DETROIT – Spencer Torkelson was 5 years old when Rich Hill made his Major League debut in 2005 facing, among others, a young Miguel Cabrera. Torkelson was two months from being born when Hill was first drafted out of high school in June 1999. But after his first Major League hit in Detroit's 5-3 loss at Comerica Park on Tuesday, the Tigers rookie slugger won’t forget the ageless Red Sox left-hander for the rest of his life.
“No matter how old he is, he's got to throw a strike,” Torkelson, MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 prospect, said after doubling off Hill. “And I have to swing at the strikes.”
He’d endured four called third strikes and no luck on balls in play amid an 0-for-10 start, so maybe he was due. Or maybe he was rewarded for staying within his strike zone and not chasing pitches. Or knowing he could hit the 42-year-old Hill’s fastball if he stayed away from his 70-mph breaking balls.
Still, the smile on Torkelson’s face as he stood on second base and raised the roof with his hands to the Tigers dugout reflected some relief.
“Definitely feels good,” Torkelson said, “like a weight's been lifted off my shoulders now that it's out of the way.”
Torkelson had experienced this before, just not in the Major Leagues. The top overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft singled in his second pro game last year for High-A West Michigan, but went 1-for-16 with 10 strikeouts in his first four games for the Whitecaps. He went 9-for-50 with 14 walks and 18 strikeouts over his first 14 games before he hit his first pro home run. He batted .424 (25-for-59) with five homers over his next 17 games before being promoted to Double-A Erie.
Torkelson called the skid one of the best things that could happen to him. He leaned on that experience later in the summer, when he went 4-for-28 over his first seven games at Triple-A Toledo before hitting his first home run as a Mud Hen.
“I learned to trust myself,” he said. “Going through last year really helped me stay the course, respect the baseball gods. They were testing me a little bit, but you just keep the same energy, keep the same course and it'll find its way.”
He stuck to his plan in Detroit, even after watching called strikes off the plate, or Dylan Cease spotting breaking balls in the zone last weekend, or Hill flopping a 71 mph curveball in the zone to begin their third-inning at-bat Tuesday.
“He's gotten the job done for many years in the big leagues,” Torkelson said of Hill. “It's not that he has great stuff, but he keeps you off-balance and hits his spots. So going into the at-bat, I knew that I'd have to stay on his fastball, and if you see that curveball up, don't give up on it because it'll start above your head and then drop down for a strike.”
Torkelson was ready for the 89 mph fastball that followed. The result was an opposite-field line drive that had a 90 mph exit velocity, barely harder than Hill threw it, and an .090 expected batting average. However, it had open territory in right-center field.
Right fielder Christian Arroyo made a diving attempt at it but only deflected it behind center fielder Kiké Hernández.
“Happy for him,” Hill said. “It’s pretty amazing. Obviously he’s going to have a great career, heck of a player, and look forward to probably watching him 20 years from now.”
Torkelson saw the deflection and cruised into second. The Tigers quickly retrieved the ball, which Jeimer Candelario pretended to throw into the stands before handing to an authenticator.
“Hopefully he can exhale, everybody around him can exhale and we can get on to more at-bats for him,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He needs to get all his firsts out of the way. He's got a few left before he's conquered everything on the first-time things. But we're happy for him. We've all been there.
“If you've been a position player that's played in the big leagues, it's the longest wait in history before you get your first hit. Unless you get your first knock on your first at-bat. Not all of us can be Akil [Baddoo].”
Baddoo homered in his first Major League at-bat with the Tigers last year.
Torkelson came around to score two batters later on a Robbie Grossman groundout and was greeted with high-fives in the Tigers dugout. Eric Haase gave him a bear hug.
“Proud father,” Haase joked.