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2023 Tigers player previews: Spencer Torkelson is off to a good start this spring

The smart money is all betting on Torkelson to improve. The fans want to see it before they believe it.

MLB: Houston Astros at Detroit Tigers Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a generally positive spring camp so far for the Detroit Tigers, a quiet offseason in terms of free agents and the pervasive fear surrounding Spencer Torkelson have harshed the vibe, as it were. Concern is justified, but the miserable pessimism has gotten a bit out of hand in some quarters. What’s the point of drafting elite prospects if people are ready to give up on them after a season? Fortunately, the first baseman has shown some positive signs this spring, and it’s helped take a bit of the edge off.

Obviously spring training is spring training. If Torkelson had Parker Meadows’ spring numbers, we’d still be saying this doesn’t mean much until we see it in season. If he was swinging the bat poorly? Same thing. Instead he’s been somewhere in between. But if you’re scouting the big league for hitters whose process forecasts much better results to come, Torkelson is high on your list.

People are going to be holding their breath a bit until Torkelson proves he can do the job in real major league games, but between himself and Riley Greene, the Tigers still have two of the most promising hitters in baseball under the age of 24. For that reason alone, among many others, the Tigers have the potential for a much better season ahead of them.

Spencer Torkelson 2021-2022

Season Level PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO HR fWAR
Season Level PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO HR fWAR
2021 A+ 141 170 19.9 17.0 0.257 5
2021 AA 212 148 23.6 14.2 0.297 14
2021 AAA 177 129 20.3 13.0 0.293 11
2022 AAA 155 100 26.5 14.8 0.160 5
2022 MLB 404 76 24.5 9.2 0.117 8.0 -1.0

Obviously Torkelson didn’t hit enough dingers last year. We all know that much, but we’re going to go deeper under the hood than that. There were two specific concerns with Spencer Torkelson after last season, but it’s worth taking stock of his strengths first.

There were things to like despite the meager power production. Torkelson posted a well above average chase rate as a rookie, displaying plenty of patience and discipline for a power hitter as expected. Possibly too much in one sense, but we’ll get to that later. He hit the ball hard a lot. His strikeout rate was solid and he continued to draw walks and put the ball in play with authority an awful lot. These are all the much scouted for traits of a very good major league hitter.

It’s fair to suggest that last season was just a much needed school of hard knocks for a hitter who reached the major leagues with very little experience against pro caliber pitching. Torkelson’s junior year at Arizona State was cut off early. He didn’t get to play regular games post-draft until spring of 2021. Six months later he looked bound for the major leagues, but he still only had 530 professional plate appearances. Even a prodigy like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had nearly a 1000 reps against A-ball or better caliber pitching before reaching the major leagues.

Sure, Guerrero Jr. was younger, but most college pitching is on a par with rookie ball and Low-A. You’re not seeing top prospects every game. The pro learning curve is still steep for even elite college hitters. Building up enough reps against guys who can command their fastball and have consistently good secondary stuff matters a lot. That reasoning isn’t going to hold up if he struggles again, but it remains a likely factor in his rookie season.

Trouble with the heater?

Let’s start with the overall weakness against fastballs over the heart of the plate. This more than anything was the unnerving portion of Torkelson’s rookie season for many.

Torkelson was one of the worst everyday players in the game against fastballs in the heart of the zone. Here’s his wOBA chart against all fastball types combined last year. Down, or anything on the inner edge? He torched those pitches. But most of the heart of the strike zone was a free pass for pitchers to just gas him up as long as they didn’t come down and in with it. At best he was going to hit the ball hard on the ground or line a single. More often he was late and lifting routine fly outs to right-center and center field.

Spencer Torkelson wOBA by zone 2022

Torkelson’s overall wOBA was just .272 in 2022, while his expected wOBA was a still meager .305. Unlucky? Yeah a little, but average was .310 in 2022. Torkelson is supposed to be well above average. As a first baseman he has to be. His zone chart tells us than anything middle or up over the heart of the plate was easy money for pitchers. If major league pitchers can beat a batter with fastballs away with little fear that a miss over the middle will get destroyed, they’re going to feast until the hitter adjusts.

The good news is that Torkelson has done nothing but drive those pitches this spring. He’s catching good fastballs out front consistently and hitting them hard on a line and in the air. Many teams don’t provide Statcast data from spring training, so take this with a grain of salt, but Torkelson continues to lead the league in barrels with five. He has as many hard hit balls as anyone, and he continues to control the strike zone well.

