For the second time in three years, the Tigers had the first overall pick in the MLB Draft. For the first time in franchise history, they used the top overall pick to swing for the fences with an infielder.
There’s a whole lot more history that goes with Spencer Torkelson, who on Wednesday became the first college corner infielder in 22 years to go first overall. But the Tigers are staking their future on the Arizona State slugger’s sweet, efficient power swing providing the offensive punch they need to complement their pitching prospects and form Detroit’s next contender.
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“Spencer is exactly the type of player we hoped would be there for us with the top pick in this year’s Draft,” Tigers amateur scouting director Scott Pleis said in a statement after the pick. “He’s one of the most polished hitters we’ve seen in the Draft for quite some time, showing plus-plus power and excellent plate discipline. We’ve been tracking Spencer’s growth and performance since his breakout freshman season at Arizona State, and are excited to see him grow in the coming years.”
The pick was not a surprise, but that didn’t dull the reaction Torkelson had as he watched the announcement at home in California with his family.
“They didn't call me before the pick,” Torkelson said Thursday afternoon during a conference call with the media, “and that scared the living crap out of me. …
“I've heard so much the last 24 hours about how great Detroit is. I haven't heard one bad thing, so that's obviously good. I know Detroit’s got a lot of diehard Tiger fans and Red Wings and Lions. It’s a great time in Detroit, and it's exciting to join the ride.”
The Tigers considered Torkelson the front-runner since Detroit landed the top slot last fall, and they scouted him heavily during Arizona State’s brief non-conference schedule before the coronavirus pandemic brought baseball to a halt. Special assistant Alan Trammell was among the team officials who had a look at Torkelson and was impressed.
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The only surprise might have been the position at which he was announced. Though Torkelson played his entire collegiate career at first base, the Tigers announced him as a third baseman, a position Torkelson played in high school.
Torkelson said he has worked at third base in fall ball the past couple of years.
“I've said it over and over: When you're a baseball player, you’re on the field to win and you do whatever it takes,” he said Thursday.
Not only does Torkelson boast home run power, he boasts the kind of power to all fields to make spacious Comerica Park look normal, something many right-handed hitters struggle to do.
“This dude is a generational type player,” Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith told MLB Network Radio.
Nothing Torkelson did this spring dampened that view. He hit .340 with six home runs, 11 RBIs and 31 walks in 17 games. He hit a ball an estimated 428 feet off the batting eye beyond straightaway center field against Boston College in February, and he homered an estimated 426 feet onto a street beyond left-center field at Cal State Fullerton in early March.
“There isn't any part of the park that's safe,” said former USC head coach Dan Hubbs, now working with the Tigers as pitching coordinator.
Cal State Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook saw Torkelson in all three of his college seasons. He compared Torkelson to Kris Bryant, whom he saw in college at the University of San Diego, and J.D. Drew.
“He never got himself out,” Vanderhook said of Torkelson. “We were happy when he hit a 390-foot fly ball to the fence. Even though he didn't miss it, he just got underneath it. He plays line to line. It's going to be interesting to see his development.”
After witnessing his power, teams began pitching around Torkelson in many situations. The combination of walks and the season’s halt prevented Torkelson from making his pick the slam dunk that Tigers officials hoped. It also denied Tigers chairman/CEO Christopher Ilitch a chance to go see Torkelson in person, as he had with Casey Mize two years earlier and was expected to do again.
Still, with no games going on, there was no chance for others to make their case. Video work by scouts and other evaluators only confirmed what their eyes had already told them.
“After completing a comprehensive and truly unique pre-draft evaluation of the top players, our decision to select Spencer was a clear one,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in a release. “We’re excited to have him join our player development system and know that his outstanding performance in the batter’s box, in the field and in the clubhouse will be assets to our organization for years to come.”
Torkelson is the first college hitter to go from being undrafted out of high school to the first overall pick out of college ball since the Texas Rangers selected former University of Oregon infielder Dave Roberts in 1972. That doesn’t include Bryce Harper, who graduated high school a year early and played his would-be senior season at the College of Southern Nevada before the Nationals drafted him first overall in 2010.
As soon as the 2017 Draft ended, Torkelson said, he went with his uncle to a nearby hitting facility to hit balls as hard as he could. He told himself he was going to be a first-round pick out of Arizona State.
“It's so hard to put words to the feeling of where I was and where I am now,” Torkelson said. “I have to thank everyone around me who had my back and believed in me. I think getting undrafted out of high school was the best thing that could've happened to me. It made me work so much harder. It put everything in perspective for me.”
The Tigers had heard about Torkelson coming out of high school, Pleis said. Still, Torkelson didn’t catch scouts’ eyes until his first season at Arizona State, where his 25 home runs obliterated Barry Bonds’ school record for freshmen and fell two shy of the school mark for any player.
“Truth be told, we didn’t really see that type of power,” Smith said. “What we loved was certainly the athleticism. He’s a tough kid. He’s a really, really good kid, but he brings that competitiveness on the field. That power, though, kind of developed. It kind of clicked for him towards the tail end of fall and then he came out like gangbusters to start his freshman season and never looked back.”
Torkelson followed it up as a sophomore with 23 homers, fifth-most in the nation and most in the Pac-12. He became the first player to lead the conference in home runs in back-to-back seasons since Oregon State outfielder and current Mets star Michael Conforto, and just the third Pac-12 player ever with back-to-back 20-homer seasons.
Moreover, Torkelson’s power came with plate discipline. He drew almost as many walks (41) as strikeouts (45) in 57 games. Just four of those walks classified as intentional.
Torkelson’s ability to hit home runs to all parts of the field was a critical trait to draw him to Detroit, where Comerica Park’s deep dimensions pose a challenge for many dead-pull right-handed hitters. Opposite-field power allowed right-handed hitters like Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos to beat the park.
“It's going to play in Comerica Park,” said Tigers special assistant and Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, who scouted Torkelson in February. “It's one of the bigger ballparks. But no park is going to hold Tork.”
Though Torkelson played his entire collegiate career at first base, Smith was insistent in saying he could play other positions, such as third or the corner-outfield spots. His best fit in a loaded Sun Devils lineup was at first. The Tigers will start him out at third, a position he played in high school.
“I keep going back to the athleticism,” Trammell said. “We wanted to watch him take ground balls, which we did. And his arm strength, throwing across the diamond, it's just not normal, it's better than average arm strength [along with] his footwork. This is not a normal guy, and that's why we feel we can try him over at third. He is a strong young man and he's athletic and he has a good strong arm. When you add all that together, we've got a special guy, no question about it.”
The shift is not unprecedented. Mark Teixeira, to whom Torkelson has been compared, started out his pro career at third base after playing there at Georgia Tech before moving to first full time in Texas. Former Tigers first-round pick Eric Munson, a catcher at USC, began his pro career as a first baseman before shifting to third in 2003.
“It's a complement to Spencer,” Trammell said. “If it doesn't work out, we know he can play first. But it helps the organization if he can [play third].”
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.