Here’s why Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson is swinging more, walking less in 2023

Detroit Free Press

BALTIMORE — Detroit Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson is more confident than last season.

The 2020 No. 1 overall pick is hitting .216 with two home runs, five walks and 18 strikeouts. But Torkelson, acting more confident behind the scenes, is also acting more confident at the plate this season, simply based on his swing decisions.

His swing rate has increased from 45.9% in 2022 to 50.7% in 2023, and his first-pitch swing rate has increased from 28.5% in 2022 to 37.7% in 2023.

“I’d say just being myself, sticking to my approach and getting a great pitch to hit,” the 23-year-old said, “taking my shots, realizing that I’m going to get out, but if I can take my shot as many times as possible, I’m going to hit.”

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The swing mechanics, subtly refined over the offseason, are simple and adjustable. He is hitting high-velocity fastballs and pitches around the middle of the strike zone, as well as pitches on the inner half of the strike zone. His exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate have received above-average marks through 20 games.

The advanced metrics, such as the .255 expected batting average and .465 expected slugging percentage, suggest a breakthrough is coming soon.

“I think it’s just a product of me feeling like I can do damage,” Torkelson said. “It is what it is. I know people have said I’m not walking, but I feel like I’m just not getting deeper into at-bats sometimes. I’m hitting a pitch that’s a good pitch to hit early on rather than going to 3-2 (counts).”

The downside of the increase in swing rate is the decrease in walk rate, but for a potential power hitter looking to emerge as he approaches 500 plate appearances in the big leagues, he seems to be on the right track by swinging more often, especially considering his contact rate has slightly improved, from 74.4% in 2022 to 76.5% in 2023.

Torkelson, who is chasing too many pitches outside of the strike zone, has five walks in 82 plate appearances for a 3.9% walk rate. Last season, he was sometimes passive with his swing decisions and ended up with a 9.2% walk rate.

“If I was getting a bunch of balls, I would take them and take my walks,” Torkelson said, “but I’m getting pitches to hit early in the counts, so I’m going to do what I can with that.”

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There are times when Torkelson’s approach is perplexing, like in the first inning Saturday against Baltimore Orioles right-hander Kyle Gibson. The bases were loaded with one out, and the Tigers needed a single to right field.

Torkelson, a right-handed hitter, received five consecutive down-and-away pitches.

He struck out swinging.

“He didn’t really miss over the plate,” Torkelson said. “I bet if you go back, you can count on one hand how many mistakes he threw, so tip your cap to that. He kept us off balance, kept it away and definitely kept it out of the heart of the plate. It is what it is.”

Later in Saturday’s game, Torkelson stopped swinging at down-and-away pitches and found a changeup over the heart of the plate. He connected with a 99.7 mph exit velocity in the seventh inning, sending the ball 386 feet to center field for a flyout. He then worked a walk in the ninth inning. In Sunday’s game, he finished 0-for-2 with two walks and a sacrifice fly.

The quality of his plate appearances improved over the weekend because he adjusted to how the Orioles were attacking him. The final two games in Baltimore served as a reminder that Torkelson, when he wants to, can draw walks.

Something else to keep in mind: Torkelson isn’t hitting the ball to the opposite field as often anymore, going from a 26.6% opposite-field rate last season to 21.4% this season, possibly because he is trying to tap into pull-side power. To get there, he would need to look for pitches over the heart of the plate and on the inside part of the plate.

But Torkelson, who hit eight home runs in 110 games last season, promises he isn’t focused on pull-side power, even though it certainly seemed that way in Saturday’s first inning strikeout against Gibson with the bases loaded.

“That’s not a focus point, like trying to pull the ball,” he said. “I’m hitting it where it’s pitched and timing takes care of the rest.”

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Torkelson has a .205 batting average and a .605 OPS through 486 plate appearances in his MLB career, spanning parts of two seasons. At this point, the Tigers seem to be taking a hands-off approach as the former top prospect attempts to take the next step in his development.

Make no mistake, though, the Tigers are certainly waiting for the breakthrough like everyone else.

“I’m cool with where Tork is and how he’s going about it,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I’m not zeroed in near as much on him as so many other people because I trust him that he’s going to play well and do some things to help us win.

“He’s just a young kid trying to find his way and learn how to handle a little bit of success and a little bit of challenges that he’s never seen before, and try to learn how to be a big leaguer. For me, I’m just watching him grow.”

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

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