Potential Tigers pick Spencer Torkelson packs more than just a powerful punch

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

No one has seen him play more games. Not on a level to match Tracy Smith during Spencer Torkelson’s three years at Arizona State.

Smith watched Torkelson two years ago as a freshman bat .320, slug .743, and demolish Barry Bonds’ old ASU frosh record for home runs: 11. Torkelson walloped 25.

He saw Torkelson follow with 23 more homers in 2019, most in the Pac-12 Conference for a second season in a row, all while he batted .351 and had a .446 on-base percentage to go with the .440 he had as an 18-year-old freshman.

And then, for only a few weeks this year, before coronavirus ripped apart college baseball in 2020, Smith saw an even more polished and destructive Torkelson: .340 average, .780 slugging, and a preposterous .598 on-base average, all because pitchers were so frightened of a 20-year-old, right-handed hitter they walked him 31 times in 17 games.

Spencer Torkelson belted 54 home runs in 129 games at Arizona State.

His 2020 post script: six more homers and four doubles in 50 official at-bats.

Smith says that as much as Torkelson’s pure hitting skill — a gift for making not only contact, but hard contact — it’s his power and eye that should make him an easy choice for a certain team from Detroit.

Unless contract talks with Torkelson and adviser Scott Boras turn prohibitively sticky, the Tigers are expected to snag Torkelson with the 2020 draft’s first overall pick, tentatively set for June 10.

“To do what he did as a freshman, and then again as a sophomore — and then to have seen the growth this spring, amazing,” said Smith, Arizona State’s head baseball coach, who was talking this week about Torkelson and how he compares with some heavy names from ASU’s past: Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Bob Horner, and others.

There were more revelations, Smith said, as the Sun Devils tuned up in Arizona’s desert air and sunshine for what was expected to be a sweet run at this year’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Smith could see even in those early games that a 20-year-old, gradually being viewed as the best amateur baseball player in America, had become stronger, sharper, more seasoned.

“Even though they were still walking Tork at a great pace,” Smith said, “they’d occasionally throw him a strike and he would destroy it.

“It was something, to maintain that level of concentration. It was a little like Bonds that year (2001, 73 home runs, 177 walks). You’d throw him a strike and it was in San Francisco Bay.”

Smith couldn’t have been sure about such focus, such discipline. Not with all that was riding for Torkelson on 2020. And especially not when a man whose vocation, at least athletically, is hitting a baseball and so often was denied any chance.

“You see those highly rated guys, the players coming into those first picks of a year’s draft, and what’s the tendency when they’re not seeing pitches to hit?” Smith asked.

“They expand the strike zone. They get outside of themselves. It’s, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be an All-American, carrying my team.’ And then they start doing the thing that helped make them great: swinging at bad pitches.

“He (Torkelson) didn’t do that.”

Torkelson is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. The home runs he hit this spring often were liners that left the bat like a bullet and landed like an artillery shell.

“The bat speed is tremendous,” Smith said, “but I just think his hit tool is the separator for me. Some players have great power but don’t barrel it up.

“I can’t remember some of his highest exit velos (exit velocity data), but I have my eyeballs. You don’t have to tell me what his exit velo is. I see how fast it’s traveling and where it’s landing.” 

An area scout for a National League team had a near-duplicate summary. He asked for anonymity because of big-league clubs’ preferences to keep internal scouting data private.

The scout’s report matches Smith’s thoughts on raw hitting skills and power. What the scout saw in 2020 was revealing, he said.

Torkelson didn’t let the walks get to him. He stayed, for the most part, composed even as opposing pitchers social-distanced themselves from the strike zone when Torkelson arrived for what, so often, was all but an intentional pass.

There were some frustrations, the scout said, especially when first base was open and ASU was winning in a rout. Torkelson still would see little, if anything, to gorge on. It made for a not-so-pleasant stroll to first base.

It was on defense, the scout continued, that Torkelson has too many armchair scouts fooled. He is at first base, not only because Smith has superb talent at three other infield positions, but more because Torkelson plays first base with such style.

The scout noted that Smith was comfortable using Torkelson as a fill-in at third base, second base, or even center field when players were hurt and ASU needed to adjust.

Torkelson made all the plays, the scout said, and showed surprising understanding at the spacing for each position.

His athleticism is real, the scout added, and Torkelson’s understanding of the game seems innate. Doubly impressive was that Smith and his staff never flinched about Torkelson changing positions, knowing one botched play or moment of miscommunication could have led to a season-dashing accident.

The same scout said Torkelson might handle third base in the big leagues as smoothly as he plays at first, or a corner outfield spot.

Smith will go one better there: He insists Torkelson could play second base, also. And that’s all due to those infield workouts he has taken, in company with Alika Williams, a shortstop who should go in June’s first round, Gage Workman at third base, and Drew Swift at second.

“You put them all out at short, taking ground balls, and Spencer Torkelson’s actions are every bit as good as any of them,” Smith said. “He’s only playing first base because of the makeup of our team. Williams, Workman, and Smith are really, really good.

“I’ve heard all that stuff about how you’re supposed to stay away from right-handed-hitting first basemen, and I just laugh. Because that’s not what he is. He’s a really good athlete. And it’s not going to surprise me if, at the end of the day, he ends up at second base.

“I’m not putting any position past him. And I don’t see it as an issue to move him around. He was a football running back in high school.

“He moves. And he has aptitude.”

How much will it hurt that Torkelson hasn’t played a competitive game since March 8, against Fresno State?

Smith all but snorts. If anything, Torkelson’s coach says, it could help, all because Torkelson spent 2019 doing little but playing baseball: finishing ASU’s long schedule, moving to the Cape Cod League, and then to Team USA for an international duel, followed by fall baseball with the Sun Devils, all before the 2020 season picked up.

“That time off will be good for him,” Smith said.

Torkelson doesn’t disagree. Not publicly, anyway. He remains home, in Petaluma, California, “working on my online courses,” he said in a text message, “staying in shape and hitting at home in my batting cage.”

No word on the exit velos of those Torkelson-mashed pitches at the home cage. Smith is only sure the numbers no doubt confirm what his eyes earlier had made clear.

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