Spencer Torkelson Is Breaking Out

Spencer Torkelson
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers’ season hasn’t been much to write home about, particularly on the offensive side, but one encouraging sign has been the play of Spencer Torkelson. The top pick of the 2020 draft was utterly overwhelmed by major league pitching as a rookie last year, to the point that he was demoted to Triple-A for a spell. He started this season slowly as well, but has shown significant signs of progress and has been red-hot this month.

Even while going hitless in his last two games — can’t win ’em all when it comes to timing these articles — the 23-year-old Torkelson entered Wednesday hitting .237/.320/.449 with 23 homers and a 112 wRC+. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but that represents significant advancement over last year’s dismal line (.203/.285/.319, 76 wRC+), not to mention a strong effort to overcome this year’s early-season struggles. After hitting just .206/.266/.309 (55 wRC+) through April, he’s at .243/.331/.480 (124 wRC+) since, including .267/.375/.653 with eight home runs and a 179 wRC+ in August, with a pair of four-hit games and a quartet of two-hit games. And he’s done this month’s damage against the Pirates, Rays, Twins, Red Sox, Guardians, and Cubs — mostly contending teams, if not necessarily powerhouses.

A hot month or six weeks may just be that, and while it’s too early to suggest that Torkelson is a finished product, there’s a lot to like about the evolution of his performance.

After a legendary career at Arizona State, where he broke Barry Bonds’ freshman home run record, led the nation in dingers, and was rated as the top prospect entering the 2020 draft by Baseball America, Torkelson was chosen with the first pick and signed for an $8.4 million bonus. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed his professional debut until 2021, and the desperation of a front office regime hoping to show a quick return, he had just 121 games of minor league experience under his belt when the Tigers stuck him in their Opening Day lineup in 2022. He began his career by going 0-for-10 with seven strikeouts and three walks in his first four games before finally connecting for a double off Boston’s Rich Hill.

The hits didn’t keep on coming. Torkelson batted just .197/.282/.295 (69 wRC+) with five homers through the first half before mercifully being sent to Triple-A Toledo, not returning until September. While his results were better upon returning (.219/.292/.385, 95 wRC+), they were still well below acceptable production for a first baseman, regardless of draft pedigree. “Gosh, it’s not easy to be under a microscope and struggle,” he said after the season. “Just to show up every day with somewhat of a positive mindset sometimes was a win for me.”

Concerns about Torkelson’s lack of production carried over into this season, and his elevated chase rate in April (32.3%, up from last year’s 27.7%) suggests he might have been pressing. He’s recovered his plate discipline, however, and his 26.9% chase rate and 10.2% swinging-strike rate are both a bit below last year’s marks, with his 10.1% walk rate and 24.1% strikeout rate representing slight improvements as well.

Setting the arc of his 2023 season aside for a moment, what’s clear is that Torkelson is hitting the ball much harder:

Spencer Torkelson Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% FB% Pull% BBE EV Barrel% HardHit%
2022 0.99 40.3% 40.7% 42.2% 263 90.5 8.4% 41.4%
2023 0.70 32.6% 46.5% 47.4% 347 92.5 14.7% 51.6%
All statistics through August 23.

Note the increases in his fly ball and pull rates, as well as the result when the Venn diagram overlaps. Last year, Torkelson hit 21 fly balls to his pull side, producing six home runs and 29 total bases (1.381 SLG). This year, he’s already at 52 pulled flies, which have produced 17 homers (both of those figures rank 12th in the majors) and accounted for 79 total bases (1.510 SLG).

Torkelson’s barrel rate has jumped from the 56th percentile to the 91st, with his hard-hit rate improving from the 61st percentile to the 95th, and his average exit velocity from the 78th percentile to the 93rd. Roughly speaking, he’s among the majors’ top 20–25 players in crushing the ball. He’s maintained a rolling hard hit rate above 55% for about a month and above 60% for the past two weeks:

What’s behind the change? Torkelson made some subtle mechanical adjustments last year at Toledo; as The Athletic’s Cody Stavenhagen observed at the time, “He is distributing weight better throughout his swing, staying more athletic rather than locking himself with a stiff front leg. He is standing closer to the plate, something he does not consider a major factor.”

