Spencer Torkelson’s breakthrough might be happening right now for Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

MINNEAPOLIS — A clutch two-run home run in the ninth inning and a walk-off single in the 10th inning Monday against the best team in the National League.

A solo home run off Spencer Strider, one of the best pitchers in baseball, in the first inning Wednesday.

A two-run double for a three-run lead in the ninth inning Thursday, the coup de grâce to the best team in the American League Central.

It has been a wonderful week for Spencer Torkelson, one the Detroit Tigers expected upon selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 MLB draft. The type of production the Tigers need Torkelson to repeat into the future.

“I attribute it to staying consistent, trusting my process and going up to the plate every single time with the same mindset,” Torkelson said at Target Field, after Thursday’s 8-4 win over the Minnesota Twins. “I have a lot of confidence. I’ve always felt this good. It’s just a matter of the hits dropping and getting under some balls.”

Torkelson, who turns 24 in late August, has been hitting the ball hard since spring training without reaping the rewards of the process he redefined through his offseason work with a mental performance coach.

Oftentimes, his swing produced elite exit velocities with favorable expected batting averages, but he would hit the ball right at the defenders. The problem, in part, boiled down to his lack of home runs.

Torkelson has hit three of his seven home runs in the past 11 games.

In Monday’s ninth inning, Torkelson hammered a 95.4 mph sinker thrown by right-hander Raisel Iglesias to the middle-in-up part of the strike zone. In Wednesday’s first inning, Torkelson hammered a 96.9 mph four-seam fastball thrown by Strider to the middle-in-up part of the strike zone.

Same pitch location, same swing path, same result. He hit Iglesias’ pitch with a 106.8 mph exit velocity for a 440-foot home run, and hit Strider’s pitch with a 107.2 mph exit velocity for a 436-foot home run. Both balls landed at the bases of the brick wall of retired numbers beyond the fence in left-center field at Comerica Park.

“The biggest adjustment, it wasn’t swing, it’s just like I committed to being on time for every single pitch,” Torkelson said. “I’m focusing on being on time, being loose and early, and that’s where it came from.”

So, how did Torkelson adjust?

“Dancing with the pitcher,” Torkelson said. “Some guys would say different answers, but it’s working in a rhythm and not being a statue. It’s having a nice, easy rhythm and being on time, and I’m seeing the ball so much better.”

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Among 138 hitters with at least 150 balls in play, Torkelson ranks 13th for underperformance in batting average, 14th for underperformance in slugging percentage and 15th for underperformance in weighted on-base average. (wOBA accounts for how a player reached base and the value of that particular event — instead of only considering whether a player reached base or not.)

Those rankings describe Torkelson as an unlucky hitter this season.

“I’d say it’s the baseball gods testing me a little bit,” Torkelson said. “I had a tough year last year. I come out, I’m feeling really good, and I’m hitting the ball hard. It was just right at guys. I stuck with it. Sometimes, I wanted to veer off and be like, ‘All right, that’s not working,’ but it works.”

Torkelson through 66 games has a .238 batting average with a .268 expected batting average, .387 slugging percentage with a .453 expected slugging percentage, and .313 wOBA with a .349 expected wOBA. The gap was even greater a couple of weeks ago before he heated up.

For batting average, his minus 30-point differential between actual and expected ranks 13th, behind leader Kyle Schwarber (minus 54 points).

For slugging percentage, his minus 66-point differential ranks 14th. Ten of those 13 players ahead of him have made at least one All-Star team and six have made at least two.

“It’s baseball,” Torkelson said. “The hits are going to fall. I just say it’s the baseball gods testing me one last time, hopefully.”

Baseball, of course, is a results-driven industry.

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Torkelson is hitting .217 with 15 home runs in 688 plate appearances across 176 games in parts of two MLB seasons. The sample size is growing, and at some point, the Tigers need to know what type of production they can expect moving forward.

“I think his consistency in his preparation, his plan, his routine, his feedback to the hitting guys, his temperament has been excellent,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said after Thursday’s win. “You add all that up, he’s getting rewarded for having a really good process.”

A confident Torkelson stopped focusing on the results of plate appearances, and started focusing on quality of his plate appearances, and then he recently started “dancing with the pitcher” to find his rhythm.

“I think he’s evolved to being able to take a slightly different approach to different style pitchers,” Hinch said. “You get a pitcher who is aggressive in the strike zone, he’s not afraid to swing early. You get a guy who has a wipeout pitch, he’s not afraid to eliminate the pitch. You get somebody who sprays the ball, he will go up and be pretty patient.

“That’s a maturity I’ve seen in the last year that’s benefited him the most. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, ‘this is what I do, and I’m going to apply it to the whole league.’ I think you have to be able to be adaptable, and I’ve seen him do that a little bit more.”

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Torkelson in his past seven games is hitting .357 with five extra-base hits (two homers), six walks and five strikeouts.

This week could be the beginning of his career breakthrough.

“I have the same approach every time,” Torkelson said. “Get the job done and slow the game down.”

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

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