Possible Tigers pick Spencer Torkelson 'close' to perfect hitter, 'generational-type player'

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Phoenix — As lunch settings go, this venue dazzled on a sunny Friday afternoon in February.

Spencer Torkelson sat behind a railing along the first-base line at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, in a seat that, during a game, any ticket-holder would love.

Torkelson pushed away his chicken quesadilla.

“Too hot,” he said, returning to a conversation that was going to be all about baseball. And all about a 20-year-old man, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, who bats right-handed, plays first base for Arizona State — and who in four months might be suiting up for the Tigers at one of their farm-team stops.

Spencer Torkelson

Torkelson is headed on June 10 for possible, if not probable, fate as the 2020 MLB Draft’s first overall pick. Healthy debate remains: Austin Martin of Vanderbilt could end up as 2020’s grand prize. So could Georgia pitcher Emerson Hancock.

But it will take someone extraordinary, doing something extraordinary, in spring’s early months to topple Torkelson. And it would be a surprise if the Tigers, who need a franchise bat and fast, would decide that first pick in 2020, which they won as consolation for last year’s 47-114 record, will go to someone other than Torkelson.

He hit 48 home runs during his freshman and sophomore seasons at ASU — 10 more than Barry Bonds, who had the earlier ASU record for freshman-sophomore power. Torkelson added a pair more in his first weekend in 2020, which he was five hours from beginning as he sat with his quesadilla, beneath a deep blue sky overhead, all as sunshine warmed Camelback Mountain, tinged in brown beyond the outfield wall.

“For me, he’s a generational-type player,” said Michael Earley, who spent six seasons in the White Sox farm system before joining head coach Tracy Smith’s staff at ASU, where Earley works as Sun Devils hitting coach.

“He’s a (Bryce) Harper, a (Mike) Trout, a (Kris) Bryant. I was around Christian Yelich and Javy Baez, and he’s with all those guys.

“He’s got this rare combination of power and plate discipline. To say he’s perfect would be really unfair. But he’s really close to it.”

Consider last season’s numbers, when Torkelson was a sophomore: .351 batting average, .446 on-base percentage, .707 slugging, which is your basic 1.153 OPS. He became the first Pac-12 player since Oregon State’s Michael Conforto, now with the Mets, to lead the conference in homers in back-to-back seasons.

Note that Conforto hit 24 homers, total, during those two seasons. Torkelson socked 25 as a freshman. Last year he added 23. Torkelson's 2020 totals through eight games: four homers, 13 walks, and a monstrous 1.415 OPS as ASU burrows into a schedule of at least 40 more games.

'Really ridiculous power'

Smith, who was at Indiana before shifting to ASU six years ago, is aware of ASU's history and how Torkelson is about to shred it. He says Torkelson’s pluses are basic. Or, rather, basically stunning:

“He’s just a really good hitter. That’s what makes him exceptional. And, he’s off-the-charts, makeup-wise.

“This is a baseball guy. You don’t see hitters like this come around very often. Really ridiculous power, and he’s just a good athlete. He could play third base. The outfield. Multiple positions on defense. He saves runs.”

So you watch him, at bat and in the field, during a pair of weekend games. And you better understand the reviews.

First inning, against Villanova: Starting pitcher Gordon Graceffo is being delicate against Torkelson, who in Smith’s order bats second. On a 3-1 count, Torkelson rips a liner to the right-center field warning track. Caught.

Third inning: Torkelson takes a 3-2 pitch, maybe a stitch high in the strike zone, for one of the eight walks he will absorb in four weekend games.

Sixth inning: Torkelson gets a break. Villanova gets what it deserves. The catcher can’t handle a moon-high pop-up near the plate that disappears against Arizona’s afternoon sun. Torkelson follows by blasting a 3-2 slider high and far past the left-center field fence — 429 feet, 111-mph exit velocity. It’s his second homer of the weekend after he slammed one Friday, also against Villanova.

Seventh and ninth innings: No surprise. A pair of intentional walks.

That evening, against Michigan, Torkelson is human: He strikes out on a 3-2, 79-mph change-up from Michigan’s Steve Hajjar. The last pitch actually has Torkelson off-balance and out front. Torkelson in a later at-bat grounds out to third. He gets a four-pitch walk in the eighth. He lines out to left-center in the ninth.

Afterward, Hajjar says Torkelson flat-missed his first-inning 79-mph floater. But it had been more like an escape.

“I threw him a curveball (low, during one at-bat) that usually would have most batters bite,” Hajjar said. “He didn’t even budge.”

Those taking notes last weekend would say that, defensively, Torkelson is sharp. Better than might have been envisioned. Excellent hands and arm (he throws right-handed) at first. Smooth, quick move and pivot on a 3-6-3 double play. Good range and bead on snagging a foul pop-up along the right-field line.

Why, then, is he tucked at first base? Athletes this deft typically work elsewhere.

