The decade has been a dark one for fans of the Detroit Tigers, who bore witness to some historically awful seasons under former general manager Al Avila — including a 47-119 campaign in 2019 that practically broke the soul of those loyal to the Olde English D. However, if there is a silver lining to all of the losing, it is all of the high draft picks the team has had at its disposal to help improve a flailing franchise.
Therein lies the root of many fans’ frustrations. Be it due to injuries or underperformance, the Tigers just cannot seem to maximize the potential of their top picks stretching back to Derek Hill in 2014 — and even beyond. This trepidation has leaked over to two of Detroit’s more recent picks: Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.
Given that Greene arrived right at the nadir of the Tigers’ deep dip into the dark and Tork was the fruit of the 2019 season’s futility, the fanbase has looked to them to save their favorite franchise. Unfortunately, things have not panned out that way... yet. After all, Riley is still only 22 and Spencer is just a year older with plenty of moisture still behind their ears.
So for this week’s Bless You Boys roundtable, I asked the staff, “What is our take on Riley Greene and Spencer Torkleson’s performance so far? Is it time to ring the doom gong or are we prematurely bust-er-bating?” Take a look below at our exhaustive, collective responses.
Brady McAtamney: I’m not ringing the doom gong, but I’m making sure I know where the mallet is.
Ashley MacLennan: Ban the mustache.
Mr. Sunshine: It’s certainly frustrating, to say the least. Tork seems to be doing a good job defensively this season (haven’t looked at the advanced stats), but his approach continues to be inadequate. Greene’s similar.
Both are super young of course... but it’s looking like they really shouldn’t have been in the majors when they were, and the inability to find solid backups at 1B or the OF is hurting the Tigers. I don’t think either one is a bust, but they definitely have walked a few feet down that road.
Brandon Day: It’s too early in their careers to go throwing in the towel, certainly. Riley is 22. Tork is 23. Guys like Carpenter, Maton and McKinstry are all getting their first full-season looks in the majors just now in their age 25-26 seasons. As always though, the differentiator between the two is defensive value. Riley can be an above-average player even as a roughly average hitter. A first baseman who doesn’t get on base more than league average and hits 25-plus homers is pretty much worthless as a full-time player.
It’s not so hard to figure out why Torkelson doesn’t have more balls going for hits, but his whole process continues to look really good until you get really deep into his batted ball data. His strikeout rate is good. Walk rate is fine. Good line drive rate. Hitting the ball hard a lot. Doesn’t pop up much. It’s all there. Any team analyst looking through his metrics and advanced stats is going to think he’s been unlucky. He just isn’t hitting them where they ain’t, which is generally a matter of luck until it goes on this long.
But the real underlying problem causing all this is that he’s got the opposite pattern he needs to have. He pulls the ball on the ground or on a line, and he hits balls to center and right field in the air. Idk what you do with that without an overhaul of swing and approach. That’s probably what Spencer is bound for next offseason if they can’t get there this year, and it’s hard to make those kinds of major changes in mid-season. I can’t help being pretty convinced that if we traded Torkelson to the Dodgers they’d have this figured out within months and he’d be pumping 35 homers a year for them.
Frisbee Pilot: I looked up some relevant 2023 stats for Torkelson through Saturday’s games, and here they are, with league averages in parentheses:
BABiP: .243 (.291)
SO%: 21.0% (22.5%)
BB%: 6.7% (8.3%)
Line Drive%: 31.6% (23.7%)
Hard Hit%: 44.7% (38.6%)
Avg. Exit Velocity: 90.6 mph (88.2 mph)
So... he hits lots of line drives and hits them hard, and he strikes out and walks tick lower than league average. He’s been unlucky. Just look at that darn BABiP. That’s a gap, man.
Brandon: Yeah, but this is why I’ve moved on to his batted ball distribution. We’re seven months into “How the heck is this guy not raking with these numbers?”
I don’t know how long a bad batted ball streak can last, though presumably quite a long time, but at some point you have to think there’s something going badly wrong even if it isn’t obvious. Tork is reminding me of pre-Rays Isaac Paredes but with way more power potential.
Anyway, time to write the article, Brandon.
Patrick O’Kennedy: There was good reason for optimism surrounding Torkelson and Greene due to their lofty reputations when they were drafted as well as their rapid rise through the minor leagues, but both players spent a relatively short period in pro ball by the time they were called up to the major leagues, so it’s still early to draw any conclusions.
Rookies who explode onto the major league scene are much more the exception than the rule. Every scouting report about both players suggests that they will hit at the major league level.
Jared Kelenic is just one example of a top prospect who took a while to gain traction after being called up to the majors, He is now slashing .322/ .375/ .644 with seven home runs in 100 plate appearances this season. He struggled mightily in his first two partial seasons with Seattle. There are plenty more examples. Remain calm.
