Torkelson building momentum despite deceiving numbers

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Spencer Torkelson was so enthused to see his line drive fall into open territory in left-center field that he could have floated into second base. Just in case, he stayed on his feet to leg out a double.

“One dropped!” Torkelson exclaimed after Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Yankees. “Gosh, I feel like I earned that one.” 

Yes, it’s one hit. But the way his Spring Training has gone, it was a dividend for a bevy of solid contact for the Tigers’ second-year first baseman.

One at-bat before his double, Torkelson was all over Luis Severino’s 2-0 fastball, lacing a line drive to left field. Unfortunately for him, it was hit directly at Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, who needed to move just a few steps in for the catch.

At 110.6 miles per hour, that sharp liner was Torkelson’s hardest-hit ball all spring, and the ninth ball he has hit with an exit velocity of 101 mph or better. The five hardest, and six of the nine, have resulted in outs.

The list below includes some of those plays:

• Two days ago, Nationals center fielder Victor Robles went into the wall to run down Torkelson’s 410-foot drive to left-center. That ball had an exit velocity of 109.7 mph and an expected batting average of .980, according to Statcast.

• Undeterred, Torkelson crushed his next pitch, a 97 mph fastball, to straightaway center at 105.6 mph. That ball had a .920 expected batting average, but it died just shy of the warning track for another out.

• Last Friday, he centered a drive off Phillies starter Taijuan Walker at 105.9 mph, but he lined out to center fielder Brandon Marsh on the warning track on a ball with a .770 expected batting average.

• On Feb. 26, Torkelson hit a 415-foot drive to left-center, nearly the same area as Robles’ catch, with a 105.6 mph exit velocity. Orioles center fielder Ryan McKenna covered 100 feet to track down a ball with an .830 expected batting average.

By contrast, Friday’s double had an exit velocity of 94.6 mph, half a tick slower than the pitch itself. It improved Torkelson to 4-for-23 this spring.

“I know we can look at overall numbers, and it doesn’t do him any justice [at all] with the barrels that he’s in contact with,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Friday. “Even the first one today was a rocket to left. His body position is in a really good spot. He’s picking the right pitches. The results are going to start to come.”

Torkelson is trusting in that.

“It’s not always easy,” Torkelson admitted. “But I feel really good in the box. I know the results aren’t there, but the results on my end feel amazing. I’m confident up there. I’m expecting myself to hit the ball hard every single time, and I am hitting the ball hard. That’s a win, and I feel like that really gives me momentum heading into the season.”

It’s not just about the hard contact, but the process that leads Torkelson to those pitches. He’s showing a little more aggressiveness early in counts this spring, after swinging at first pitches in 28.5 percent of his plate appearances last year — below the MLB average of 30.9 percent.

“I feel like sometimes last year I might have been in between [on] first pitch, so I didn’t pull the trigger on a good pitch to hit,” Torkelson said. “I just feel like, if I’m ready to hit, whether it’s the first pitch or the 10th pitch, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to put my swing on it.”

He’s using a slightly lighter bat this season, 33 1/2 ounces, after using a 34-ounce bat throughout his pro career. That move came out of his conversations at first base, where he’d chat with hitters about what they used. Mike Trout and Carlos Correa were two notable hitters using 33 1/2-ounce bats.

“It’s not much, but it feels a lot different,” Torkelson said. “It might be subconscious, but I feel like I have more time, I can kind of stay tighter [with the swing], which I like to do.”

He worked with the lighter bat this offseason. He hired a mental performance coach that he knew from his college days at Arizona State. He didn’t make big changes with his swing and kept his focus on hitting to the middle of the field, rather than becoming pull-happy.

The result is an approach that is yielding metrics that suggest better results ahead.

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