Photo: John Jones/Icon Sportswire

This play kind of sums it up how it went defensively for Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson in 2023.

Torkelson ranked last among first basemen with -10 Defensive Runs Saved last season. Though his offense improved decently from his rookie season, his defense took a step back from 2022 (-4 Runs Saved). As a result, he was one of two 30-homer hitters to finish with a bWAR less than 1 (Kyle Schwarber was the other).

Torkelson was a rough watch at first base, relatively speaking. That throw from the video atop this article wasn’t the only one he had trouble with. We credited him with 7 mishandles of throws (another example is this one).

Torkelson also had a few issues trying to catch foul balls this season (here, here, and here). But most significantly, he repeatedly got eaten up by ground balls. Here’s one example:

 Here are a few others (here, here, here, here, and here). Most of those plays are balls either hit straight at him or to his right and that’s where the numbers were most problematic. The table below shows how many plays were made, how many opportunities he had to make a play, and how many plays below average Torkelson was based on our out probability data.

Balls hit Plays Made/Opportunities Plays Saved
To his right 59/212 -7
At him 54/72 -7

In other words, Torkelson made 59 plays on balls hit to his right. An average first baseman would have made 66. And he made 54 plays on balls hit at him. An average first baseman would have made 61. That’s where the damage to his statistical ledger was done.

That’s not to say that he was all bad. Torkelson’s 43 Good Fielding Plays were the most of any first baseman last season. He was able to offset those mishandles of throws with an MLB-best 29 Good Plays on handling throws (we call those “scoops”).

But based on his Runs Saved total, Torkelson has no shortage of work to do prior to the start of the 2024 season. He’s got some clear issues as a hitter too.

In 2023, Torkelson hit .106 in AB ending with a pitch that we classified as down-and-away. That’s 13-for-123.

Of the 251 hitters who saw the most down-and-away pitches in 2023* Torkelson ranks …

– 238th in batting average

– 198th in slugging percentage

– 57th-highest in percentage of swings that missed (the higher you are, the worse you’re doing)

* We’d have done 250 hitters, but there was a 3-way tie for 249th

Hitting down-and-away pitches is hard, really hard. A lot of those are tough sliders, sweepers, and changeups. This is what we’re talking about (here) and this (here) and this (here). But most major leaguers are at least a little better than Torkelson is.

Torkelson’s teammate Riley Greene is right around the midpoint of our player sample in batting average against down-and-away pitches. He hit .190 against them. Torkelson was about 10 hits away from hitting .190 against down-and-away pitches in 2023. If he plays every day, replacing 10 outs with 10 hits would be  one more hit every 15-16 games. Finding his way to a few more hits on those pitches would certainly make Torkelson a better player. So would making fewer outs.

As we wrote about with Bobby Witt Jr. not too long ago, one of the biggest lessons for a young player is learning what pitches he can hit, what pitches he can’t, and making the necessary adjustments in his swing tendencies. Torkelson could be best served by a few more takes, even if those pitches are in the strike zone, in the hopes that he’ll get something in one of his hot zones later in the at-bat.

One thing Torkelson does well that bodes well is that he hits the heat. He hit .279 and slugged .549 against fastballs that were 95 MPH or faster on the TV radar gun, missing on 17.5% of his swings. The MLB averages against those pitches were a .244 batting average, .397 slugging percentage, and 21% miss rate, respectively.

Also similar to Witt, if Torkelson were to more fully figure things out at the plate and in the field, his ascent could go a long way in determining his team’s ascent in 2024 in an AL Central that doesn’t seem to have a dominant team.