Tigers' Spencer Torkelson regrouping after spring struggles; likely to start at West Michigan
Lakeland, Fla. — They look like numbers that somehow got mixed up or were misprinted: .038 batting average, .167 on-base percentage, one hit and 16 strikeouts in 26 at-bats.
But the digits are spot-on. They belong to Spencer Torkelson, whose spring camp, perhaps mercifully, was to end Tuesday as the Tigers head north for Opening Day, minus their first-overall draft pick from 2020. He will carry on as the minor-league phase of spring camp offers Torkelson a fresh start at Lakeland.
“A change in scenery will do him fine,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Tuesday, offering insight in how a 21-year-old prospect, with baseball-world celebrity, might be assessed after a nightmarish camp. “I’ll convince him today when I see him that I won’t remember in the least his spring training and neither should he.
“The struggles are OK, psychologically. It’s good for him to struggle a little bit and remember this game is hard and he has things to work on.
"The longer he carries this spring with him, the less productive it will be for him.”
A year ago, Torkelson had just wrapped up a COVID-killed season at Arizona State. His big, right-handed bat was considered so advanced, and so powerful, he was widely viewed as a no-question first-overall prize in June’s MLB draft.
The Tigers confirmed it then reaffirmed it when they paid him $8 million-plus, more than had ever been offered a first-overall MLB pick.
Torkelson’s path at that point should have been conventional: a trip to rookie camp for initiation, then placement at some Single-A outpost, where Torkelson likely would have had a baseball life not wholly unlike the competition he had seen at ASU and beyond.
But with the minor-league season wiped out by coronavirus, Torkelson was left to train with the advanced, more-seasoned cast at the Tigers’ taxi camp at Toledo. He was also asked to shift to a new position — third base. He never had the transition that’s customary for prospects, which, regardless of skill level, has always been viewed by baseball’s intelligentsia as essential.
To watch Torkelson this spring has been a study in seeing how tough adjustments — and perhaps confusion and doubt — manifest themselves in at-bats.
Torkelson didn’t chase pitches, a bad habit some prospects display from the start. In fact, he was overly choosy, drawing four walks. But he often was left looking at strike three.
“I just saw a guy who was mired in an uncomfortable setting and could get himself out of for one spring training that no one cares about anymore.
“We all want these players to be perfect,” said Hinch, “and I certainly wish he’d have enjoyed a bit more success, but I don’t think it was any reflection on his career, or his season this year, or our thoughts on him.
"He’s a really good player. If I were to be critical of him, he didn’t pull the trigger as much on early-count fastballs as I would have expected him to do as an offensive force coming out of the draft. But if we define every player by their first experience, and you go back in time, I think you’d have a hard time believing some of the careers guys have had afterward.”
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It is expected Torkelson will have a month to calm himself as Tigers minor-leaguers get ready for schedules that are set to begin in early May. Torkelson’s anticipated post will be the Tigers’ newly crowned high Single-A site, West Michigan.
There he can expect to see pitching that isn’t as overwhelming as he regularly saw during Grapefruit League games — a brand of pitching prospects, even the best prospects, typically begin against.
“In spring training, when a veteran does it (struggles) we blow it off,” Hinch said. “When a hot prospect does it, we over-dramatize it. We need to let the kid go play.
“He’s going to be fine. I’m not worried about Tork in the least. He needs to work on some things like every player does. I’m not sure we need to put a microscope on him in spring training and label him as anything other than a player who needs time."
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Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.