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Does Spencer Torkelson need demotion to Triple-A? This time, A.J. Hinch didn't say no

BOSTON — Detroit Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick, blasted 31 home runs last season.

Less than a year later, Torkelson could be on the verge of a demotion to Triple-A Toledo as his struggles continue into June. Before Sunday's game, manager A.J. Hinch was asked directly if Torkelson needs to be sent to Triple-A Toledo for the second time in three seasons.

This time, Hinch didn't say no.

"I don't know," Hinch said Sunday, the second day of June. "I knew I was going to get asked the question when he sits two out of three days. We haven't talked a ton about things like that this morning. We're trying to find a way to win the game today. That's the No. 1 important thing."

Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson looks on from the dugout after the 6-2 win on Friday, May 24, 2024, at Comerica Park.
Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson looks on from the dugout after the 6-2 win on Friday, May 24, 2024, at Comerica Park.

Hinch was asked a similar question May 7.

Back then, he provided a much different answer.

"We haven't talked about it because we really want Tork to figure it out here," Hinch said May 7. "He'll show flashes of it. He's got a little longer track record. He's going to get the opportunity to work himself through it. ... So no, we haven't."

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The Tigers didn't put Torkelson in the starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, sitting him for two of the four games in the series. Both times, Torkelson has been replaced at first base by veteran third baseman Gio Urshela.

Torkelson, also worth minus-5 defensive runs saved, is 3-for-37 (.081) with three walks and 13 strikeouts in his last 10 games, as part of an even worse 3-for-40 (.075) stretch that goes back to May 19. He is 0-for-16 (.000) with zero walks and nine strikeouts across his last four games.

The 24-year-old looks completely lost at the plate.

"It's a little bit of everything, but I would go directly to approach," Torkelson said Sunday. "When you're not seeing the ball well, it feels like you're getting one pitch a game to do damage with, and that's what it feels like. And then when you're hot, it feels like every single pitch you get that's in the strike zone is a meatball. It's just getting back to that."

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In 2024, Torkelson is hitting .201 with four home runs, 16 walks and 56 strikeouts in 54 games.

It took him until May 12 to hit his first homer.

In recent weeks, his resolve has been tested even more.

"It tests me every single day," Torkelson said. "I mean, that's why you love this game so much, just because it tests you. It makes it that much sweeter when you crawl your way out of it."

Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson fields the ball in the fifth inning of the Tigers' 1-0 loss in 10 innings on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Comerica Park.
Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson fields the ball in the fifth inning of the Tigers' 1-0 loss in 10 innings on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Comerica Park.

From 2023 to 2024, Torkelson's batting average has dropped from .233 to .201, his OPS has dropped from .758 to .597, and his walk rate has dropped from 9.8% to 7%.

Hinch discussed Torkelson's struggles at length.

"I think the approach part is certainly the mental preparation and carrying what you're trying to do from the on-deck circle into the batter's box and staying with it," Hinch said, "and reacting to how the pitcher is attacking you and staying very disciplined to the game plan of what you're trying to do. I think he's OK at that. I think all hitters tend to waver a little bit when they get pitched a little differently than expected, or you get into this batter's box, and that (Green) Monster looks like it's pretty close, and all of a sudden, that up the middle, the other way doesn't seem as fruitful as the pull homer. I think there's some mechanics things with him, where his weight is distributed, his lower half, trusting a lot of the work he's doing in the cage to be consistent, but it's a lot harder than just an analysis or a suggestion. Everyone in his ear is trying to get him to do something positive."

The biggest issue: Torkelson's swing isn't on time for high-velocity fastballs, which wasn't the case in 2023. His timing issues in 2024 resemble his timing issues in 2022, which led to a rookie demotion to the Mud Hens at the All-Star break.

This season, Torkelson is hitting .148 with zero home runs, a .185 slugging percentage and a 23.5% whiff rate against fastballs from right-handed pitchers. Even worse, Torkelson is hitting .106 on fastballs from right-handers that register at least 93 mph on the radar gun, compared to the league average of .243.

Detroit Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson (20) hit a single against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second inning at Chase Field in Phoenix on Friday, May 17, 2024.
Detroit Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson (20) hit a single against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second inning at Chase Field in Phoenix on Friday, May 17, 2024.

Last season, though, Torkelson hit .283 against 93 mph-plus fastballs from righties.

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Rookie Colt Keith, who plays second base but could outgrow the position one day if he continues to get bigger physically, fixed his timing issue on fastballs by scrapping a leg kick and implementing a toe tap. As a result, the 22-year-old is hitting .343 with a .873 OPS since the May 8 mechanical adjustment.

Torkelson has taken the same mechanics and the same swing to the plate throughout his three-year MLB career, spanning 323 games and 1,318 plate appearances.

He hasn't made any distinct adjustments.

"We've talked about a lot of different things," Hinch said. "Our hitting guys continue to try to get him in a good position at the decision point. When he's got to make a decision to swing, your body has got to be in a really good, consistent position. Every guy is a little bit different. The toe tap is not the answer for everybody."

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In Triple-A Toledo, first baseman Keston Hiura is hitting .231 with six home runs, 21 walks and 55 strikeouts in 48 games. He would be the best candidate to replace Torkelson, but he was terrible at the plate in the month of May, hitting .164 with two home runs despite a respectable .315 on-base percentage.

Hiura, who has four years of MLB experience, signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers in spring training, which includes upward mobility clause (also known as assignment clause) dates for March 26, June 1 and Aug. 1.

Utility players Bligh Madris and Ryan Vilade have also received playing time at first base in Triple-A Toledo this season. Both players have MLB experience in the past, including Vilade's four games with the Tigers in the second week of May.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him @EvanPetzold.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Spencer Torkelson on verge of demotion to Triple-A