What Spencer Torkelson's pro debut taught us about his skills — and his path to Detroit

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The stadium was almost empty.

The grounds crew was cutting the grass late Tuesday night at Parkview Field, after the Fort Wayne TinCaps beat the West Michigan Whitecaps, 8-0.

Spencer Torkelson, one of the Detroit Tigers' top prospects, came down the ramp to talk to the media after making his professional debut, nearly a year after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

“I'm glad to just get it out of the way,” Torkelson said.

It was a painful, forgettable debut — for Torkelson as well as his teammates on the Whitecaps, the Tigers' High-A affiliate based in Grand Rapids.

West Michigan Whitecaps infielder Spencer Torkelson waits to bat during practice Monday, May 3, 2021 at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park, MI.

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The Whitecaps couldn’t generate much offense and struck out 16 times. So yes, they looked a lot like the Tigers.

“Everyone had the jitters a little bit,” Torkelson said.

He exuded a calm demeanor even after going hitless and striking out three times.

“Spencer, what do you take from the game like this?” a reporter asked.

“I mean, not a whole lot,” Torkelson said. “You just flush it and remember, it's baseball, and then, come back tomorrow with the same attitude and give it your best effort.”

He sounded like Tigers manager AJ Hinch — flush it, move on and play again tomorrow.

“I told him, ‘Listen, we're in this together,’” Whitecaps first-year manager Brayan Pena said. “One of the things that I want them to understand is that this is a beautiful game, but it's a very tough game. I don't want to sound like a broken record, but we just have to continue to work. We just have to continue to make adjustments and keep your head up. It's just one game.”

Torkelson is the No.3 prospect in baseball, as ranked by MLB Pipeline and carries an inordinate amount of pressure and expectations. But Pena saw something special in Torkelson, just from how he reacted to the struggles.

 “This is his first professional baseball game,” Pena said. “You know, what I love about him and respect? He doesn't make excuses. And that is telling me that he's a winner.”

West Michigan Whitecaps infielder Spencer Torkelson fields ground balls during practice Monday, May 3, 2021 at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park.

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'Everybody's heart was beating 100 miles per hour'

The Whitecaps' starting lineup featured the Tigers' top four draft picks from 2020 and seven of the organization's top 28 prospects.

Every one of those seven had at least one strikeout.

“To be honest with you, everybody's heart was beating 100 miles per hour,” Pena said.

When fans talk about how long it will take for the Tigers to rebuild, the answer starts with this team.

Even though there are some positional prospects in Triple-A Toledo, and Riley Greene is at Double-A Erie, this group of players in West Michigan will determine the speed of this rebuild.

Simply put, the Tigers need this group to excel and move quickly through the system.

But on Monday night, the TinCaps were just mowing down the Whitecaps.

Strikeout looking.

Strikeout swinging.

Strikeout swinging again.

On and on it went.

Four pitchers dominated the Whitecaps.

“They pitched a hell of a game,” Torkelson said. “They were making pitches, and they weren't getting behind in many counts and were getting ahead early — that's the recipe for success as a pitcher.”

While the Whitecaps lineup is stacked with hitters —this is easily the most talented team West Michigan has ever fielded — the pitchers struggled with their command, walking 10 batters.

“You just have to embrace every single opportunity that you get,” Pena said. “When you go out there, you just relax, enjoy, love what you do and have fun. Because at the end of the day, you know, the sky's the limit for those guys.”

The game featured all the minor league charm — fans participating in silly games between innings, the "Chicken Dance" and kids sitting on a grass berm beyond the outfield fence — although the crowd was limited because of COVID-19 protocols.

“It was exciting, seeing the fans in the crowd and you know, playing a game that counted,” Torkelson said.

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West Michigan Whitecaps infielder Spencer Torkelson fields ground balls during practice Monday, May 3, 2021 at LMCU Ballpark in Comstock Park, MI.

No masking his confidence

Torkleson is coming off a rough spring training. He got just one hit in 26 at-bats, with 16 strikeouts. “If I was to be critical of him, he didn't pull the trigger as much on early count fastballs, as I would have expected of an offensive force coming out of the draft,” Hinch said during spring training. 

On Tuesday, Torkelson’s first at-bat looked a lot like those from spring training. He faced Ethan Elliott, a 24-year-old lefty who was taken in the 10th round in 2019 by the San Diego Padres and throwing 90 mph fastballs, according to the scoreboard radar gun.

Torkelson took the first two pitches — both called strikes. After taking a couple of balls, he struck out swinging.

“He was getting ahead with his fastball and that's that's key,” Torkelson said. “And then he had a good — I don't know how to describe it — call it, ride on his fastball, where it was kind of deceiving and stays on plane a little longer than normal. So he was missing some barrels, but hats off to him, he pitched a heck of a game.’

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Torkelson came out swinging in his second plate appearance, falling behind but working a walk.

On his third time at the plate, Torkelson took a couple of strikes, falling behind 0-2 — again, the same story as the spring. He battled back and forced a full count, then fouled off a ball. But he took a called third strike on a ball on the outer half of the plate. Torkelson thought he had walked. He flicked his bat toward the dugout and bent over to take off his shin guard when he realized that he had struck out; he then walked toward his dugout without looking at the home-plate umpire.

In the field, Torkelson looked comfortable at third base; he made several plays, including charging a slow roller.

“How hungry are you guys, after going a year, to win a game?" a reporter asked.

"Oh, very hungry," Torkelson said. "You know, I think we're gonna come out (Wednesday) looking for that win and give it our best effort and see what happens.” 

It said a lot that Torkelson was willing to talk to the media after his first game, after striking out three times.

There are plenty of veterans who would have ducked out without talking.

But Torkelson is one of the most important faces of this rebuild, and he has fully accepted his role. He didn't seem freaked out by the strikeouts. He didn't seem rattled or shaken, not in the spring and not after his debut.

He has this unshakable confidence that comes across, even when he's wearing a mask on a cold, disappointing night.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.