For the Detroit Tigers, sending down Spencer Torkelson is an issue of psychology and optics
Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila alluded to it during the 2020 season when fans were clamoring for top prospect Casey Mize to join the Detroit Tigers during the pandemic year and the club eventually announced that Isaac Paredes and Tarik Skubal would join Casey Mize in Detroit. “It’s performance-based from here on out and we want them to stay here.” It’s assumed, two years later, the club has the same desire with top prospect Spencer Torkelson–but is it the right move for his development?
When the Tigers made those prior call-ups, the organization was in a much different place. They had signed placeholders like Ivan Nova, Austin Romine, and CJ Cron to help fill holes to get through the season. There was no intent on winning, so the performances of Mize, Skubal, and Paredes were not as imperative because neither was the success of the club overall.
Plainly, Spencer Torkelson’s performance matters. The organization has poured significant resources into the parent club to try to win now, and Torkelson is on a list of several Detroit Tigers position players who are off to a sluggish start offensively. While the club accomplished the goal of not having to make Torkelson be ‘the guy’ in his rookie season, the struggles of others only amplify his own lackluster results.
Over his last 10 contests, Torkelson is slashing .094/.194/.094 with 14 strikeouts and 0 extra-base hits. This leaves the Detroit Tigers in a bind–caught between what is best for the team to help win their next game and what is best for Torkelson’s personal development as a player.
These challenges aren’t particularly recent–on the season to this point he’s a .167/.286/.295 hitter; good for a .581 OPS heading into Monday’s game. A demotion would be demoralizing in any case, but it remains to be seen if that demotion would spiral into even worse play in Toledo. For a player still integral to the future success of the Detroit Tigers, that cannot happen.
With that in mind, a specific plan needs to be put in place so that Torkelson can see his path back to Detroit. To do that, the Tigers need to figure out where exactly things are going wrong at the dish. The numbers offensively aren’t close to where many expected–but why?
There are some metrics that suggest Torkelson’s start may have some bad luck sprinkled in. He boasts the 89th percentile in chase rate and the 85th percentile in walks–so he’s taking his free passes when given to him and he doesn’t leave the zone much. Both are admirable attributes.
The issue, though, is Torkelson wasn’t drafted first overall to take walks. He was touted as a polished college bat with over-the-fence pop to all fields and 40 home-run potential PLUS some on-base ability and strike zone awareness.
Unfortunately, his seventh percentile strikeout percentage figure coupled with his excellent chase numbers suggests that he’s either missing on pitches within the zone or looking at too many strikes. Here are some plate discipline metrics when comparing Torkelson with a couple of the game’s great first basemen:
Torkelson is chasing less but making less contact than Rizzo and Freeman, especially on pitches within the strike zone. Nothing is particularly alarming, though, when compared to two of the top players at his position in the league offensively.
Personally, I’d like to see more aggressiveness from Torkelson. Patience is a rare attribute at this stage of his career, but I’d argue he is more passive than patient. In other words, he’s making an effort to survive and take walks instead of making his primary goal to do damage.
Does this warrant a demotion? Probably not, especially when considering this club is now likely destined for another sub-.500 season, anyway. Torkelson slashed .238/.350/.531 across 40 games in Toledo last season. Expecting more was a big ask, to begin with (although Chris Brown tried to warn everyone of this in his piece here).
That said, the .240/.331/.468 ZiPS projection from Fangraphs that everyone was so offended by heading into the season may have been bullish on Torkelson after all. Maybe a trip to Toledo lights a fire under someone like Torkelson and forces him into attack mode in the box. More likely, the Tigers, who’ve already likely kissed their playoff hopes goodbye, find more value in Torkelson working with the big league coaching staff and being around players like Miguel Cabrera.