A basic reason is that ASU has a pair of potential first-rounders at third base and shortstop in Gage Workman and Alika Williams, respectively. Torkelson’s defense isn’t being wasted at first base. It’s being flaunted.

“I fell into that trap, too,” Torkelson said, reaching for his now-cooled quesadilla. “It gets like a stigma. Everyone thinks you stick a big guy out there who can’t play defense.”

In fact, Torkelson says, he would play shortstop “if they trusted me.”

They don’t, at least not compared with Williams. But the Sun Devils would have no issue using him at an outfield corner, as he was during last summer’s Cape Cod League, when he played right field — and played it well.

Torkelson offered a half-smile,

“I like to be just a baseball player,” he said, his eyes smothered beneath sunglasses. “To me, a game of catch is fun.”

'Stay easy, be simple'

That’s what makes his coaches glow, at least when they’re not rhapsodizing about his bat and defense.

They mention his blue-ribbon ethic as a teammate. How during practice he’ll go shag flies in right field if the situation permits.

“As a person, he’s all-around great — love the guy,” said Williams, who was Torkelson’s suite-mate during their freshman year. “And he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”

Spencer Torkelson

It was a teen’s personal profile, as much as his skills, that spurred ASU’s coaches to chase Torkelson six years ago, not long after Smith had become head coach.

Torkelson was living in Petaluma, Calif., an hour north of San Francisco. He is the son of certified public accounts, Rick and Lori Torkelson, and he was thriving in various sports for Casa Grande High School as part of a progression that had seen him play hockey as a pup. Spencer was a running back and outside linebacker in football at Casa Grande. He was flourishing in basketball, and in baseball, especially with his booming bat.

Recruiters hadn’t yet mobbed him. But the ASU staff had noticed.

“I didn’t have a lot of love out of high school,” said Torkelson, who thought he might be drafted in the early rounds by Philadelphia. The Phillies decided with other big-league clubs that Torkelson was more interested in ASU than in later-round money they weren’t going to offer.

The Sun Devils staff was all high-fives. They had first seen Torkelson as a 14-year-old at a Team USA tournament. By his sophomore year, he had pledged ASU.

“He just had a knack for hitting the ball hard to the big part of fields,” said Ben Greenspan, ASU’s associate head coach.

They have seen in three years a player explode. And mostly because of that dynamic swing. It is remarkably efficient. Tight. Lightning-quick. Yet full, with no hitch or excess length.

The smoothness enables him to wait. To judge pitches until the final millisecond. And that is behind his knack for swinging at strikes rather than pitcher’s pitches that might be a hair high, low, or off the plate.

Torkelson has studied a guy who played baseball in his big-league region, and who earlier was an ASU marvel: Barry Bonds.

“I try to stay easy, be simple,” Torkelson said. “I loved watching Bonds. How he did it.”

Of course, lots of kids try the Bonds approach. Or the Mike Trout method.

Most end up hitting like Charlie Brown.

“I’m lucky,” Torkelson said as Phoenix Municipal Field took a sunbath, its grass a lovely shade of near-spring green. “I have this frame. And then I work hard in the weight room (he lifts, religiously, every day).

“Sure, I want to be a power-hitter, but I don’t want to be — what’s that word, egotistical? Maybe all we need is a single to the right side of the infield.”

Greenspan buys thoughts that Torkelson is no narcissist, in the lineup, or away from it. A guy who in only three seasons is expected to become one of the NCAA’s 10 best home-run hitters in history, is about as impressed with himself as a realtor is with a thousand-square-foot bungalow.

“He’s been able to keep his humility,” Greenspan said. “For a guy to have that kind of humility, this young in his life and career, is special.

“My wife and I have guys over to our place — small groups,” he said. “He’s there (Torkelson) paying attention and having fun with my 5-year-old son.”

Torkelson understands how radically his life can, and should, change in four months. In veritable hours, he’ll go from college to professional baseball. He will move from student-apartment existence to millionaire status.

And he will not — today — talk about any of it.

Torkelson has waved off questions about being grabbed first in June’s draft. About the Tigers or Orioles or Marlins or any team picking in those first few slots. He doesn’t want to risk assumptions. He doesn’t care to offend towns or teams by speaking of one compared with another.

There is no upside, he has decided, about talking 2020 and the draft.

What is known is that he and Scott Boras have been prepping. Boras is Torkelson’s adviser, as they say before a player turns professional and the word “agent” can be used. There isn’t likely to be much wiggle room on first-overall pay, where the slot-ceiling will approach $9 million, should Torkelson be Detroit’s choice.

The Tigers won’t mind. Not if they decide in June that Torkelson is their man. The old tagline “franchise bat” probably is used too liberally in draft conversation.

But it won’t be out of place with Torkelson. Not with all this evidence.

A team from Detroit will offer its final verdict in June, at which point the Tigers and an old acquaintance from their happier history of 10 and 15 years ago, Boras, could again be in touch.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.