Spencer Torkelson's Historic Path To The 2020 MLB Draft
The end to the 2020 season came without warning for Spencer Torkelson, as it did for players around the country. On March 12, the day the coronavirus pandemic led the NCAA to take the unprecedented measure of canceling the College World Series, Torkelson and Arizona State were preparing to open Pacific-12 Conference play the following day with a series against Utah.
Coach Tracy Smith gathered the team early in the day and said it looked like the weekend series would be canceled. Disappointed and a little confused, the Sun Devils returned to their homes around campus. A few hours later, the news came out of NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis that the CWS, as well as the rest of the NCAA’s winter and spring championships, had been canceled.
“I was sitting on the couch, not sure what to do because there was no practice,” Torkelson said. “I was on Twitter and saw it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did they just do that?’
“Everything else fell from that.”
Within the next few days, the regular season was officially canceled. Torkelson stayed in Phoenix and worked out at the Sun Devils’ facility until the school locked the weight room and batting cage.
Torkelson’s brother Matthew was visiting Spencer during his spring break when his school in New York closed its campus. With Torkelson’s workouts limited to running, the brothers started golfing every day.
“A couple days later, golf was getting old,” Torkelson said. “So we decided to drive home to Petaluma.”
With that, it was over. Torkelson packed up and went home to California, his Arizona State career all but done. The junior is the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft thanks to his elite raw power and hitting ability. He was perhaps the best player in the country but will leave college with so much of his promise unfulfilled due to the incomplete 2020 season.
Torkelson dominated pitchers throughout his college career. He hit .337/.463/.729 with 54 home runs, 110 walks and 104 strikeouts in 129 games. He was hitting .340/.598/.780 with six home runs and 31 walks (15 intentional) in 17 games when the season was canceled. He was just two home runs away from breaking ASU’s career home run record, held for the last 42 years by Bob Horner, and was drawing walks at a rate that would have set the NCAA’s single-season record of 112 if Arizona State had reached super regionals.
Individual accomplishments aside, Torkelson and his Sun Devils classmates were also halted in the midst of the season they had been building to since they arrived on campus. One of college baseball’s bluest blue bloods, Arizona State fell on hard times a few years ago, and Torkelson’s class were freshmen in 2018 when it went 23-32, an almost unthinkable second straight losing season for the Sun Devils.
Coach Smith’s plan was always for the young Sun Devils to grow from there, developing into a national championship contender. That plan was working. Arizona State made regionals in 2019 and was a top 10 team in 2020.
But the final payoff will never come. Torkelson’s career will end without the home run record, without having played in Omaha.
Without a chance to finish what he started.
“It doesn’t seem like we did it for nothing, but we went through it and didn’t have chance to show everyone that’s why we didn’t do as well freshman year,” Torkelson said. “That’s why we took the bullet freshman year, built sophomore year and then junior year, this is the best shot at it.
“To not share it with those guys who I spent three years with is something that hits hardest.”
Smith and Ben Greenspan, Arizona State’s recruiting coordinator, put together a banner 2017 recruiting class. It was a group they had worked on since they arrived in Tempe in 2014, after a successful run together at Indiana, and it would end up as the program’s first top-five class since 2009.
The Sun Devils were excited to have Torkelson in the class, and he committed to the program not long after Smith and Greenspan took over. But he wasn’t the centerpiece. No one foresaw the slugger developing into the most feared hitter in the country.
So when Smith heard before the draft that Torkelson was lowering the bonus it would take to sign him away from his Arizona State commitment, he wasn’t concerned.
“I remember saying to Ben, ‘If he wants to lower his number, the heck with him. We already have righthanded power,’ ” Smith said.
“None of us knew that he was going to be like this. I can vividly remember saying, ‘If he wants to take less money, go ahead.’ ”
It didn’t come to pass. Torkelson wasn’t drafted and continued on to Arizona State. It’s a story that Smith now laughs about with his star.
Torkelson wouldn’t stay under the radar for long. He had a broken hand when he got to campus, sidelining him at the outset of practice. But once he was able to start hitting, he made an immediate impression on hitting coach Michael Earley.
“Coming in, I didn’t hear that much about him,” Earley said. “The first day he hit, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this dude could be unbelievable.’ Every day, I became more and more impressed.”
Torkelson stands out the most for his elite raw power. He’s always had that kind of potential, but Earley had to coax it out of his pupil that fall. It wasn’t until a day in November when Earley was throwing Torkelson front toss and challenged him to see how easily he could hit a home run.
Because it was just front toss and Phoenix Municipal Stadium at the time still had its cavernous big league dimensions—345 feet down the lines and 410 to center—Torkelson figured it would be difficult to hit home runs. But once he started swinging, the ball started flying out to dead center. It was a revelation to 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.”