I know, I know, he’s hitting .258 with two doubles and NO DINGERZ. On this point, it is perfectly fair to insist on seeing the home runs start flying before anyone gets cocky. He’s hitting the ball hard a lot, and not on the ground, but hasn’t yet gotten to the second main point of issue. Lifting more balls to left field. Right now, covering the plate middle and away against the heater is the more pressing issue.

Power on the pull side

Sometimes the ball just doesn’t drop for you, and sometimes that pattern can last longer than one might expect. Still, Torkelson wasn’t particularly unlucky in 2022. His job here is to hit for power, and luck isn’t supposed to come into play as much if you’re hitting balls 400+ feet in the air with regularity. Some of these spring training shots though, have been almost comically of the tough luck variety. If he keeps hitting the ball like this, we’re probably in good shape. But if he’d pull more of his fly balls? Then we’re golden.

Most of Torkelson’s contact in the air went the opposite way last season. What we see in his spray chart is that he crushed some of his deepest shots to left and straightaway center. The smaller dimensions coming to Comerica Park may favor Torkelson more than Riley Greene. Still, there were a lot of routine fly balls where he was just late and lifted a glancing fly ball to right and right center field for outs.

He has the ability to hit the ball out to straightaway right field, a la Miguel Cabrera, but it still doesn’t feel like that’s where his bread is buttered. His hot zones in 2022 were entirely on the inner edge of the plate. He certainly wasn’t feasting by letting the ball travel deep on the outer third and crushing it to right the way Cabrera or prime J.D. Martinez did so often. To really turn into the 30 home run producer we expect, he needs to cover the outer half more effectively, and pull more soft stuff in the air to left. He easily has the raw power and contact ability to do it, but changing your hit distribution patterns without sacrificing plate discipline and overall contact, is a complicated task for major league hitters.

Spencer Torkelson 2022 Fly Balls

Putting the two together

Spencer Torkelson has the batspeed to handle the velocity. The raw ability isn’t in question. Yet he was too often late on the fastball last season. The explanation that makes most sense to me is that he was thinking too much out there, and perhaps too used to pitchers being scared of him.

Few hitters in college baseball history have been pitched as carefully as Torkelson was in his sophomore and junior years. That pattern continued in the minor leagues where pitchers would perhaps throw a fastball over for strike one and then stay away from him, nibbling the edges and hoping he’d bite at breaking stuff down and away. It’s entirely possible that a far too passive approach to succeed at the major league level was forced on him by reputation on his rapid ascent to the show.

Getting the fastball dialed in has to be the priority, and so far he’s done that this spring. As the mantra goes, be on time with the fastball, adjust to offspeed. As long as there are huge swathes of blue territory on his heatmap, pitchers are going to continue to pound fastballs in there until he proves they can’t get away with it anymore. If he’s able to force them to change their approach by driving a lot more fastballs this season, he should get a look at quite a few more hangers and inside fastballs, upon which he did his best work in 2022.

Torkelson has noted himself that he’s got to be more aggressive and move his point of contact out toward the front of the plate rather than over it. Working on that was a major focus this offseason and Torkelson does appear to have reached out for plenty of advice rather than stubbornly assuming things would just turn around this year.

He hired a mental skills coach to help him build better routines and maintain an aggressive, confident disposition at the plate. He installed a gym in his garage to help double up his workouts and came to camp with noticeably more muscle on him. He was also in touch with new Tigers’ hitting coaches Michael Brdar and Keith Beauregard, and worked with them in Arizona prior to coming to camp.

While he didn’t make major swing changes, he is clearly trying to keep his upper arms flexed and close to his body, rather than getting extended and tight as he loads the bat and starts back. That should help him use his hands better and adjust to balls in flight.

Torkelson also took surveys of other top hitters and decided to take the advice of hitters like Mike Trout and Carlos Correa, switching to a slightly shorter, lighter bat than he used last year to help add even a bit more batspeed and barrel control. More speed equals more power, but it also equals a bit more time to decide to swing or hold up. Those fractions of seconds gained can make a significant difference.

All these things have shown up in his work against fastballs this spring, and he’s been hammering those pitches over the plate so far. Will that continue? Will he start doing enough damage there to get more hangers he can loft to the pull field? We’ll have to see, but in the early going, Spencer Torkelson is reminding everyone why he was a top five prospect this time last season. For the sake of Tigers fans’ sanity, let’s hope it carries into the regular season. We’re still betting that it will.