Detroit Tigers: Lower your expectations for Spencer Torkelson
Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch was a guest on MLB Network Radio yesterday morning, and when the subject turned to Spencer Torkelson, Hinch said what everyone already suspected:
The experiment at third base was cute, and Spencer Torkelson was passable there. But he has now played 21 games in Toledo, and 20 of them have been at first base, with the other at DH. He’s the first baseman of the future, and that’s that.
I rarely write articles of pure opinion, and no one asked for my thoughts on Spencer Torkelson. But, I’ve seen him in person a half-dozen times this year, and watched him another 50+ times on MiLB.TV, so I figured I’d share some of what I’ve seen with Detroit Tigers fans.
Before I begin, I just want to remind everyone I am not a scout. I see what I see, and I think what I think, but I’m wrong all the time. There’s a reason I keep this as my embedded Tweet, so do with my opinions what you will.
Spencer Torkelson: The Good
Spencer Torkelson was famous in college for hitting home runs, and his power is absolutely legit in pro ball. But there’s something about his batted-ball data this year worth noting:
Spencer Torkelson Hits/HR by direction
*Includes balls hit to “left-center” or “right-center”
Spencer Torkelson does an awful lot of his damage in the middle of the field. That’s generally a great way to make a living, but not necessarily conducive to lofty home run totals in Comerica Park.
And Torkelson isn’t a behemoth. He’s roughly the same height and weight as Akil Baddoo, and he doesn’t have otherworldly, Giancarlo Stanton power. He is certainly strong enough to go out to all fields, but don’t be shocked if, at least early in his career, his power numbers are more Nick Castellanos than Miguel Cabrera.
Spencer Torkelson also has a terrific understanding of the strike zone. He can be sequenced into chasing high fastballs, or low secondary offerings (show me a hitter who can’t), but he largely stays in the strike zone.
And beyond that, he shows good discipline within the zone, laying off borderline pitches if he can’t drive them, at least until he has two strikes. Torkelson has the eye and discipline to post walk rates above 12% on an annual basis.
Spencer Torkelson: The Less Good
One of the most enticing aspects of Spencer Torkelson as a draft prospect was his mix of hitting ability and easy plus power. It’s what has kept him ranked as the #4 overall prospect to Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, and the #3 overall prospect in baseball to FanGraphs.
I’m not as convinced he’s going to hit for a high batting average in the majors.
I hesitate to even mention that, because I honestly don’t care. I think Torkelson will hit for enough power and get on base at a high enough rate to be a valuable player. But I suspect a segment of the fan base might be shocked or upset if Spencer Torkelson hits under .250 on an annual basis, which I think is very possible.
Why do I think that? It goes back to his approach. Torkelson goes to the plate looking to do damage. That’s undoubtedly a good thing!
But it also means Torkelson doesn’t often poke a simple single the other way. When he’s not crushing the ball or walking, he’s usually hitting sky high pop ups, or rolling over grounders to the left side.
Now, I reserve the right to change my mind on this. Remember that chart?
Spencer Torkelson Hits/HR by direction
That’s the one. Just 21% of Torkelson’s hits in High-A and Double-A went to the opposite field. But 47% of his Triple-A hits have gone the other way. I haven’t noticed any real change in Torkelson’s approach with the Mud Hens, so I’m choosing to view this as a small-sample aberration. If he keeps using the opposite field he may yet hit .270 or better.
Spencer Torkelson also seems to be a pretty streaky hitter. Those streaks, along with his truncated follow-through, have led to some Justin Upton comparisons, and I feel those comps are apt.
There are times, and in my opinion too many times, when Spencer Torkelson gets beaten by pedestrian stuff. He’ll pop up hanging breaking balls, and whiff on below-average velocity.
There are other times when Spencer Torkelson looks like the Terminator, and it seems like he could hit a curving bullet 450 feet. His time in West Michigan concluded with one such stretch.
He also had that famous 7-for-7 doubleheader in Erie. Sometimes Spencer Torkelson looks like the greatest hitter alive. But, so far at least, those stretches don’t last very long.
It’s entirely possible it just takes Spencer Torkelson a little time to adjust to each new level. And if you wanted to argue most players goes through stretches like this, I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. But Spencer Torkelson’s power and patience seem to stay consistent. It’s his batting average that fluctuates.
Hitting streaks aren’t particularly valuable, but they do tell us a little about a batter’s consistency. Spencer Torkelson’s longest hitting streak this year is four games, which he’s done four times.
Compare that with Riley Greene, who is currently in the midst of his 8th four-game hitting streak of the year. Six of those streaks extended to six games, two made it to eight games, and one made it to twelve. Riley Greene is a pure hitter.
Spencer Torkelson has 26 homers this year. That’s fantastic. But he’s also batting .210 in Toledo, and just .246 in his 71 games above A-ball. To be fair, his BABIP in those games is under .240, so he’s also dealing with some bad luck.
Spencer Torkelson: Being Realistic
I promise you I’m not trying to be negative about Spencer Torkelson. Again, I don’t particularly care about batting average, and I don’t think you should either.
All I want to do here is help manage fan expectations for Spencer Torkelson. I’m as guilty as anyone of inflating those expectations, what with our constant videos of Tork hitting bombs over at Tigers Minor League Report.
But those are just highlights. We don’t show you when he strikes out, or pops up a hanger, or grounds into a double play. At least not usually.
Take the positive reinforcement of home run videos, the lofty prospect rankings, Torkelson’s status as the #1 overall pick in 2020, and the Tigers not exactly being shy about celebrating his accomplishments, and it’s understandable if fans expect the second coming of Miguel Cabrera.
That’s just not fair to Spencer Torkelson. I think fans should be prepared for him to hit .230-250 when he arrives in Detroit, with plenty of walks and some impressive power numbers.
Earlier this year I suggested Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins would be a solid, 50th percentile outcome for Spencer Torkelson. People weren’t terribly happy about that. I understand, but look at Hoskins’ stats:
Rhys Hoskins is an above-average big leaguer, and a legitimate middle-of-the-order masher. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable outcome for Spencer Torkelson.
Give Spencer Torkelson Time
This is advice to everyone, including me. Spencer Torkelson is not a finished product. He just turned 22, he reached Triple-A in fewer than 100 games, and he owns a .936 OPS in his first year of professional baseball. He’s an outstanding prospect who deserves more time to develop.
I do my best to be honest and objective about what I see, but I wouldn’t be writing here if I weren’t emotionally invested in the Detroit Tigers. I don’t think the Spencer Torkelson I’ve seen this year is a future MVP candidate at the big-league level, but I truly hope I’m wrong about that.
I hope he goes out and makes me look foolish every day for the next 15 years.