Undrafted out of HS, Torkelson now a No. 1 pick

'I didn't see this coming. I just saw a good high school player'

June 10th, 2020

PHOENIX -- The numbers look like they are straight out of a video game, as if Spencer Torkelson mashed his way through the Pac-12 with the difficulty settings turned all the way down.

In his career at Arizona State, Torkelson hit .337/.463/.729 with 54 homers and 130 RBIs in 129 games, numbers that helped convince the Tigers to select him first overall in the 2020 Draft on Wednesday night.

Collegiate pitchers had a tough time slowing down Torkelson and, as it turns out, video games couldn't halt his production either.

"My junior year [2019], one night me and him stayed up all night gaming and then we realized it was like 4 a.m. and we had a scrimmage the next day," former ASU teammate Hunter Bishop said of Torkelson. "Probably not our smartest move, but we hit back-to-back homers at a 9 a.m. scrimmage and looked at each other and said, 'Maybe we should do that more.'"

Torkelson, ranked No. 1 on MLB Pipeline's Top 200 Draft Prospects list, certainly left his mark at Arizona State -- a program that has been home to Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson and 109 other players who have reached the Majors -- and did so immediately, crushing Bonds' freshman home run record.

Bonds hit 11 homers in 1983, a record that stood for 35 years before Torkelson shattered the mark with 25 blasts in 2018. Torkelson then went deep 23 times in '19, becoming the third player in Pac-12 history to hit 20 or more homers in back-to-back seasons.

The numbers may suggest things have come easy for the two-time unanimous All-American, but that's not the case. Just as gamers struggle the first time they play a new game, Torkelson -- who has been playing Call of Duty while the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic puts the baseball world on pause -- had to work his way up the ranks.

The 20-year-old wasn't drafted out of high school and although the skills were there, few thought he'd be this good, especially this soon.

"I didn't see this coming. I just saw a good high school player," said Paul Mayotorena, who coached Torkelson at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif.

ASU hitting coach Michael Earley echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think anyone quite knew this would happen, but I knew he was special," Earley said. "I worked with him a lot just by ourselves and I saw it early. I saw the ridiculous power."

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound first baseman -- Detroit actually drafted him as a third baseman -- was promptly slotted into the fourth spot in the batting order in his first college game. Torkelson went 0-for-4, but he did go 3-for-4 with two homers in the second half of the doubleheader.

"The thing that separates him from everyone else is his mind," Earley said. "There's that ['The Last Dance'] documentary ... and they talk a lot about Michael Jordan's mindset. Spencer Torkelson has that mindset and will to win, and that's what makes him great."

That desire to be the best is evident in Torkelson's offseason program.

Already an accomplished hitter, Torkelson wants to be a great all-around player, so he spent the past offseason working three days a week exclusively on defense.

"He can move around," ASU head coach Tracy Smith said. "He can play second, he can play the outfield, he can play third. I think his defense has improved, and that's only going to increase his stock."

Torkelson could easily have gotten caught up in the hype after taking home numerous national and conference awards in his freshman season or after becoming the second ASU player to be a two-time semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award.

In some ways, a big ego may have been expected, or at least understood. However, that's not who Torkelson is.

"That's my favorite part about Tork," Bishop said. "He seems unfazed through all the pressure."

Mayotorena often texts him, "Stay hungry, stay humble."

The mantra is easy to say, but it's not always easy to put into practice, especially when one is widely regarded as the best amateur player in the country and was on his way to proving it once again. Torkelson hit .340/.598/.780 with six homers, 11 RBIs and 31 walks in 17 games before the 2020 season came to a halt.

While Torkelson undoubtedly would have liked to finish out the season at ASU, where he was on pace to become the program's all-time home run leader, his ultimate goal has always been the same, and he's now closer than ever.

"He didn't want to be all-league and all that," Mayotorena said. "He wanted to be in the Major Leagues."