Back in spring training, in our season preview series, the key for Spencer Torkelson to break out after a lackluster rookie campaign was pretty clear. The second year first baseman showed good plate discipline, didn’t strike out very much for a projected power hitter, and consistently hit the ball very hard in his rookie year. Yet the production just wasn’t there. He needed to start mashing balls in the air to the pull field.
Some of the mediocre production could be chalked up to some ongoing bad luck on hard hit balls in play. That’s still an issue here in September 2023. Torkelson’s weight on base average (wOBA) a statistic that grades overall production, crucially without park factors included, is .326 this season. His expected (xwOBA), based on comparing each ball hit in play against others of the same direction, exit velocity, and launch angle, says he should be at .356.
Both numbers are significantly higher than in 2022, but the differential remains about 30 points off his expected marks. At this point, that has to be Comerica Park’s deep alleys and straightaway center field having an effect. And that isn’t going to change after the preseason adjustments already made. Of course, as I’ve said a few times, the cure for bad batted ball luck is crushing home runs.
However, to hit more home runs the crucial detail was that Torkelson needed to handle and drive fastballs in the air to the pull side much more often. It’s hard to hit home runs to center and right center field, particularly in Comerica Park, yet that was the direction the majority of his fly balls were travelling. As a first overall pick and a first baseman to boot, there was simply no way that Torkelson was ever going to be a valuable player without showing off the expected 30+ HR power projected for him as an amateur and as a prospect.
After harping on that point since midway through his rookie season, I couldn’t help wondering if Torkelson would be able to make the adjustment. We saw a similar problem with Isaac Paredes in his brief exposure to the major leagues. AJ Hinch and the Tigers were all trying to help him make adjustments to pull more fastballs in the air, but he wasn’t able to get there in the limited time he had with the major league coaching staff. Instead the Rays continued to beat that approach into his head, and he’s turned into one of the better hitters in the game in the nearly two years since the rather unfortunate Austin Meadows trade. The Tigers absolutely could not afford to let something similar happen with their prized slugging prospect.
Early returns in April and May of this season weren’t very encouraging, as Torkelson was actually more aggressive, giving away some of his discipline to try and ambush more pitches early in counts.
About that time, we were joined by a chorus of other voices all chanting “pull them in the air.”
No doubt Torkelson didn’t need any of our general advice. It’s easier said than done, obviously, but for him to get pitchers out of his kitchen, where they had lived with relative impunity since his call-up, he had to start doing damage on fastballs over the middle of the plate.
This is also rather obvious if you’ve watched Torkelson over the past three months, but he does appear to have figured it out and the dingers have been flying with regularity.
Take a look at the top spray chart, which is fly balls from his debut through May 30 of this year. The second chart is the same spray chart from June 1 through September 3, 2023.
Torkelson’s wOBA on all fastballs since June 1 is now a very healthy .387. Prior to that point he held a .313 wOBA. In just a bit over three months, encompassing June, July, August, and three days in September, Torkelson has 21 home runs and is on close to a 40 home run pace.
Now, take a look at Torkelson’s zone maps against fastballs to see where the damage is coming from in the zone. The first is prior to June 1, the second is from June 1 to today.
Torkelson is finally hammering anything up in the zone, covering the middle and middle down with authority, and still dangerous on the inner edge unless it’s down at his knees. If you’re a pitcher looking at this, you feel like you have to really spot those fastballs down and in or down away on the corner. There isn’t much to work with that Torkelson isn’t likely to do big time damage against.
We’ve heard Tigers coaches like Lloyd McClendon and tv analysts like Craig Monroe forever promoting the idea of having a right center field approach. Even as Torkelson has found success by pulling a lot more balls in the air, this mantra of right center field refuses to die. The Tigers were emphasizing this with Torkelson all through the 2021 minor league season, terrified that he’d become a dead pull hitter. The Tigers hearts were in the right place, but they probably did him wrong to a degree early on.
Sure, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez consistently had a right center field approach, but they had long made known that anything on the inner half or over the middle was probably going to get crushed to the pull field. That has to be established first. Then, as pitchers fear a hitter, they’ll start using more breaking balls and changeups, while trying to pitch them away more often, particularly with fastballs. At that point the opposite field approach is open for business. But focusing on spraying singles and doubles to right center field isn’t going to force pitchers into your wheelhouse.
