Detroit Tigers: A check-up on Spencer Torkelson

The Detroit Tigers invested a lot into Spencer Torkelson, expecting him to be the future first baseman (or third baseman on draft day) of the future. While Al Avila will not be here to see things through, Torkelson is still working to find his footing. Right around the all-star break, the team opted to send down their coveted youngster, hoping some time in the minors would do him well.

Unfortunately, his performance in the minors was not what the Detroit Tigers hoped. While he did belt a walk-off home run the other day, the overall performance with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens has not been as exciting as many would have hoped.

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Let's get one thing straight. He was the first overall pick in the draft, and even with Avila at the helm, there was a lot of conviction that Torkelson would be an exceptional big league talent. The tools and the statistics backed it up from his time with the Arizona State Sun Devils program.

The honeymoon phase may be over, and people may start worrying about Torkelson, but do not write him off just yet. I'm not saying don't worry a little bit, but in the end, he's only had 300 big league plate appearances. It will take him time to adjust, and the Tigers' downward momentum in 2022 was indeed not helping.

I'm not trying to make excuses, but the Tigers' offense as a whole has been brutal in 2022. Fans are excited that Harold Castro is hitting .286 and excited to see guys hovering closer to the .250 mark, which is pathetic. Torkelson's struggles in the big leagues are perfectly normal.

It's time to worry about Detroit Tigers prospect Spencer Torkelson.

The performance in the minor leagues makes me think it's time to worry a little bit. He was sent back to Toledo and has yet to find his footing once again and show that he's that up-and-coming talent the Tigers are expecting him to be.

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I'm not saying write him off. Do not sit back and scoff, saying that Torkelson's a bust, but there's certainly room to start questioning what's happening here; there is room to be a little concerned with what the future holds for Torkelson. That being said, let's take a deeper look into Torkelson's time in Toledo and what might be the cause for concern.

Before his demotion, Torkelson logged 298 plate appearances for the Tigers, slashing .197/.282/.296 with 76 punchouts on the season. He is not exactly performing as the up-and-coming star the Tigers are hoping he would be. He had just 11 doubles and five home runs in a Tigers uniform before his demotion.

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When he got to Toledo, there was an assumption he might struggle at first but regain his stride and work back to a return with the Tigers. Closing in on a month later, Torkelson has yet to really find that groove. In 97 plate appearances over 22 games, Torkelson has slashed .179/.289/.345 with 28 punchouts, boasting two doubles and four home runs.

The struggles have continued.

It led me to look deeper at what Torkelson's doing in the batters' box. There was no huge difference in comparing a couple of big league videos from the 2022 season and a couple of hacks from the minors. He's closing up the front side just a little bit more with the Mud Hens, which was very subtle.

He was already starting at a point where he got closed in his load while with the Tigers in 2022, but it felt like his swings with the Mud Hens saw him keep that front side closed just a tick longer. In the back side, his handset as he loads has helped him get a little shorter to the ball. Instead of having the bat pointed up in the air, it's been pointed backward a little bit, with the hands being at a point where they can drive through the zone hard.

The thing is, the swings look similar for the most part. The positive that stood out was that his swing with the Mud Hens looked a tiny bit shorter and more direct than with the Tigers; at times, he had that long swing. Even if it was a pretty look, it led to him being unable to get the barrel through the zone as quick as he'd like.

He has that plane and lift ability and has the linear/upward path that creates barrels. The thing is, the barrels are not there. The base hits are not there; the home runs are not there. So what is it?

Spencer Torkelson's plate discipline and swing decisions could be the problem.

Trying to track down MiLB plate discipline stats is a struggle, but Torkelson's FanGraphs account does give his swinging strike% for the minor leagues. He's got a 13.6% SwStr% which is higher than any measure of the metric he's produced from High-A up to Triple-A in 2021. He's also topped his 10.6% measure that he accrued with the Tigers big league club in his 2022 stint to start the season.

Without a ton of stats to go off, back to the video we go. It seems like he's expanded his strike zone a little bit from where it was—becoming a little more of a swing-first bat with the Mud Hens. Something that is not as true to character, being a bat that the Tigers raved about for advanced plate discipline as he worked through the minors. It just seemed like there were times on full-clip ABs I found via Twitter, YouTube, etc., that see him fouling off some pitches that don't feel like they are in the zone.

But, there are things that play into that. With two strikes, fouling off the breaker that catches the zone, hoping to capitalize on the next pitch is not the worst thing in the world. But it felt like his perception of the zone has changed a little from the Torkelson the Tigers drafted.

Circling back to the metrics, Torkelson's big league ratings were not horrible. 28.1% chase percentage with the Tigers with a 0.38 BB/K ratio. In the minors, he's managed a 0.46 BB/K rate, up 0.08 compared to his time in the big leagues. The overall K% in the big leagues was 25.5%, and in Toledo, it's been 28.9% in his time in the minors.

Making sense of all this, he was striking out in the big leagues, but he's striking out even more in the minors. The higher BB/K rate shows that he's drawing more walks, but the sample size is much different. It speaks to his plate discipline straying from the player that the Tigers drafted him to be.

Wrapping things up on Spencer Torkelson's struggles.

There's reason to be concerned. While diving into the struggles, I would have liked to see a huge swing change that might have been the result of the struggle or see a clear-cut plate discipline issue like Javier Báez and his inability to lay off the slider. Seeing some minute things that stand out is concerning; I'd rather sit here and say he needs a swing change and he'll be fine than just plant the thumbs up and say, “he just needs more time.” But it is still the truth and is the case for Torkelson.

He's still got time. He's a rookie. He's a prospect. It's going to take him more time and more reps to really settle in. Just because he is not coming into the league, tearing the cover off the ball, hitting 60 home runs, and driving in 120 is not a reason to write him off.

It's not time to write him off, just time to worry, at least a little bit.

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  1. I sure hope he becomes the player they expected. The Tigers need these top prospects to shine especially the first player taken in the draft. They have had enough bad luck with so many of their young stud pitchers having arm problems. Then throw in what has happened to Meadows. Baez has been so bad at the plate and in the field. Nothing is going the Tigers way.

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