Frisbee: Remain calm?! DFA THE BUM!
Brady: It’s frustrating for sure. The signs are there: Tork is absolutely mashing, but he’s unlucky. Riley has shown capabilities to do anything and everything, but the hitting has been sporadic. Neither guy is walking enough to offset the lack of hits, and both — especially Riley — are striking out.
Like Brandon said, Tork needs to pull the ball more. It’s cool to see him crush the ball to center, but 380 to dead center =/= 380 to right field. Because he plays average defense at first and isn’t going to be playable anywhere else, he’s going to have to rely on his bat more than anything else. So yeah, frustrating.
Riley’s Savant profile has a lot more blue than I hoped. His sprint speed is his only elite trait through one month (small-ish sample size, to be fair). But his xwOBA, outs above average, xBA, K%, chase rate, and xSLG are all at least in the 38th percentile or lower. His current batted ball profile is currently similar to… 2022 Jarren Duran and 2022 Kevin Kiermaier. Puke emoji.
But they’re both young. They’re in their first few months with a new hitting coach. While I may want to pull my hair out when Tork flies out 400 feet or throw a rock at my TV when Riley strikes out swinging for a third time, they’re both very young and both have shown signs. Gotta remember to breathe.
Also, I’m #TeamMustache.
Adam Dubbin: I am of the firm belief that neither Greene nor Tork will be long-term busts, but the question is more whether or not their potential will be realized in Detroit.
But back to the main question, my concern is much higher for Spencer than for Riley, given that the former was supposed to be close to MLB-ready out of college. Granted, I had some doubts about that at the time and the issues that caused that doubt seem to remain. That said, it seems like he’s just a small adjustment away from taking the next step, so I’m willing to be patient.
As for Greeney, the young lad will turn 23 at the end of this season after being drafted straight out of high school so there is even less urgency for him, in my opinion. Brady noted that they are both still transitioning to a new hitting coach — and staff in general — so it could still take a little more time to see the fruits of the new labor.
tl;dr: Concerns regarding these two are currently in the “bust-er-bating” category.
Trevor Hooth: It seems too early to consider either busts. I will still blindly defend Greene because I believe the skill set will play. At a prospect, he showed some of the best hands I’ve personally ever seen at the plate. I know that hasn’t translated but I think it will still. Tork is the more curious case.
It’s hard to pull the playing time card because he’s had plenty of it by now. But I’m going to pull the playing time card. I think his development took a real hit because the former regime rushed him through the minors and eventually to Detroit in an attempt to save their jobs. I just think there was some stuff he missed out on learning that he’s having to do in real-time against some of the best arms in the world.
I’ve not talked to a scout who isn’t optimistic about both of them. In terms of upside, I’ve been pretty consistent that I think Tork could be a solid everyday regular and I still think Greene has an All-Star ceiling. Call me crazy, won’t be the first time.
David Rosenberg: I’m with Trevor. Greene is too talented as a hitter not to figure it out at some point, but you can’t blame fans for cooling off on a guy who has been mediocre at the plate for nearly 500 at-bats. Looking at his metrics, Greene isn’t hitting the fastball well.
He’s doing better with breaking balls and off-speed stuff, which makes me hopeful that he’ll come around by the All-Star Game. Riley Greene can hit fastballs, but perhaps his new approach needs a bit more tweaking. Finding that middle ground will translate to numbers fans can get behind.
As for Torkelson, I’m going with the unlucky argument. Yes, he could stand to be a little more patient at the plate, but he hits the ball too hard for anyone to consider him a bad hitter. Was he worth the No. 1 pick? Maybe not. But, he still has another year before he’s officially a bust in my book.
Zane Harding: I have too many stocks in Torkelson and Greene to give up now!
Torkelson has a .575 OPS in 2023 so far at first base. That’s not going to buy him as much favor positionally as Riley, although I think this org is pretty committed to giving both guys every chance to succeed. I want to give Brdar time to work with Tork in-season and even next offseason, because, frankly, we don’t have much to lose by doing so here in Tigertown and the world to gain. If Spencer hasn’t started converting his high-end exit velo and his rising xwOBA into real-world results by his 24th birthday, then I’m likely going to enter 2024 wondering if he indeed is going to bust and become a backup through the later 2020s.
To Spencer’s credit, his walk rate is up to 7.3% after that comical start where he had a sub-3% walk rate. His K% is only at 21.1% entering today, as well. He’s been about average as a fielder at first base in my eyes, too, as little as that matters in the grand scheme of major league production. Let’s start to see some power, though. Hitting them where they ain’t is taken out of account when you’re hitting the fence. Ask prime Miggy (hell, just give me prime Victor!).