Torkelson followed their instructions and by the time he got to Toledo in August of 2021, he was peppering the right center field and right field wall at Fifth Third Field with line drives and planting balls up on the concourse beyond those walls. That’s not a bad thing, but they probably had it backwards. Torkelson needed to start with the basics, particularly after a very short college and pro career before reaching the major leagues, during which he perhaps learned to be a little too patient because pitchers were terrified of him. Major league pitchers are a different animal entirely.
Until Torkelson established that he would pull fastballs in the zone into the left field seats, there was just little for pitchers to fear, particularly in parks with deep walls in right center and in straightaway center field like Comerica. As long as they stayed out over the plate and didn’t try to jam him too aggressively, he wasn’t going to do much but lift a fly ball to right center field for an easy out, or spray line drives to the gaps for singles and the occasional double.
So how did Torkelson adjust?
Seemingly a lot more went into it than simply focusing on pulling the ball. Torkelson discussed working on his lower half strength and flexibility in camp this spring, trying to help him get more athletic in the box. He’s been quite a bit better adjusting in motion to cover the bottom half and outer edge of the plate more effectively. He also crept his back foot in a little closer to the plate with slightly less of a closed stance, generally.
Take a look at Torkelson’s stance and pre-pitch setup from his first MLB hit against Rich Hill, to his most recent home run against the Chicago White Sox and lefty Aaron Bummer.
Remember that the angles are slightly different with the camera closer to behind the mound in Chicago, versus a little more toward left field in Detroit.
Here’s the home run, also off of a lefty, on Sunday.
No major overhaul of Torkelson’s hitting mechanics is evident, but there are some subtle adjustments in his setup to help him cover the plate effectively and be quicker to good fastballs. For one, he’s keeping his front leg a little more flexed after his short stride. He also looks to be loading his hands more quickly without closing his shoulders off and getting caught late in the process. Instead it’s a slightly quicker, less busy load, helping him keep his weight back and fire through the ball with good batspeed and extension.
In the first clips, you can see him strongly oriented to hit the ball to right field, and then he dips that rear shoulder to stay inside it and knocks it to the right center field gap. That’s partly attributable to facing a lefty, but we saw plenty of that against right-handers as well.
This season, as he’s made these small adjustments, he can still inside-out balls away when the situation calls for it, but he’s in a much better position to open his hips and drive the ball in the air to left field. Against Bummer he looks like he was sitting on that breaking ball down in the zone the whole AB and knew it was out the moment he made contact. Against right-handed pitching he’s even more neutral, with his hips almost perpendicular to the pitching rubber.
Here’s one of the best fastballs in the game from Spencer Strider back in June, and there it goes.
Stay primed to crush fastballs, adjust to breaking balls and offspeed. That second part will be the next phase for Torkelson, as he is still somewhat vulnerable to breaking stuff and changeups down.
However, if you go through a ton of different swings through this season, you’ll also see that he’s now tweaking these elements in his setup constantly based on who he’s facing, what the situation and count are, and generally showing plenty of signs that he’s figured a lot out in his basic swing and approach, and is now starting to play the game more freely and less mechanically.
All good signs. And once more, to simplify this and bring the point home, look at how his wOBA has corresponded to hitting more fly balls and pulling the ball more overall.
Torkelson wOBA with Batted Ball Type-Direction
|1st Half 2022
|2nd Half 2022
|1st Half 2023
|2nd Half 2023
Spencer Torkelson is going to finish the season still looking rather mediocre for a first baseman in terms of hitting, and overall due to his defensive liabilities. He’s not a finished project yet, but we’re now three months and counting in a stretch where he’s put up a 118 wRC+ and continues to build on that. Apart from his batting average, which remains very low at .226 over that time span, things are coming together. His plate discipline remains excellent. His strikeout rate is a little above league average, but so is his walk rate. And now he’s doing serious damage against a lot of different types of pitches. It’s easier to believe that the batting average will come around if he continues to hit the ball this hard, produce power, and maintain his solid strikeout to walk ratio.
Step one was getting pitchers out of his kitchen so he can cook. Now that he’s made it hot for pitchers over the plate, the hope is that he’ll start getting a few more walks. He’ll also get a lot more pitchers trying to spot fastballs on the outer edges against him. That is where the ol’ right center field approach will come into play, but we’ve seen that Torkelson is capable of driving those pitches on a line the opposite way if pitchers really start trying to live out there.
The other key for the young first baseman is to clean up his defense more, but that’s a topic for another time. Tork has work to do to become the All-Star caliber first baseman the Tigers expected, but the progress has been substantial this season and that lends credence to the idea that the rest will continue to develop with more experience. With Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter establishing themselves as dangerous hitters as well, the future for the Tigers’ offense looks far brighter than it did early this season.