In Spencer Torkelson, Tigers feel they drafted 'the total package'
Detroit — It didn’t take long for Hall of Famer Alan Trammell to see that Spencer Torkelson, whom the Tigers selected with the first overall pick Wednesday, wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill college baseball player.
He accompanied Tigers director of amateur scouting Scott Pleis on a scouting trip to Arizona in February, ostensibly to watch prospects from top programs Vanderbilt and Michigan. Mostly, though, Tigers general manager Al Avila wanted Trammell to see Arizona State’s slugging first baseman Torkelson, who the club already had flagged as the leader in the clubhouse for the first overall pick.
“Yeah, for the record, we dragged Tram out there and about five minutes into it he said, ‘I really like this guy (Torkelson),’” Pleis said Thursday in a Zoom conference. “We got to see him good early, before the shutdown, and we saw the power, the athleticism, the plate discipline — he’s the total package.”
Trammell, with 43 years of professional baseball experience under his cap, had more nuanced observations, though he’s still talking about a 3-2 slider Torkelson smoked out of the yard that day.
“What stood out was his athleticism,” Trammell said. “I wanted to watch him take ground balls. His arm strength, when he threw the ball across the diamond, even when he threw to second base, it just wasn’t normal. It’s better than average arm strength and footwork.”
When the Tigers discussed moving Torkelson from first base, where he played most of his college career, to third base, Trammell heartily endorsed it.
“You talk about, ‘Spencer Torkelson, third base,’ that’s a compliment to Spencer,” Trammell said. “If it doesn’t work out, we know he can play first base, but he can help the organization at third base, so we are going to give it a shot.”
To spend any time fretting about where he plays defensively, when he projects to be versatile enough to play corner infield or left field, is to completely miss the point of the pick. Torkelson was the best power hitter and maybe the best all-around hitter in the draft — and as such he could fill the biggest need in the organization.
“He brings so much to the table,” Avila said Thursday morning on 97.1 FM The Ticket. “His hitting prowess is well-documented. He’s one of the most productive hitters in college history, really.”
Pleis said he and Trammell saw five of Torkelson’s at-bats that night and he worked the count full in three of them.
“He’s not afraid to hit deep in the count,” Pleis said. “That tells you the type of hitter he is. He doesn’t have to sell out to hit a home run. We saw him crush balls to right field (his is a right-handed hitter) and to left-center field.
“He’s a hitter with plus power.”
With advanced plate discipline, as he showed this season when he took 31 walks in 17 games.
“He’s got good recognition, he sees the ball out of pitcher’s hand well and as Scott eluded to, he’s got patience and real short swing,” Trammell said. “You will see a lot of power hitters try to really crank it. He doesn’t do that, which leads us to believe it will be an easier transition into professional baseball.
“He’s going to have his ups and downs, but to his credit, he’s done the work to this point to have a real nice (hitting) package that’s going to be easier to work with.”
About that 3-2 slider he crushed that day in Phoenix. The previous at-bat, Torkelson drove a 3-1 pitch on a line to right field. The right fielder was playing him just a step in front of the warning track and still the ball was hit so hard he had to turn and make a leaping catch at the base of the wall.
“I was like, 'Woah,'” Trammell said. “The next time up, he hit a 3-2 slider a mere 435 feet out of the park. Now, at 3-2 you’re not looking to do damage, just make solid contact, right? But he hits a home run that far, off a slider. I mean, that’s a strong young man.
“He’s athletic, he’s got arm strength, he can run the bases — add all that together and we got a special guy.”
The type of player that his agent Scott Boras and his coach at ASU Tracy Smith both called a “generational talent.” The type of player the Tigers expect can be the fulcrum upon which they swing from rebuilding to contending in just a couple of years.
Heady stuff, really, but if Torkelson is sweating expectations, he’s not showing it.
“Pressure is a privilege,” he said Thursday. “A lot of people say there is no such thing as pressure, but I truly believe it’s a privilege. That pressure, or whatever you want to call it, drives me. It makes me work harder. I don’t let it faze me.
“It’s a privilege to be in the position I’m in, and you just have to run away with it.”
Torkelson won’t turn 21 until late August, but, just like his baseball acumen, his maturity seems well beyond his years.
On the shutdown slowing his development: “I don’t think my progress has been halted at all. It’s kind of an extended offseason, if you treat it that way. You still have to work hard. But it’s a blessing in disguise. People’s bodies are getting the break they need. You can get stronger and more flexible and hit more baseballs in the cage.
“It will just make it that much sweeter when you get back on the field.”
On the rejection of being undrafted out of high school: “It's so hard to put into words how I feel about where I was then to where I am now. I’m just thankful for everyone around me that had my back and helped me.
“I think not getting drafted out of high school was the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me work so much harder. It put everything into perspective for me.”
Torkelson is the son of two certified public accountants. His mother is celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri’s CFO — which is why Fieri tweeted out his congratulations on draft night.
“He is so down to earth,” Torkelson said. “He cooks a mean brisket, I promise you. It’s unreal. He’s such a good dude. To have him on my side is special.”
During the shutdown, Torkelson built himself a batting cage in his yard.
“But the net was made for a 10-year-old,” he laughed. “I put a hole in it in like two weeks. Which I guess is good thing.”
He also will have an immediate kinship with Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd. They both love hockey. Torkelson played the game for six years growing up.
“Love hockey,” he said. “It’s so much fun to watch. Hopefully I can go to a few Red Wings games, maybe get on the ice. That would be awesome.”
Safe to say, Torkelson checks a lot of boxes for the Tigers — middle-of-the-order hitter, versatile defender, competitor, charismatic clubhouse and community presence.
“He’s got tremendous makeup,” Avila said. “He’s a model guy in the clubhouse and on the field — he’s a vicious competitor. But off the field, he’s a great kid. We really feel he can be a homegrown star player for us.”
Time will tell.