December 7, 2022

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Tork's track record shows he'll adjust to big league pitching

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This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson began his pro career with a rough Spring Training in 2021, then batted .146 (6-for-41) with no home runs and 17 strikeouts over his first two weeks at High-A West Michigan. Torkelson proceeded to hit .412 (28-for-68), posting a 1.320 OPS and just 11 strikeouts over his next four weeks to earn a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie.

Torkelson was batting .216 (25-for-116) with 32 strikeouts over his first six weeks in Erie before going off for a .356 average (21-for-59) with a 1.111 OPS over his next two-and-a-half weeks to earn his ticket to Triple-A Toledo. He was just 4-for-28 with nine strikeouts over his first seven games as a Mud Hen before hitting his first Triple-A home run, then finished his season with a 31-for-119 stretch, 11 home runs and a .980 OPS over his final 33 games.

There’s a pattern: At each new level, Torkelson has had an adjustment period. When he makes the adjustment, he tends to heat up quickly. His struggles against Major League pitching have gone on longer, but that’s a factor the Tigers weigh as they exercise patience with their top prospect and still their home run leader on the young season. 

“We don’t have to do it here just to make it feel like it’s normal,” manager A.J. Hinch joked on Wednesday. “You know, we pay attention to it. There’s nothing like struggling in the big leagues, though. You can have a rough start in A-Ball and at the moment it feels like the worst time in your life. This is the center stage, big scoreboard with the numbers on it, the fans, the expectations, the different ballparks, I mean, it’s different at this level. But he’s been there.

“I don’t think he’s shaken, which is key. We’ve got to find that right, fine line between pushing him but not accepting the lack of performance. I do trust him still to get a hit every time he gets up.” 

Another key is that he’s maintaining his plate discipline. His chase rate — 20.8 percent entering Thursday — remains well below the Major League average of 28.3 percent according to Statcast, putting him in the top 15 percent of Major League hitters. He’s also making solid contact, with a 47.2 percent hard-hit rate that puts him in the top 20 percent of big league hitters.

Where he’s being beaten is in the strike zone. His 63.5 percent swing rate and 79.1 percent contact rate on in-zone pitches entering Thursday are both below the Major League average. He’s also being beaten on fastballs.

“He expects a lot out of himself,” Hinch said. “I think the hardest thing is for him to realize he doesn’t have to be perfect. He doesn’t have to do everything, doesn’t have to cover every pitch. We’ve got to move the ball forward a little more consistently. His swing decisions are still pretty good. He’s not chasing a ton. If anything, I think he’s trying to hit everything, and that as a young player is a recipe for struggles. If you’re trying to hit everything and you’re not hitting anything consistently, that’s a bad combo.” 

That pressure is amplified by the offensive struggles around him. But any decisions on Torkelson are based on what’s best for him and his development, rather than any panic move based on the team’s slow start.

Despite said rough start, the Tigers have time to let Torkelson work his way through it.

Detroit welcomes an Orioles club pitching well above expectations, led by left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, but still hittable. Then, the Tigers hit the road to face a Rays rotation that includes two lefties in Shane McClanahan and Ryan Yarbrough. The opportunities are there for Torkelson to find the spark that marked each of his Minor League stops, even if the search for the spark has gone on longer here.

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