The Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson: Rookie Struggles and the Road to Redemption

Much has been made about the struggles of Detroit Tigers’ first baseman, Spencer Torkelson. 2022 was not kind to Torkelson, the former number-one overall pick in 2020. It was a rough introduction, for sure, which has led many to doubt a 23-year-old kid. Some people have suggested he start the year in Toledo to refine his swing. But, Tigers beat writer Chris McCoskey says, “He’s [Torkelson] one of only a few players you can write into the everyday lineup right now and use a pen.”

Why it matters:

It goes without saying that much of the success for the Tigers in the future is going to come from the performance of Torkelson and another stud Riley Greene. They are the focal point, and the building blocks offensively, of this team. You have to root for Torkelson to be better than he was in 2022, and there are signs in Spring Training that 2023 could be a nice turnaround for the touted star.

  • The Tigers have zero first base depth behind Torkelson, though Tyler Nevin could slide in there.
  • There is plenty of reason to believe that Torkelson’s development was rushed, especially when Greene went down in Spring Training and Al Avila was ultimately fired mid-season in 2022.
  • According to McCoskey, Torkelson hired a mental-performance coach, the same one he used while attending Arizona State University.

The microscope is not on Spencer Torkelson. He’s a good player and he’s been putting good passes on the ball … I think this year he’s doing a pretty good job of not getting too frustrated with the results not being there. He’s swinging at the right pitches and barreling up a few balls.
“He’s been a little unlucky at times, but he’s keeping it in perspective, that we’re talking 10 or 15 at-bats.

Detroit Tigers manager, A.J. Hinch

Spencer Torkelson by the numbers:

  • In his career at Arizona State: 498 ABs, .337/.463/.729, 54 HR, 130 RBI
  • In 2022 (MLB): 404 PAs, .203/.285/.310, .272 wOBA, 76 wRC+, 8 HR, 28 RBI, 9.2% BB rate, 24.5% K rate
  • 2023 ZiPS projection: 543 PAs, .235/.324/.423, .327 wOBA, 115 wRC+, 21 HR, 66 RBI, 10.5% BB rate, 24.3% K rate.

A new mindset with bode well for Spender Torkelson:

There is no doubt that Spencer Torkelson has the physical tools to be a Major League baseball player. It was evident, even amid the offensive struggles, that he boasts a plus glove, and does have the ability to control the strike zone. Yet, it was also pretty obvious in 2022 that when the hits didn’t fall, he started to press. But Torkelson still has the ability. Notice his projections as a young player on Fangraphs:

Spencer Torkelson
Spencer Torkelson via Fangraphs

A brief primer on the ‘Prospect Report’

What you see in the Prospect Report are two numbers: his present ability and beyond the slash his projected ability. 50 is considered MLB average, while 60 and above is considered a “plus” player. This means one thing: Spencer Torkelson’s best baseball is still ahead of him. He’s considered a “plus” player in future value, and a “plus-plus” power hitter.

Keeping certain things in perspective is imperative in regard to Torkelson

If you take a look at Spencer Torkelson’s college stats you’ll notice an anomaly:

Spencer Torkelson
Spencer Torkelson via Arizona State Sun Devils baseball

Notice something weird? Okay, let me explain: 17 games played his senior year, with no injury. I doubt anyone has forgotten, but we kind of had a national emergency right as this kid was heading into his final season as a collegiate athlete. In fact, ASU itself will tell you that had the COVID-19 pandemic not hit, Torkelson would be their all-time leader in home runs. Don’t believe me, peep this:

Torkelson had 54 homers in his career, second in Sun Devil history and needed just three to surpass Bob Horner’s long-standing school record of 56 – a feat he almost surely would have achieved with a full season this year [his junior season]. 

By the way, his 54 home runs are nine more than someone you may have heard about before: Barry Bonds.

When Torkelson was made the 1-1 in the 2020 draft, there was no baseball for him to play. His last collegiate season ended early, and the Minor Leagues were shut down. Until he picked up a bat in 2021’s Spring Training, he had seen competitive baseball in nearly a year. These simple things cannot be overlooked.

Torkelson’s new approach should lead to a breakout in 2023

Torkelson is on a mission. He revamped his offseason program and hired a mental-performance coach, one that is focusing on the positive, even amid the negative.

“It’s just little tricks on what you can do to make sure your process is as consistent as possible,” he said. “You get a process that works for you and you do it every single day and every single at-bat. And you trust it.”
You trust it relentlessly, unconditionally.
“Just because you have a good process and you are comfortable at the plate, that doesn’t guarantee that you will go 4-for-4,” Torkelson said. “You’re going to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts some days when you are feeling like that. But, trust it the next day, trust it tomorrow. What can I tweak and take into tomorrow to make me a better player today than I was yesterday?

From Chris McCoskeys, “Offseason work paying dividends early for Tigers’ Boyd, Torkelson” in The Detroit News

It’s early in spring, and Torkelson has only had 20 at-bats. You can look at the .167 average and think that it’s just not good. But, if you take a sneak peek at Baseball Savant, you’ll notice that Tork is hitting the ball hard, but has also gotten a bit unlucky. He’s logged an average exit velocity of 92 MPH, which is just shy of “hard hit” (95 MPH), but only boasts of a .250 BABIP, including a couple of scorched balls (105+MPH) that both led to outs.

All Tork has to do is keep making good passes at the baseball and continue to barrel the ball, the hits will come and 2022 will be left in the rearview mirror.

The bottom line:

Spencer Torkelson’s rookie struggles are a thing of the past, as signs of a resurgence in Spring Training suggest he is ready to become a star for the Tigers. With a new mindset and revamped approach, Torkelson has the potential to become a “plus-plus” power hitter and a key building block for the team’s future success.

Written by AJ Reilly

A.J. is a lifelong baseball fan and an avid storyteller. His debut novel, The Askren Boys, won the Literary Classics Gold Medal and Seal of Approval in November of 2018. When not writing, he is spending time with his wife Jessica, son Jack, daughter Nora, and new arrival Teddy. A.J. lives in Metro Detroit.

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