This year, his improvements may stem more from the mental side of his game. “I think he’s been much more process-oriented this season from last year,” manager A.J. Hinch told Stavenhagen in June. More:

“I don’t know if his approach has changed other than his mindset has changed. I think what he values and holds himself accountable to is more process-based.

“I think he’s evolved to being able to take a slightly different approach to different style pitchers. You get a pitcher who’s uber-aggressive in the strike zone, he’s not afraid to swing early … If you get a guy who has a wipeout pitch, he’s not afraid to eliminate the pitch. If you get somebody who sprays the ball, he will go up and be pretty patient. The maturity that I’ve seen in the past year has benefited him the most.”

When Torkelson started slowly, the gap between his actual and expected stats generated concern that there was something specific about his combination of launch angles and exit velocities that was causing him to fall short. While I’m not sure it’s a huge factor, there may be something to this, such as the fact that while his overall exit velocity is in the 93rd percentile, his 90.1 mph average exit velocity on fly balls is “only” in the 78th percentile (h/t Pitcher List). That suggests that he’s getting a bit less bang for his buck if you simply focus on EV.

Torkelson has raised his average launch angle and exit velocity with this hot streak, but he’s still lagging behind his expected stats, and in fact has for every month of the season, regardless of the variations in either of those two stats:

Spencer Torkelson Statcast Profile
2022 263 .203 .226 .319 .378 .272 .305 90.5 111.5
2023 344 .237 .265 .449 .503 .330 .363 92.4 112.7
Mar/Apr 2023 108 .206 .257 .309 .438 .249 .321 90.9 15.0
May 2023 116 .267 .290 .416 .446 .343 .366 93.0 15.9
June 2023 113 .196 .225 .441 .459 .306 .327 92.8 22.0
July 2023 108 .247 .250 .454 .498 .329 .349 91.9 15.3
August 2023 84 .282 .307 .690 .725 .447 .471 94.3 20.4

It does appear that Comerica Park is a factor – no surprise given the pitcher-friendly nature of the park:

Spencer Torkelson Statcast Home/Road Splits
Home 254 .223 .247 .386 .459 .310 .348 92.1 18.1
Away 275 .250 .278 .504 .536 .348 .374 92.8 17.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Torkelson has fallen 73 points short of his xSLG at home compared to 32 points short elsewhere. For what its worth, all hitters at Comerica are a combined 15 points short in that department (.400 SLG, .415 xSLG), the sixth-largest gap in the majors. But while there might be something to the park’s characteristics (though it still favors righties over lefties), I do wonder if there’s also a psychological element in play — self-induced pressure to impress the hometown fans, perhaps — given how generally dismal Torkelson’s numbers have been in Detroit. Note that last year the gap was 114 points at home (.230 SLG, .344 xSLG) and four points elsewhere (.407 SLG, .411 xSLG).

Torkelson grew up next door to my oldest cousin — who gave me a trove of 1960s and ’70s baseball cards when I was around 10 years old, which had a massive impact upon my appreciation for the era that preceded my conscious attention to the game — in Petaluma, California, so I already had a mental bookmark in place to write about the young slugger. Then a reader called my attention to him in this week’s chat, asking about the extent to which Torkelson’s breakout (or hot streak) was so fastball dependent. “[I]t seems that he is slaughtering fastballs but still struggling to hit (/hard-hit) everything else,” wrote reader Porcho Villa.

On the subject, Torkelson did recently discuss his very fastball-centric focus with colleague David Laurila:

Laurila: Your basic approach is to hunt fastballs middle and adjust from there?

Torkelson: “It has to be. I like to keep it super simple. It’s having a good foundation and timing up my hand rhythm with the pitcher. I’m staying on the fastball and trying to drive it to the center fielder’s left shoulder. If it’s not a fastball… I mean, I’ve hit a baseball for the last 20 years. It’s instinct.”

