Jupiter, Fla. — So many at-bats like this one got away from Spencer Torkelson last season. Get into a two-strike count, missing badly on a breaking ball, get fixated on that breaking ball and then either get frozen by a fastball or chase one out of the strike zone.
He’s such a different hitter right now.
Against lefty Matthew Liberatore in the fifth inning of the Tigers’ 8-4 spring loss to the Cardinals Saturday, Torkelson saw two of Liberatore’s big-breaking curveballs, taking one for a strike and then swinging and missing on the other.
But he didn’t even flinch at the 2-2 fastball (95 mph), leaving it up and out of the strike zone. And then he stayed on a 3-2 fastball up and away and drove it over the fence in right field — his first spring homer.
“It’s always great to see the first one go out,” said Torkelson, who hit a rocket single to left field in his next at-bat. “But you know me. I’m just going to keep doing my thing and trust the results are going to happen.”
Torkelson, almost every day, is validating the Tigers’ trust. After his struggles last season, after his mid-season demotion to Triple-A, the club did not bring in another first baseman to challenge him this spring. From Day One, they made it known that Torkelson was going to be the first baseman this season.
“It’s just belief,” manager AJ Hinch said. “We know he’s a good player. We knew he needed experience. We knew he made a lot of adjustments from September into the winter. And we believe in him as a player. And the way you demonstrate that is by trusting him and by putting him in a position to be the good player that he is.
“For me, it was easy because of the talent he has.”
Torkelson, the first overall pick in the draft in 2020, has been hitting balls on the barrel all spring. All the things he wasn’t doing last season, hitting high-velocity fastballs, doing damage on pitches in the heart of the plate, staying in at-bats longer — he’s been doing this spring.
His home run at-bat Saturday was a perfect illustration of his maturity at the plate.
“With the count 3-2, I’m just trying to back up the heater,” Torkelson said, meaning trying to stay back and let the fastball travel deeper in the strike zone. “Because the previous strike I swung at a breaking ball, his curveball. You know with a guy like that, who has a big, slow pitch that he can punch you out with, you really have to back up the fastball and let yourself see everything.”
Most importantly, he didn’t dwell on the curveball. And he didn’t sell out for a fastball. He put himself in a position to damage against either.
“It’s just a matter of adjusting the sight on the fastball,” he said. “If I were to try and pull his fastball, I’d swing at the slider that (is breaking toward his hip or back foot), or I’d swing at the breaking ball and hook it foul. But if I back up the fastball and I catch the breaking ball out front, I can keep it fair.”
And he’s strong enough and his hands are quick enough to stay back and take a high and outside heater out of the park to the opposite field.
“I’ve always hammered fastballs,” Torkelson said. “That’s how I knew that last year was not who I am.”
Torkelson hit just .220 off fastballs last season, striking out 41 times in 219 plate appearances.
“I’m always on the fastball and when I’m going, I’m not missing,” he said. “It’s just been getting back to myself, trusting my eyes. Even when those barrels (hard-hit balls) are caught, you still feel good. You can’t look at the scoreboard. It’s just, ‘I hammered that ball,’ and take that to the next at-bat.”
The Tigers have been pounding the ball this spring. Yes, all the qualifiers about it being spring training apply. But they’ve hit 39 homers, second in the Grapefruit League to the Phillies. They came into the game Saturday leading the league with a .508 slugging percentage and 138 runs.
It’s not nothing.
“None of us had a great year last year,” Torkelson said. “I told people that in the offseason when they’d ask how we’re going to be. It’s like, ‘The guys who had down years, no way it happens again.’ We’re too good to dwell on that year. Just take it for what it is and learn from it.
“I like where we’re at. I’m not trying to look too far down the road but we’re in a good spot. We’re hammering balls. We’ve got a really good energy, really good offensive mindset — just, we rake.”
Matthew Boyd, in his fourth spring start, threw three perfect innings and one rocky one.
He dispatched the Cardinals on eight pitches in the first and third, and on 14 pitches in the fourth. He needed more pitches than those three innings combined to get out of the second (32).
“That was a high-volume inning for him, so I was happy when he went out the next inning and was pretty efficient,” Hinch said. “Matt Boyd will be pretty hard on himself because he’s a perfectionist. But we like where he’s at right now.”
Boyd, facing a lineup of eight right-handed batters, gave up a double to Willson Contreras, an RBI single to Alec Burleson and a two-run home run to Taylor Motter. But, aside from a couple of seeing-eye singles, that was it.
He struck out four and then went to the bullpen to throw another 15 pitches, so he could simulate getting up for a fifth inning.
“He’s coming off a year where nothing was normal for him,” Hinch said, referencing Boyd missing most of last season recovering from flexor tendon surgery and working just 13 innings out of the Mariners bullpen. “Even though he’s a veteran, everything is a bit new.
“He feels so good and he wants to do so much. We have to maintain a governor on him more than we need to push him.”
Around the horn
Third baseman Andy Ibanez (finger) was back in the Tigers’ lineup Saturday, but he was expected to rejoin Team Cuba in Miami Sunday for its WBC quarterfinal game.
… Cardinals third baseman Taylor Motter, who in 2019 competed in the Tigers’ open tryout at Joker Marchant and played 10 games at Double-A Erie, hit two homers, the second off Beau Brieske.
… Zack Short, who started in left field, came up limping after a hard slide into second base. He hit his ankle awkwardly but he stayed in the game.