PHOENIX – In a spring training at-bat, Spencer Torkelson worked an eight-pitch walk against the New York Yankees’ pitching ace Gerrit Cole. That was the moment when it became clear that Torkelson, a former Arizona State standout infielder, was capable of holding his own with the game’s best players.
Confirmation of his abilities came shortly thereafter when Torkelson, 22, made the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day roster for the 2022 regular season, which starts Thursday.
“I worked really hard to get to this position,” Torkelson told Detroit media Sunday. “I’m ready to go.”
In 13 spring-training games, Torkelson hit .286 with a home run, four RBI and an OPS of .936.
Torkelson shared the news with his parents, Lori and Rick, immediately after he was told the news.
“It took a lot out of me to not cry,” Torkelson said. “It was a really special moment and the amount of sacrifice and commitment they made for me growing up and did a lot for me growing up and without them I wouldn’t be here.”
Former Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith got a close-up look at Torkelson for three years at ASU. He is not surprised that Torkelson is thriving as a professional.
“Seeing him break camp with them is cool, but not surprising,” Smith said. “I feel he is a generational-type player. Leaving him in the minor leagues would be a waste of his at-bats so I am glad they moved him along quickly.”
Torkelson’s major-league aspirations took root in a small town roughly 40 miles north of San Francisco. In Petaluma, California, where Torkelson grew up, he dominated from the start, playing at Petaluma Valley Little League on the east side of town.
Rick Duarte, one of Torkelson’s Little League coaches and an administrator for California Little League District 35, recognized that Torkelson was unusually talented – and grounded – for his age.
“When he was in Little League, he was the cat’s meow,” Duarte said. “He still had time for every kid in the league and would talk to them. The kids would be speechless that he would talk to these younger kids and was kind of God-like in that way throughout the league.”
Torkelson shattered Little League home run records. As a 12 year old, he led his Petaluma Valley team to a District 35 championship game against its in-town rival, Petaluma National. Torkelson’s team needed two victories to advance, but fell one short. Petaluma National ended up in the Little League World Series, where it finished third in the world and second in the United States.
Paul Maytorena, who coached Torkelson at Casa Grande High School in East Petaluma, said, “He had a little chip on his shoulder after that Little League run, I think. He thought that should have been his team so he dug in a bit more and worked harder.”
He added, ““When I saw him for the first time as a freshman in high school, he was a little guy who had great swing tools and swing mechanics.”
Maytorena knew talent when he saw it. He experienced great success as a high school baseball coach before stepping away after Torkelson’s senior year. In 20 seasons, he compiled a 406-136 record, won eight Sonoma County League championships and three North Bay League titles. Maytorena’s teams made it to the North Coast Section Championship game 10 times and won six titles.
In his freshman year, Torkelson batted a team-leading .429, with 10 RBI and a team-best OPS of 1.027. In the CIF North Coast Section playoffs that season, Casa Grande snuck in as the No. 16 seed and defeated No. 1 Campolindo, 1-0.
As a junior, Torkelson led the team in hitting, home runs, RBI’s, OPS and walks as the Gauchos went 21-6.
Maytorena was impressed that Torkelson was able to keep his mind focused on baseball, and not get caught up in the social scene and other diversions that can loom large in high school.
“When you get to high school, you have a ton of distractions and he handled them all,” Maytorena said. “You’ve got to give credit to his parents for raising him right.”
Everything came together in his senior year. Torkelson led the team in hitting, RBI, home runs, doubles, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Behind Torkelson’s sterling play, Casa Grande advanced to the North Coast Section Championship game.
For his high school career, he batted .430 with 136 hits in 110 games and contributed 11 home runs, 99 RBIs and 32 doubles. On the mound, he maintained a 1.24 ERA in 16 career appearances totaling 22.2 innings. Despite winning several individual awards, Torkelson was undrafted out of high school.
“He wasn’t satisfied with being All-NCS or All-League,” Maytorena said. “He wanted to win championships and go on to be bigger.”
What impressed Maytorena was Torkelson’s ability to stay in the present. Even after he committed to ASU, he maintained his focus on his high school career.
“Spencer never wore his Arizona State colors to practice, he was just so focused on the present,” Maytorena said. “That’s what made him so good. It was all about the team.”
Smith said it didn’t take much to convince Torkelson to come to Tempe.
“It was honestly one of the easiest recruiting situations ever,” Smith said. “He committed with little prodding. He said ASU is where he always wanted to go.”
Torkelson broke out as a freshman. He was an unanimous All-America selection – just the seventh freshman to be so honored in ASU baseball history. He led the country during the regular season with 25 home runs, two more than any other player and just one shy of the NCAA freshman record. He also had 53 RBI and batted .320.
He finished his collegiate career as one of the best players in Sun Devil history with 54 home runs, second in ASU history, a .337 batting average and 130 RBI, 152 runs scored, 33 doubles and a .729 slugging percentage. He also drew 110 walks.
Maytorena thought there was only one thing that could stall Torkelson’s development as a player.
“The mental grind was the only thing I was scared of because he has a target on his back,” Maytorena said. “He had all the physical tools, but from the neck up you have to be strong and he has been.”
Torkelson got a taste of Major League spring training in 2021. He produced one hit in 27 at bats, and grew from his failures.
“He’s never felt that before,” Maytorena said. “He handled it well.”
Maytorena’s daughter, Tatum, plays softball at Nevada. When she was going through a slump this season, she got a call out of the blue from Torkelson.
“He talked to my daughter about when he went through his slump and how to deal with that,” Maytorena said. “It was great. He didn’t need to do that. He took an hour from his night to just talk with her. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Torkelson hasn’t forgotten his Petaluma roots. Duarte has stayed in contact with Torkelson throughout his high school, collegiate and now professional stops. He traveled to West Florida during spring training and was able to catch up with Torkelson in person.
“It’s been really cool because he doesn’t forget people,” Duarte said. “He’s always had the talent and he’s always stood out, but he always worked hard.”
Smith echoed what Duarte said. He said that Torkelson has befriended his youngest son Jack, with whom he would work out with every day.
“Tork has spent a lot of time at our house,” he said. “He’s very easy to root for because he is super humble and kind to people.”
“I felt like that they had to bring him up after that [at-bat] because he did not look overmatched,” Duarte said. “There were others that were no match for Cole and he was fouling off 99 mile-per-hour fastballs or taking 88 mile-per-hour sliders. He was in command of the at-bat.”
On and off the field, Duarte has confidence that he could thrive on a big league roster.
“He’s articulate, he answers the questions any reporter throws at him,” Duarte said. “He can handle the ups and downs of what Major League Baseball is going to offer.”
Smith says Torkelson is the 15th big leaguer he has coached and says that they all are unique in their own way. When three of his former players squared off the other day in the Grapefruit League in Florida, his players all hit home runs.
“He is such a skilled player, I truly believe his impact is going to be immediate,” Smith said. “I loved the other day when they [the Tigers] played the Phillies that Tork hit one out, Kyle Schwarber, who I also coached [at Indiana] hit one, and [Former Arizona State infielder Gage] Workman hit one out. It’s pretty cool.”
With a young and exciting roster, the Tigers may be a force to be reckoned with in the American League Central this coming season. Torkelson certainly expects to be in the conversation.
“I expect us to go out there and play really hard and win a lot of ball games,” Torkelson said.