In his first MLB season, Spencer Torkelson lost himself and found himself. He went down to Toledo to get back to Detroit. Upon his return, he looked more like the hitter the Tigers drafted first overall in 2020 -- and more like the hitter they expect him to be in 2023.
"There was a lot of reflection of mistakes that I made," Torkelson said Monday on MLB Network Radio as he prepares for spring training. "There was a lot of failure, there were some ups, and it was just learning from that, taking the failures into the offseason and seeing how I can build off that. How could I come back better, what do I need to work on?"
Torkelson has already met with the Tigers' new hitting department, assembled this offseason by A.J. Hinch. But he isn't trying to reconstruct his swing. He just wants to recalibrate, knowing what he's capable of at his best. He flashed his potential in September after a cruel introduction to the big leagues and a somewhat crushing demotion to Triple-A.
"I lost my swing a little bit, just because I felt like I was sped up," he said. "I wasn’t myself. So it was really just getting back to myself in the batter’s box and trusting that if I just get back to my swing from my junior year of college and my 2021 minor league campaign, if I just get more consistency with that swing, everything is going to take care of itself. Just being super dedicated to the process and not worrying about results."
Torkelson's junior year of college is when he cemented himself as the top amateur prospect in the country. His 2021 campaign is when he climbed three levels in the minors and posted a .935 OPS. Then came 2022, when Torkelson cracked the Tigers' Opening Day roster and hardly hit a lick the first half of the season. He swung through pitches he would normally crush. He popped up others he expected to send soaring over the fence. He struck out almost as often as he reached base.
As the process improved after his stint in Toledo, so did the results. The numbers didn't totally reflect it thanks to a slew of hard outs, but there's no doubt Torkelson looked more dangerous at the plate down the stretch. Hinch recently said the Tigers were pleased with the growth in "his body language, his production inside the strike zone and his power," which "led us to having a ton of confidence in where he was leaving last season."
And where he's entering this one.
"When he went down and fixed his balance and starting hitting pitches over the plate a little bit better, the power showed up, especially to the pull side," said Hinch. "He wasn't so focused on getting the ball in the air, yet the result was that he was getting the ball in the air. I saw a more confident hitter in September than I did the previous five months. That in itself is something to build off of."
If you ask Torkelson, he'll tell you there's no offseason. He prefers to call it a "flex period." He's flexing his muscles with a couple of the Tigers' new hitting coaches in Phoenix, where all of them happen to spend their winters. Hinch said they've been "getting together regularly" ahead of spring training.
The Tigers are trusting in Torkelson in a big way this year. He's all but locked in as their everyday first baseman. As much as he was a weakness in the worst lineup in the majors last season, he can be a force behind a bounceback in 2023. Along with Riley Greene, he remains one of the most important figures in the Tigers' protracted rebuild.
"He’s a really good player and obviously he learned a lot from his first taste of the big leagues and probably his first taste of struggle when he got sent down to the minors," said Hinch. "We just want him to be part of an offense that needs to improve for us to factor in at any level."
At the very least, Torkelson shouldn't have to worry about so many loud outs this season. The Tigers are moving in the fences at Comerica Park, a change that Torkelson thinks "needed to happen." Hitting big-league pitching is hard enough without needing to blast a ball 420 feet to have something to show for it. Not that the new dimensions will change Torkelson's approach: "I’m just going up there trying to win every pitch."
"It’s a tough game," he said, words that ring true after his rookie season. The majors are "a different beast." Everyone's good enough to have gotten there,
some are good enough to survive, fewer still are good enough to thrive. The Tigers need Torkelson to thrive in the years ahead. It's the closest thing to a non-negotiable in their future. Torkelson seems to know it. He even seems to relish it. You just hope he's up for it, starting now at age 23.
"It’s not easy, but it’s the dream," he said. "I don’t want it any other way."
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