Torkelson An Early Contender For No. 1 Pick In 2020 MLB Draft
Spencer Torkelson was nervous. He had always been sure of himself on the diamond—for good reason. He was a star at Casa Grande High in Petaluma, Calif., earning a spot at USA Baseball’s 15U national team trials after his freshman year and first-team all-state honors as a senior.
But as Torkelson arrived last year at Arizona State, he felt the uncertainty a lot of freshmen do when beginning college.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to play,’” he said. “I’ve never not played before. I was kind of scared because I haven’t chosen a career other than baseball ever. I’m just like, ‘What if baseball doesn’t work out? I’m screwed.’”
As it turned out, Torkelson did a little more than play—he took the college baseball world by storm as a freshman in 2018. He hit .320/.440/.743, and his 25 home runs were the most in the nation and the most ever for an Arizona State freshman, breaking Barry Bonds’ record. He continued to crush balls during the summer, both with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team and in the Cape Cod League.
That feeling of uncertainty has, understandably, dissipated.
“I’ve always had a goal to play Major League Baseball,” Torkelson said. “That’s my dream. It’s starting to turn less into a dream.
“Having that success, I told myself, ‘I’ve got this. I can do it.’”
The 2020 draft is still more than a year away, but Torkelson is an early contender to be the No. 1 overall pick. As a righthanded-hitting first baseman, he doesn’t fit the typical profile of a first overall pick, but his hitting ability is special enough to bust the mold. He has well above-average raw power, impressive bat speed and an advanced approach at the plate. He also has enough athleticism to give him a chance in the outfield, though his bat will play at any position.
In his more than 25 years in coaching, Arizona State coach Tracy Smith has worked with many talented hitters, including Kyle Schwarber during his tenure at Indiana. Smith said Torkelson stacks up well with any hitter he has coached.
“If he’s not at the top, he’s certainly near there,” Smith said. “He doesn’t press, he doesn’t get out of himself.”
Torkelson has quickly become one of the best players in the country, but he didn’t particularly stand out during the fall of his freshman year. That began to change in November 2017, after fall ball had ended, when Torkelson was working out with Sun Devils hitting coach Michael Earley.
Arizona State has a practice field at the Phoenix Municipal Stadium complex, but on that day Earley was throwing Torkelson front toss on the main field. Phoenix Municipal was built as a big league spring training facility and while Arizona State moved the fences in this year, at the time it still had its cavernous dimensions—345 feet down the lines and 410 to center.
Earley told Torkelson to try to see how easily he could hit a home run. Because it was just front toss, Torkelson expected it to be difficult to drive the ball out. But once he started swinging, the ball started flying out of the park to dead center. It was a revelation for the slugger.
“I was like, 'If it’s this easy to do it on front toss, I can swing even softer in a game,'” Torkelson said. “It takes all your body out of it and just lets your hands work. He helped me realize I’m strong enough, my hands are good enough to not have to try to hit a home run. I can just put my swing on it and the home runs will happen.”
Once the season started, the home runs certainly happened. After going hitless in Arizona State’s first game, Torkelson homered twice in the nightcap of an Opening Day doubleheader. He broke Bonds’ school record with his 12th home run in just his 25th game of the year.
The home runs never stopped. By the end of the season, he was locked in a home run race with California first baseman Andrew Vaughn that finished with a head-to-head showdown on the final weekend. Both went homerless, and Torkelson edged Vaughn, 25 to 23.
The two sluggers are friendly rivals and have known each other since their Little League days in the Bay Area. Both grew up working with the same hitting coach, Joey Gomes, and there was playful banter among the three of them throughout the spring.
“Joey would text us every once in a while and say something, and I’d say something to Tork, and he’d say something back,” Vaughn said. “But it was all friendly. Two 707 (area code) boys just going out and playing.”
The season didn’t end there for Torkelson. He began his summer with a couple weeks on the Cape before joining the CNT for its month-long schedule in June. He said it was a dream come true to play for Team USA, where he teamed up with players such as Vaughn, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and Texas Tech third baseman Josh Jung, who are all projected to be top 10 picks in this year’s draft. Torkelson held his own, hitting .286/.422/.314 in 12 games.
For most of his Team USA teammates, the end of the CNT’s schedule on July 14 meant an end to their summer. But Torkelson wanted to keep playing, so he returned to the Cape, where he hit .343/.474/.733 with 10 home runs in 31 games and helped Chatham reach the league’s championship series.
Torkelson’s decision to return to the Cape was uncommon, but it was an easy one for him to make.
“It was so much fun, and I had so much fun and success when I first got there,” he said. “People were like, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going back, I’m going to enjoy my summer.’ I was like, ‘This is my summer.’”
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Torkelson is back in the heart of the Sun Devils’ lineup this spring, but now he has much more fanfare surrounding him than he did a year ago. He started getting pitched carefully midway through last year and that treatment has continued, even though he is now being protected in the lineup by outfielder Hunter Bishop, who has surged out of the gate.
Through the first month of the season, as Arizona State raced to a 15-0 start, he hit .387/.474/.548 with two home runs, 12 walks and 12 strikeouts.
“I don’t want to change anything from last year, because once you start trying to change yourself, improve on a 25-home run season, that’s when you’re going to start struggling and you’re going to overthink things,” he said.
Torkelson’s discipline is one of the things that stands out the most to Smith. Not only will he not expand his strike zone when he is getting pitched around, he also won’t let a disappointing result fester.
“He’s a really competitive guy,” Smith said. “He wants to do something to help the team win every single at-bat. He doesn’t like to get out. I’ve had guys who will carry a little bit of that frustration and keep it with them. I like his competitiveness, but what he does is he lets it go and lets it go in a hurry.”
Smith said Torkelson’s power is at least as good as Schwarber’s, if not a bit better. With that kind of juice, Torkelson has a chance to have a truly special college career. The Arizona State career home run record of 56, set by Bob Horner in 1978, is within reach. No player has reached 30 home runs in a single season since Kris Bryant hit 31 for San Diego in 2013. That, too, seems possible for Torkelson at some point in the next two years.
If Torkelson produces at that level, any hesitation among scouts about his defensive profile are likely to get pushed to the side. But he’s working to improve that aspect of his game as well. He spent the summer playing the outfield on the Cape, and while he’s back at first base this spring, he should have enough athleticism to handle an outfield corner.
Given his present talent level and production, not to mention the gains he can be expected to make over the next 14 months, Torkelson could enter rarified air leading up to the 2020 draft. It’s is a lofty comparison, but Torkelson’s profile isn’t that different from Bryant’s when he was coming out of San Diego. Bryant was playing third base, but many scouts thought he would have to move to first base or an outfield corner. And Torkelson has faced better competition than Bryant did.
But all of that still lies well into the future for Torkelson. For now, he’s focused on getting Arizona State back to not only the NCAA Tournament, which it has missed the last two seasons, but also to the College World Series and the national championship, which the Sun Devils have not won since 1981.
It’s a big lift, but right now just about any possibility feels open to Torkelson.
“I work harder than anyone, I think,” Torkelson said. “If I just trust that and have fun playing baseball, everything is going to take care of itself.”