Between that and his pitch splits on Baseball Savant, our reader’s generalization isn’t entirely off the mark:

Spencer Torkelson Pitch Splits
Season Pitch % PA AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
2022 4-Seam 34.5% 144 .175 .212 .292 .390 .277 .326 92.4 19.5%
2023 4-Seam 30.9% 182 .270 .287 .500 .570 .377 .410 95.5 20.0%
2022 Sinker 13.0% 62 .356 .350 .559 .585 .408 .414 93.9 13.8%
2023 Sinker 16.0% 100 .258 .324 .419 .571 .317 .403 94.5 10.2%
2022 Slider 21.9% 83 .205 .198 .295 .329 .236 .254 86.7 38.8%
2023 Slider 20.6% 90 .210 .227 .407 .380 .303 .303 89.7 30.6%
2022 Curve 8.2% 28 .148 .210 .185 .286 .164 .231 90.8 30.0%
2023 Curve 8.5% 37 .235 .187 .647 .509 .388 .321 89.3 28.0%
2022 Changeup 10.4% 47 .075 .150 .075 .170 .160 .226 85.5 30.5%
2023 Changeup 11.5% 57 .115 .213 .308 .404 .207 .289 86.2 36.1%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

When he makes contact, Torkelson is hitting the ball harder (relative to 2022) against every one of those major offerings besides curveballs, and yet he’s getting quite unlucky on his results against sinkers (note the 152-point gap between his SLG and xSLG on those). That doesn’t quite cancel out the 138-point gap against curves due to the sample sizes, but a look at Torkelson’s Statcast run values for these offerings tells us that he’s above average against only four-seamers (+5 runs, a 13-run improvement relative to last year) and curves (+2 runs) but not sinkers (-3 runs) or any of those others (-1 to -3 runs). If we’re focusing on the upward-trending part of his season — say, going back to mid-June to beef up the sample sizes, giving us two roughly equal splits of 270 PA with a 91 wRC+ and 265 PA with a 129 wRC+ — then he’s been getting even stronger results against both sinkers (.302 AVG, .558 SLG) and curves (.214 AVG, .847 SLG) and a bit better against sliders in the power department (.182 AVG, .486 SLG).

All of which is to say that his splits show at least some promising signs of progress, and I think it’s too early to fret over the shape of his improvement given his age. He’s made a huge jump beyond last year’s dismal campaign; his 34-point improvement in wRC+ ranks sixth among players with at least 400 PA in each season, and his 6.3-point jump in barrel rate is tops:

Largest Barrel Rate Improvements, 2022–23
Player Team 2022 2023 Change
Spencer Torkelson DET 8.4% 14.7% 6.3%
Trent Grisham SDP 8.1% 13.8% 5.7%
Luis Robert Jr. CHW 8.9% 14.6% 5.7%
Matt Olson ATL 13.6% 18.2% 4.6%
Randy Arozarena TBR 7.9% 12.4% 4.5%
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. TOR/ARI 3.8% 8.2% 4.4%
Matt Chapman TOR 12.9% 17.1% 4.2%
Nick Castellanos PHI 6.6% 10.7% 4.1%
Mookie Betts LAD 9.7% 13.7% 4.0%
Austin Hays BAL 5.2% 9.0% 3.8%
Minimum 400 plate appearances in each season.

Where Torkelson could stand to improve is on defense, where his -8 DRS and -5 RAA drain a whole lot of the value out of his performance — not that it particularly matters in the moment given where the Tigers are, at 58–69, with the majors’ fourth-lowest wRC+ (89). This is a team that could use some good news given the injuries and slow progress of the young pitchers drafted in recent years; in Torkelson, the Tigers have it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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5 months ago

At least he looks like a major league player now. With the universal DH it is suddenly much harder to find above average hitters.

I think the story of this (possible) breakout is that until the new front office took over this team was horrible at developing hitters. There are like four or five different hitters that have gotten noticeably better and I don’t think that is coincidence.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Hitters really seemed to have improved across all levels starting in 2022, which also coincides with hiring Ryan Garko to be VP of player development. Personally, I am giving that guy a lot of credit for some of the improvements in the system, especially in the minors. They don’t have a stacked farm or anything, but it is nice to see players actually improve as they level up through the system. Which was an awfully rare occurrence until recently.

5 months ago
Reply to  bada87bing

I’m wondering whether the canceled 2020 minor league season had a greater impact on hitters than pitchers. Torkelson missed the part of the season after the draft which might have set him back a bit….or not.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

And Riley Greene is looking more and more like a lock to be a perennial All-Star.