent) than in April (25).
“We brought him up and played him every day,” Hinch said, “and he earned that by getting the ball to the pull side in the air a little bit, having more competitive at-bats in the strike zone. His overall confidence grew, and that led us to having a ton of confidence in where he was leaving last season into a busy offseason for him.”
Torkelson nevertheless finished as one of baseball’s least effective hitters against fastballs according to Statcast, with a negative-8 Run Value that placed him 241st out of 264 Major League hitters with at least 100 plate appearances (teammates Miguel Cabrera and Jonathan Schoop were actually lower). And Torkelson’s adjustment to fastballs in September cost him some swings and misses against breaking balls (37.1 percent whiff rate) and offspeed pitches (39.3 percent).
Still, Torkelson’s September work helped him finish in the top quarter of hitters for average exit velocity and the top half for hard-hit and barrel rates. His 82.1 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone essentially matched the 82.0 percent average for Major League hitters. It also matched his track record as a pro for being a slow starter at each level before making adjustments.
The Tigers need to figure out if Torkelson can carry that forward into the heart of the season. He’ll get the chance to show them.