Greene’s a year younger (and was also drafted a year earlier, lol), but his timeline isn’t much different for me. He’s been replacement level to start, but I somewhat expect that from a 22-year-old in the two-hole. What worries me about him is that Greene’s strikeouts are 12% above Tork’s, with an inflated BABIP to boot. His Statcast percentiles look like a Michigan March; one random hot day (his sprint speed), and a whole bunch of cool to freezing temps. The tools are still there, but he has yet to consistently utilize them.
It appears I basically sit with the consensus at the roundtable, but that makes sense. We all see the new hitting coach coming in, and the two guys under 24 who are being asked to carry an offense against major-league pitching. All I ask is to see some progress from where we are now before the end of the season. I don’t want to see either one become an easy Rays/Dodgers reclamation project until they at least have hit arbitration, so I have nothing else better to do than hope that we see adjustments.
Peter Kwasniak: I don’t really believe either are busts at this point, but it’s sure easy to think they are. The signs are there that they should be able to bust out at any time, but with every game that passes and they don’t, it is getting harder to keep believing it.
I can’t help but think of Manning’s comments about the lack of proper coaching to acclimate him to the majors during his time in the minors. He had to basically learn how to get MLB hitters out in the majors with something other than his fastball, while in the majors. I’m wondering if the struggles we’re seeing from Greene and Tork are similar, in that, they were able to get through the minors simply by being better than the pitchers they saw but not by honing skills that MLB arms will use to find their weaknesses.
They could very well be going through the same growing pains Manning had to go through for several years, although in Manning’s case, injuries delayed his progress. As others have said, we just need to see some progress here.
If it gets into August/September and they both are looking lost at the plate and swinging through good pitches, well, then maybe that’s a reason Harris didn’t go in as aggressively this winter as we had hoped, because his evaluation of them wasn’t very high. If that’s the case, well, it’s a ground-up rebuild from square 1.
Cam Kaiser: There’s not much I can say here that hasn’t been said in a more eloquent manner by my colleagues. Both Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are extremely young, show flashes of brilliance, and lost a full year of competition to the COVID season. While there have been obvious displays of growing pains, they both occasionally display tools that shout “All-Star,” as well. For Tork, it would be nice to see him pull the ball in the air more. He’s got the contact profile that should lead to success. He’ll have stretches where he looks like he’s so close to having it figured out and then will go into a funk where he’ll swing right through mediocre fastballs and hanging breaking balls in the zone. Again, growing pains.
For Riley, he’s got enough tools where he’ll survive in the majors as a fourth outfielder, but that would be a disappointment given what he’s shown in the minor leagues. He looked great in spring training and is now having to adjust to pitchers who have adjusted to him. Take a look at what the Tigers have around him. It’s not great. When the opposing manager is looking at the lineup card, Greene is one of the few names he circles and says, “Let’s not let this guy beat us.” When there are lofty expectations within your organization, the other teams are going to take notice. Greene has had success at every level of baseball in his life — no I haven’t verified his tee-ball stats but I assume he raked. There’s nothing more for him to prove in the minors. He’s also not even 23 yet, so he deserves all the time in the world to figure it out while the Tigers are not playing for the playoffs.
We’re not even 40 games into the season, and these guys didn’t even play full seasons in the majors last year. I get that we all want instant gratification, but for 999 out of 1,000 prospects, that’s just not how this game works. Development takes time and repetition. Just look at Jarred Kelenic. He’s completely shaken off the “bust” label and is raking this year.
Brandon: I guess if there’s one thing I’d add to Cam, is that it didn’t just “happen” for Kelenic. He spent the offseason working with swing coaches to get better at staying inside of pitches on the inner half, and now he’s driving those balls to the pull field and to right center with authority.
The underlying skills for Tork and Riley are really good, but this can’t go on another year without some real intervention. Particularly in Tork’s case, his issues are ones that top development orgs have gotten better at correcting. The answers are out there, but if Tork and his personal coaches can’t figure it out himself, the Tigers historically have had little success helping hitters make these adjustments.
Nick Castellanos may be the last one they sort of got sorted it out with a generally similar problem. So despite the fact that the whole organization is brand new in terms of coaches at all levels, they have a lot to prove here and waiting another year for it to “click” isn’t going to get it done.
Cam: Yeah, what Brandon said. Practice with smart people instead of the ding dongs that were running the organization for the last eight years.
Brandon: Those absolute goofs...
Sunshine: Basically, the scouts portrayed in the film Moneyball, it seems like.
Cam: “Billy, does Pete need to be here?”
So that is what is on the minds of Bless You Boys’ staff. How do you feel about two of Detroit’s most important prospects? Let us know in the comments below.