Can Spencer Torkelson Become a Top-Tier First Baseman in 2024?

Spencer Torkelson just missed our top 10 first basemen list this year, but he is a prime candidate to breakout and change that in 2024.

Spencer Torkelson #20 of the Detroit Tigers hits a two run rbi single against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the third inning at RingCentral Coliseum.
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 24: Spencer Torkelson #20 of the Detroit Tigers hits a two run rbi single against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the third inning at RingCentral Coliseum on September 24, 2023 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Detroit Tigers hope this is the year prized first baseman Spencer Torkelson can finally put it all together as a critical piece of their core moving forward.

This franchise, which last made the playoffs in 2015, aims to take another positive step forward in its rebuilding phase following a second-place finish in the AL Central last season. And there’s no better opportunity to do so, with the division seemingly up for grabs.

But one way or another, Torkelson figures to play a massive role in determining the Tigers’ fate in 2024.

The 24-year-old slugger displayed varying levels of growth a season ago, particularly at the plate, setting new career-highs across the board, including home runs (31), doubles (34), RBIs (94), SLG (.446) and ISO (.213). Still, the right-handed hitter’s sophomore campaign left much to be desired, as he struggled to a 107 wRC+ in 159 games, failing to deliver franchise-pillar expectations.

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There is, of course, still plenty of time in his young career to change that narrative. Until then, the former first-overall selection will remain outside the sport’s upper-echelon class of major league first basemen, with Just Baseball making him an honorable mention in the site’s annual Top 10 ranking.

Don’t be surprised if that time comes as early as next season. If all goes well, Torkelson should be more than capable of carving out a space of his own amongst the elite of the elite at first base – assuming he’s able to stay healthy.

The first four months of last season were miserable for the Petaluma, Calf., native, who slashed .225/.304/.396 with a .304 wOBA and 92 wRC+ across his first 109 games. But everything changed over the final 49. He was a force to be reckoned with from Aug. 7 onwards, posting a much-improved .249/.329/.556 slash line, .372 wOBA, .307 ISO and a 138 wRC+.

Source: FanGraphs

Additionally, Torkelson’s 16 home runs in that span placed top five in the majors while leading all big-league first basemen. For context, he only had 15 bombs on the year before August hit, surpassing that total in under half as many games the rest of the way.

That red-hot finish, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to overcome his prior offensive woes as he finished with a 1.4 fWAR, which ranked tied for 22nd in the majors among qualified first basemen (min. 300 plate appearances). However, he should fare much better next season if he picks up where he left off down the stretch.

FanGraphs’ 2024 ZIPS projection has Torkelson positioned as a Top 5 first basemen in fWAR, with his projected 2.8 rating trailing only Bryce Harper (3.1), Matt Olson (3.3), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (3.3) and Freddie Freeman (3.3).

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It’s important to remember this is only a projection and not directly predictive of how Torkelson’s season will play out. Having said that, it exemplifies the potential impact his resurgent two-month stretch could have over a 162-game schedule and the value that’d coincide with it.

So, let’s look at the factors that have FanGraphs’ model betting on last season’s impressive finish translating into this upcoming one.

For starters, Torkelson hits the ball almost as hard – and consistently – as any other major-league hitter, given his 50.9% clip landed in the 94th percentile. On top of that, the young righty’s average exit velocity (91.8 mph) and barrel rate (14.1%) placed in the 87th and 89th percentiles, respectively.

Detroit’s former top prospect was also very effective at not expanding the strike zone, resulting in an 80th percentile chase rate (23.6%).

While his hitter profile features a reasonable amount of swing-and-miss, he didn’t allow that to affect his free passes to first base, as evidenced by his 67th percentile walk rate (9.8%).

Torkelson, as displayed in his 2023 player card above, did all the correct things last season. And yet, those traits didn’t correlate to on-field success over the first four months, at least not according to his traditional results, as he underperformed his expected metrics.

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In his first 109 games, Torkelson generated a 50.3 percent hard-hit rate and a 12.7 percent barrel rate, earning a .262 xAVG (37 points higher than his AVG), .476 xSLG (80 points higher) and a .349 xwOBA (46 points higher). At some point, his luck, or lack thereof, was bound to change for the better – which it did over the final two months.

Prior to that point, the minus-80-point difference between the 6-foot-1 slugger’s traditional and expected slugging percentage was the fourth-highest in the majors, as was the minus-46-point gap separating his wOBA and xwOBA figures.

Along with receiving improved batted-ball fortune, another element that shifted was Torkelson’s distribution, as he started pulling his batted balls more consistently. That process began last June and primarily involved his fly-ball output, with his pull percentage increasing by 10 percent during that span.

Not only did that lead to more hits, but it also allowed him to pull 22 of his 31 home runs – 20 of which occurred post-June 1.

Source: Baseball Savant

Maintaining those facets will be crucial to Torkelson’s ability to replicate and build upon his strong finish to the 2023 season. There are also a few additional solutions that can help further increase his value during his third major league campaign with the Tigers.

One of them includes cutting down his swing-and-miss, especially versus sliders and changeups – two offerings that proved the most troublesome. Conversely, that would lead to increased contact levels, boosting his overall performance, as well as his AVG and BABIP metrics.

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Another involves putting Torkelson in positions to succeed. He has struggled in run-producing situations previously, registering a career 72 wRC+ with runners-in-scoring-position. But the more support he has around him, the likelier he’ll receive improved pitch selection and break out of that inefficiency next season.

Torkelson’s horrendous defense at first base was also a significant factor that negatively impacted his 2023 value. To be fair, he made some outstanding scoops and throws across the diamond. But, statistically speaking, he graded as one of the worst defenders at his position, finishing last out of 21 qualified players in DRS (-11) and third-last in OAA (-7) – which also placed in the sixth percentile.

The hard-hitting righty certainly has the baseball IQ to develop into, at the very least, an average-defending first baseman. If he’s to reach that goal, however, he must clean up his miscues on the right side, as his 11 errors led all big-league first basemen a season ago.

There’s no doubt the Tigers possess the makings of a future All-Star in Torkelson, and there’s a strong chance he could represent the franchise in Texas at next season’s mid-summer classic. Not to mention what he could do for himself, financially, as a first-time Super-Two arbitration candidate next off-season.

The sky is the limit, and all indications suggest we’re likely headed toward Torkelson’s highly-anticipated breakout season in 2024 – an offensive explosion that could make Detroit relevant again.