Inside the purple warehouse where Spencer Torkelson became a home run king
It is a small, simple batting cage in an old industrial warehouse.
A net hangs from the ceiling, creating a single tunnel. The walls are painted purple, and a yellow ladder leans against the far wall.
This is where Joey Gomes works. This is where he gives batting instruction to some of the most talented prospects in the country, including Spencer Torkelson, who is expected to be taken first overall by the Detroit Tigers when the MLB draft begins Wednesday.
Which brings us to Gomes’ first theory of creating a hitter: If you can find this batting cage in Santa Rosa, California, if you show that kind of initiative and desire, you are the type of player with whom he would like to work.
“I’m behind two double chain-link fences and a stack of tires,” Gomes said. “There is no address to my cage. There is no name on the front of the building. You wouldn’t even know it was a batting cage if you came.”
Gomes, a former minor league baseball player whose brother, Jonny, played 13 years in MLB, has produced several big-time prospects out of this small batting cage and, he said, more are on the way. Gomes worked with Andrew Vaughn, who was taken third by the Chicago White Sox in the 2019 MLB draft.
And he has been working with Torkelson since "Spenny" — as he is called — was 12 years old.
When Rick Torkelson, Spencer’s father, went to Gomes’ batting cage for the first time — actually at a different location at that time but with the same industrial feel — he was surprised at the setting.
“The rap music would be blaring, and Joey had a potty mouth, and it was kind of a shock,” Rick said. “But Joey was extremely gregarious. I like Joey a lot. He treated Spenny like he was a future major leaguer from the start.”
Torkelson is widely considered the top prospect in the draft because of his home run power.
“Joey wasn’t huge on mechanics — obviously not,” Spencer Torkelson said. “Me and Vaughn have completely different types of swings. (Gomes) was big on the mental approach to the game.”
There were times when Torkelson would train under Gomes in the same cage, at the same time, with Vaughn and Jake Scheiner, the Philadelphia Phillies' fourth-round pick in 2017.
“On Monday, at 7 o’clock, it seems like yesterday, but there were times when it was a group of Spenny, Vaughn and Scheiner,” Gomes said. “I would be like, ‘You guys, look around, this could be a pretty cool group one day.’
“You are just going about your business, a guy in a cage, and you three guys might be big leaguers.”
Now, Gomes is working with Joe Brown, a teenager from Petaluma, California, who has twice been named to Team USA, as well as with Joe Lampe, who has committed Arizona State.
“You are going to be calling me in a couple years about Joe because he’s going to be a first-rounder,” Gomes said. “He hits with Spenny right now.”
So what is the secret? How has Gomes created so many talented hitters out of a place that seems so, well, rudimentary?
Maybe, it starts with all the talking they used to do after the session was done.
After a hitting lesson, Torkelson and Gomes would have long talks while picking up the baseballs. This is a monotonous chore for any baseball player and coach, but Gomes turned it into philosophy lessons mixed with pep talks.
Gomes was always convinced Torkelson would get a college scholarship — he had so much talent it was obvious to him. So Gomes began to prepare Torkelson for professional baseball.
Not just making the big leagues. But excelling.
“Spenny, it’s only a dream if you are sleeping,” Gomes told him. “If you are awake, we can make this your reality.”
Gomes took a short video of his cage to show me the setting. Then, he opened a door and a welder was working on the other side of the building.
Which brings us to another Gomes theory on how to create a hitter: You can’t let anything distract you.
“When people come in, there are tractors going by or somebody doing construction or maybe a Cross Fit thing is going on,” Gomes said. “They automatically ask, ‘Doesn’t that distract you?’
“And I go, ‘Well, if that distracts you, if outside influences deter you from your task, that's the first thing we need to address is your mental focus.' ”
Maybe, it's no surprise Torkelson is known for his focus.
“The other thing that we would always talk about, is being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation,” Gomes said. "And this is where Spenny excelled tremendously. It's something that we like to say, (it) is not necessarily that that guy's clutch, but that guy can control his heart rate. That’s huge.”
Here’s another Gomes theory: The secret to hitting is timing.
“I believe it is an art to be on time,” Gomes said.
A pitcher tries to disrupt a hitter’s timing by mixing fastballs and off-speed pitchers. “If a pitcher doesn't want you on time, shouldn’t that be your first concern?” Gomes said.
“Yeah, that’s easy to say,” I said. “But how do you do that?”
“This is where it gets a little bit fun for me,” Gomes said. “The drills that we do in the cage are extremely challenging in order to be on time. It's kind of a fun thing.”
He doesn't give away too many secrets, but he does mention this: Gomes would set up two different pitching machines, at vastly different speeds, to train a hitter to adjust to different pitches.
“The hardest thing in the world to do is be on time,” Gomes said. “We'll have something coming in like 90 and another thing coming in at 70. Then I'll throw it overhand. All I'm saying is, when you're building a hitter, if you make the one thing that is the challenge, a very difficult challenge, your focus tends to increase that ability.”
Here’s another Gomes theory: Keep it simple.
“I get such a kick when Spencer is interviewed and he is asked about hitting and how simple his response is,” Gomes said. “I’m like, that’s my guy.”
Gomes never used small balls or thin bats as a teaching tool. And he has never focused on bat speed or launch angle while building Torkelson’s swing.
“In our opinion, that’s not how you build it,” he said. “Any professional hitting coach in a cage knows that’s what is happening but that’s not how you build it. The terms now like, launch angle is very popular, and hip-shoulder separation is very popular, and abductor muscles versus adductor muscles, which one was quicker twitch. It’s very popular. But in order to create the hitter you don't build it like that."
“You build it through what the hitter has, which was a tremendous amount already with Spencer," he said. "Let’s not make a mistake, if he didn't touch the part of the ball that he's touching, none of that other stuff matters. If you measure his exit velocity, it's really good, but it's average for what guys like him do. The key thing that makes Spenny special is how skilled of a hitter he is.”
That’s why Torkelson is more than a home-run basher.
Baseball America ranked different hitting tools of all of the prospects in the 2020 draft. Torkelson was the No. 1 power hitter, No. 2 overall hitter and had the No. 3 strike-zone judgement.
Here's another Gomes theory: Create hitters, not swings.
And that’s why Vaughn and Torkelson have completely different swings, even though they went to the same instructor.
“Their swings are nothing alike,” Gomes said. “It’s the proof that we talk more about hitting than the swing.”
Instead of worrying about anything else, Gomes’ focus is getting a batter to hit a particular part of the baseball.
“Anybody that's been in my cage knows that is the most important thing to us — your ability to consistently square up the baseball,” he said.
And if you square up the baseball, the home runs will happen.
“It's our opinion that, you know, that if you are a chessboard, and you're on offense, and you are talking about hitting — pawns care about how they swing to the ball, kings care about how they hit the ball," Gomes said. "We pride ourselves on the ability to square that baseball up and we work diligently at creating that thing.”
Here’s another Gomes theory: Try to crush the ball, even with two strikes.
“That is a huge side of mental side of hitting that I don't think too many people even have the conversation about," Gomes said. "You hear two strikes and you think, choke up, go to right. I’m like, 'How about none of that. How about, let’s not give in.'”
“You aren’t going to make a living hitting grounders in the four hole.”
Perhaps that statement, more than anything, explains how Torkelson became such a power threat. He has power no matter the count or situation.
“All I'm trying to get the kid to do is really not change his heart rate and not lose his confidence (in a tough situation),” Gomes said.
That’s what Torkelson can do so well.
And that’s why the Tigers are expected to take him first overall.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.