The home runs haven’t stopped since. Torkelson hit 25 home runs that spring to lead the nation and smash Arizona State’s freshman home run record, which had previously been held by Barry Bonds. After an impressive summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and in the Cape Cod League, he shook off any hint of a sophomore slump and hit 23 homers, the 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’s Michael Conforto in 2012 and 2013.
With 48 home runs entering this spring, Torkelson was set to take aim at Horner’s career record. It seemed almost like a foregone conclusion that Torkelson would break the mark. Another 25-homer season would have pushed him into the top 10 in Division I history, something only one player in the 21st century—Matt LaPorta, who spent four seasons at Florida—has accomplished.
Early in the season, opposing pitchers and coaches were content to treat Torkelson like Bonds, circa 2003. Not only was Torkelson getting pitched around, he was being intentionally walked nearly once a game. But he was ready for that approach and stayed consistent in his approach. He took his walks and was ready when he did get his pitch.
While it can seem like Torkelson never gets frustrated and expands his zone, it does happen sometimes. Part of what makes him special, Earley said, is how he reacts when he does chase a pitch.
“We talk about when you’re hitting, not getting outside your box,” Earley said. “He’ll chase sometimes, but he’ll flip the switch and go right back.”
Even getting pitched around, Torkelson had six home runs in 17 games when the season was canceled. His 54 career home runs rank just behind Horner’s record of 56.
Of all of baseball’s records, the home run mark holds a special place at all levels of the game. Smith likens it to boxing’s heavyweight title. For Torkelson to be so close and have the chance to break it taken away creates some palpable frustration.
“To be that close is like, ‘Argh, darn it,’ ” Smith said. “He would have smashed that record—smashed it. In the grand scheme of life, it’s not that big a deal. It’s something nice to tell your grandkids.
“Argh—that’s all I can say about it.”
Torkelson is also frustrated. But he said that if anyone really cares about the record, they’ll understand how close he was with more than two months left in the season.
“It would have been really cool to have it and I was looking forward to breaking it,” Torkelson said. “But it is what it is. It’s out of my control.”
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Torkelson’s power, his control of the strike zone, his feel for hitting—they all earn outstanding marks from scouts and are a big part of why he’s the projected to be drafted first overall. He’s also a solid athlete, something that his profile as a righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing college first baseman belies. He played third base in high school and right field on the Cape, and Smith said he believes Torkelson could pick up another position if the team that drafts him wants to try him elsewhere, though he’s worked hard to make himself a strong defensive first baseman.
Torkelson’s makeup also earns high marks. Smith calls him one of the humblest players he’s ever coached. Earley said he is always the first player to sign up to visit a children’s hospital and always makes time for fans. He’s comfortable in the spotlight but doesn’t revel in it.
More than anything Torkelson did on the field, it’s his character that Smith said is going to stick with him the most.
“When I think what I’ll remember, I’ll think I had one of the best baseball players on the planet and he was just a good dude to be around,” Smith said.
Now back home in California, Torkelson is adjusting to a new normal as he prepares for the draft. His mother Lori bought a batting cage for their backyard so that he can continue to hit. He has some weights at home as well, allowing him to continue working out.
When he can, Torkelson’s uncle comes over to throw batting practice. When he can’t, Matthew, who played more soccer than baseball growing up, fills in.
“My uncle throws money BP,” Torkelson said. “My brother’s is not ideal. He throws hard, it’s not comfortable. He tries to gas you up a little bit. If he was pitching to me in a home run derby people, would think he was trying to strike me out, which is good though.
“I’m actually doing all right. I’m lucky compared to some people. A lot of people don’t have batting cage in their backyard.”
With no games to occupy his time, Torkelson is focused on working out, keeping up with his classwork online and playing Call of Duty with his friends.
Torkelson is content to largely let the draft process play out as it will. It took him a bit of time after the season was canceled to get to that mindset, but he says he’s at ease now and focused on the few things he can control.
Torkelson’s father Rick is keeping a close watch on mock drafts and any other draft news that trickles out and has been eager to share it with his son. But after Torkelson was disappointed to not be drafted out of Casa Grande High, he’s trying not to get wrapped up in it this time around.
As a senior in high school, Torkelson was sure he was going to get drafted. He had played well at Area Code Games the previous summer and had gotten interest from scouts. It was his dream to hear his name called. So he watched the first day of the draft—and no teams called with any offers in the first two rounds.
Torkelson kept watching over the next two days as the next 38 rounds slid by. Still nothing. After the 40th round ended and the draft was over, he was crestfallen. It had been his dream to be drafted. His mother knew just what to say, however.
“She said, ‘This is the best thing ever,’ ” Torkelson said. “I went out and hit, worked out and blew off some steam.
“I haven’t turned back since.”