Spencer Torkelson smashed Barry Bonds' college HR record. Now he is a Detroit Tiger

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

Spencer Torkelson’s birth announcement proclaimed him to be the “Rookie of the Year.”

When he turned 1, his birthday card referred to him as “Daddy’s Little Slugger.”

And that’s what he became at Arizona State, a power-hitting first baseman who has emerged as the top prospect in Wednesday's MLB draft.

Unless something stunning happens, the Detroit Tigers are expected to select Torkelson with the first overall pick, which makes perfect sense. He has the potential to fill a glaring organizational need. The Tigers have loaded up with pitching prospects in recent years but don’t have a viable power-hitting first baseman in their minor league system.

[ Inside the old warehouse where Torkelson became a home run king ]

Torkelson proved he has franchise-changing power potential after jacking 54 home runs in 129 games at Arizona State.

“Spenny wanted to play in the major leagues when he was 5 or 6,” Rick Torkelson, Spencer’s father, said.

Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson

Spenny — that’s what close friends and family call him — also played high school football and youth hockey.

“A lot of kids make a mistake,” Joey Gomes, Torkelson’s hitting instructor, said. “A lot of kids make it a goal to get drafted. I was like, ‘Spenny, that’s not the goal. The goal is to make baseball a career and win in the big leagues. If we keep doing what we are doing, that’s going to happen.’”

Torkelson, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, from Petaluma, California, is considered the top prospect by Baseball America.

“Torkelson’s terrific hitting ability, advanced approach and plate discipline, plus bat speed, and plus-plus power make him one of the favorites for the first overall pick,” Baseball America writes. “He’s an above-average defender now at first base thanks to his agility and good hands, with the strong work ethic to continue improving."

ESPN has called him the “safest pick” in the draft. “Torkelson fits best at first base, but he could play a fine left field, and he mashes plenty for any position,” the website wrote. “He could be an above-average hitter with an above-average walk rate and 30+ homers.”

Baseball scout:Torkelson 'too perfect' for Tigers to pass in MLB draft

Torkelson is also rated No. 1 by MLB Pipeline.

“He controls at-bats extremely well and draws a ton of walks,” MLB Pipeline said. “He's able to drive the ball from foul pole to foul pole and he uses the middle of the field when he's at his best. He's able to hit the ball out to all fields, with tremendous loft power to his pull side. He doesn't sell out for that power, but gets to it with ease."

Spencer Torkelson as a 3-year-old.

Look out: 'Spencer's up!'

Torkelson was raised swinging a big bat, even if it was plastic.

“Spenny was hitting in the house when he was literally a year old and he could hit a ball in the air,” Rick Torkelson said. “People used to come over and he would have his baseball stuff on and I’d say, ‘Spenny, show us your swing.’ ”

Eventually, it became too dangerous for Spencer to hit indoors.

“I’d get a Wiffle ball in the face,” Rick said.

So they had to move outside.

When Torkelson was playing T-ball, he was hitting balls that rolled to the fence when other kids couldn’t even get it out of the infield.

[ Tigers' No. 1 MLB draft pick: Which top prospect is the better hitter? ]

“When Spenny would get up, the outfield would all back up and everybody screamed, ‘Spencer's up!’ " Rick said. “That was in T-ball. I guess he was about 5.”

Spencer Torkelson as an 8-year-old on his Little League team sponsored by former MLB player Jonny Gomes

Spencer remembers that time for a different reason.

“I never missed a practice,” he said. “I mean, I have always loved baseball. I was really fortunate to have very good coaches growing up in Little League and travel and high school.”

He hit his first home run when he was 9, playing on a 10-year-old all-star team.

“It was a 200-foot fence and a juiced bat,” he said, and laughed. “But I still count it.”

When he was 12, he hit so many homers, they lost track.

“Spenny and I argue about this,” Rick said. “I always kept the books and he had 38 home runs. Spenny claims he only hit 36. But OK, I won’t argue with him. But I do have all the score books and we agree to disagree. He hit 38.”

Torkelson was a four-year varsity starter in high school and hit 11 home runs in 110 games.

“At my high school, it’s 315 feet to left field,” he told the Free Press in February. “But there were 30- to 40-mph winds coming in from left field every day. I’m not even exaggerating. You probably have to hit a ball 450 feet, equivalent, to left field to put it out. I’m not kidding. People look at my high school numbers and say, ‘Oh, you didn’t have power in high school.’

"I did have power. I played at the wrong field.”

From left: Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson; brother Matthew; parents Lori and Rick

Passing Barry Bonds?

When Torkelson arrived at Arizona State, he wasn’t sure if he would make the travel team.

“The first event you go to is an orientation, where you meet the freshmen,” Rick said. “My wife and I go to this breakfast, kind of a brunch thing. And these players are huge. And I'm looking at Spenny and looking at these players and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. Spenny is smaller than half of them.'

"We are used to him being the big kid. And it turns out, the big guys are the pitchers."

In his first college game, Torkelson batted cleanup as the designated hitter. He didn't get a hit in four at-bats against Miami (Ohio).

In the second game of that doubleheader, he moved to first base after another player was injured. and Torkelson hit two home runs — "two pumps," as he said.

Let's just say he found his home at first base, becoming an All-American.

“He never looked back,” Rick said.

Torkelson hit 25 home runs, breaking Barry Bond’s freshman record at Arizona State (11 in 1983).

“Honestly, it hasn’t hit me still," he said. "People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you broke Barry Bonds' home run record as a freshman.' And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did, but it hasn’t clicked.’ I’m still waiting.”

As a sophomore, he cranked 23 homers in 57 games.

“Last year was really fun,” he said. “I had Hunter Bishop hitting behind me. It’s always good when you have a guy who went 10th (in the 2019 draft) hitting behind you. He had a breakout season. And I had myself a pretty good year as well.”

Loves dogs; snakes, not so much

Torkelson is not big on social media — he rarely tweets.

But his profile picture is telling: He’s wearing a cowboy hat that is decorated with a rattlesnake band.

“That cowboy hat is pretty special,” Torkelson said in an interview posted on NCAA.com. “I was fishing at a lake. I don’t want to get into too many details. There was a rattlesnake. And somehow, the rattlesnake skin ended up on my hat as a headband.

“It tried to kill me, so it got killed.”

Torkelson has spent his quarantine fishing and walking his French bulldog, Bubba.

Funny story about that dog.

Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson's dog, Bubba.

“Spenny wanted a dog,” Rick said. “I said, ‘Spenny, no. You can’t have a French bulldog. I mean, how you gonna take care of a dog? You go to practice every day. You travel like five days out of every two weeks. There's no way you can take care of a dog.'

“So what does a normal red-blooded boy do? He talks to his mother and he ends up with a dog. I didn't even know until he tells me he needs money in his account to buy the thing."

Rick laughed.

“He got it in September," he said. "And, you know, it's fall ball and he's taking care of it. Then all of a sudden he comes home for a visit and says, ‘You know, Dad, he likes you guys so much, I want to leave him here.' ”

“So he's our dog and his dog. I keep calling myself Grandpa and he’s the dad. But a celebrity daddy. He comes home and hugs him and says he loves them and then leaves.”

That's Spencer. He loves dogs, but doesn't have much patience for rattlesnakes.

He became "Daddy's Little Slugger."

And Tigers fans can hope for one thing: At some point, if everything works out perfectly, he will turn into a rookie of the year.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.