Why Detroit Tigers' Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson will benefit from unique training site

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

I was on the phone with the King of Home Runs — at least in the minor leagues.

“Has anyone hit a home run in Toledo this year that impressed you?” I asked Mike Hessman, the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A hitting coach, who has spent the last month working at the alternative training site in Toledo.

I was curious how the Tigers prospects were doing, especially the power hitters, and Hessman has an unique perspective. He holds the minor league record with 433 home runs. If anyone knows about hitting home runs in Toledo, it’s him.

We don’t get many progress reports of what is happening in Toledo because the media is not allowed to watch the intrasquad games. But, I figure, if somebody hits a home run that impresses Hessman, it’s noteworthy.

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“They have hit quite a few down here,” Hessman said. “(Brandon) Dixon and (Jorge) Bonifacio have been running into them.”

The Detroit Tigers held workouts at Comerica Park Saturday, July 4, 2020. First-round draft pick Spencer Torkelson walks to the batting cage for his first session as a Tiger.

A few days later, Bonifacio was called up to the big league club.

“Frank Schwindel has been hitting the heck out of the ball,” Hessman said. “(Riley) Greene ran into one the other day with two strikes. He hit a bullet that got out in a hurry. (Eric) Haase was here, getting a few (at bats) and he has run into a few was well. Guys are putting some good swings on them. It’s fun to see.”

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Blessing in disguise

The players at the alternative site have been put into a strange situation, forced to face the same pitchers over and over.

The good news? It doesn’t matter if they go into a funk. They won’t be pulled from the lineup, and the outside world will ever know.

“We try to tell them when they are working on things, this is the best time to do it,” Hessman said. “You are getting live at bats and the best part about it, it’s not going on the back of your baseball card.”

Detroit Tigers left fielder Riley Greene robs C.J. Cron of a homer by leaping over the fence to make the play during intrasquad action Monday, July 13, 2020 at Comerica Park.

Spencer Torkelson and Greene, two of the Tigers top prospects, are getting an opportunity to face pitchers on the verge of pitching in the big leagues.

“Riley has done a great job,” Hessman said. “I know he didn’t perform like he would have wanted up in Detroit (during summer camp). He was working around the ball a little bit, maybe trying to do a little too much, but he's worked his tail off and you can see the confidence during his at bats. He’s done a great job. He’s starting to swing the bat a lot better. So it's promising to see that especially out of a 19-year-old kid.”

Torkelson, the Tigers first-round pick in the 2020 draft, has gone through a wild year. His college season was cut short by the coronavirus crisis, he went through all of the hoopla surrounding the draft and then he was plopped into Comerica Park with the big league club.

Not surprisingly, he started out slowly.

“I think Tork is still getting his feet wet with everything that's going on,” Hessman said. “He's done a great job the last couple of days as far as not chasing. He’s been able to work counts and and battle back and get into some good counts. Early on, he was chasing a little bit. Now you are starting to see him lay off of those pitches and take the walks when they're given to him and not chasing and getting himself out. So definitely some promising things that we're seeing from these young guys.”

In the long run, Hessman believes that both Torkelson and Greene will benefit from this strange situation, just from seeing this caliber of pitching.

And they are learning how to handle struggles that are inevitable for minor league players.

“I would be safe to venture that they probably haven't struggled extremely much throughout their careers,” Hessman said. “So kind of a shell-shocked at times, like, wow, wait a minute, what's going on here?

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“So it'll kind of open their eyes as far as what they have to be able to do. Whether it be clean up a few things or the approach to how they are going to take their at bat. They should learn a lot through this season. We're trying to help them walk through that process and explain certain at bats, certain situations. Just tailoring a game plan and having an idea and a game within the game, as they're developing. Seeing some pitchers who just aren’t going to feed you fastballs in hitter counts. Some will pitch it backwards at times and not give in to you and make you chase, and they are going to keep doing it until you prove you can lay off of it.

“They have done a really good job. This is an unbelievable experience for them. Even here at the alternate site, these guys are seeing pitchers on the verge of getting to the big leagues.”

Go for the gold

In some ways, the players at the alternative site are going through “Ground Hogs Day.”

No travel. No games. Just practice, and practice, and practice.

“We are just trying to keep it fresh for them,” Hessman said.

So they try to change things up during practice, like holding hitting competitions.

“On days when we didn’t have pitching, we have put together hitting competitions that we put together, a hitting-type Olympics,” Hessman said. “We had four or five different stations set up and we're keeping tallies and points. We had a draft and put together some teams. So having them compete against each other and keep it light and have them talk some trash and have some fun out there. We're trying to keep things light for the guys.”

Catching a break

“Who has impressed you?” I asked.

Hessman brought up Dixon.

“Dixon has done an absolute great job down here,” Hessman said. “He's been swinging the bat really well since we started, so we are keeping him ready in case they need somebody.”

“How about Jake Rogers?” I asked, about the Tigers catching prospect.

“He is coming along,” Hessman said. “He's trying to kind of limit that leg kick that he had last year. He has a little different load. I know he bought it into the spring training. So as far as his approach and things like that, you can definitely see some changes and some growth at the plate, which is good to see.”

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“And what have you seen from Dillon Dingler,?” I asked, referring to the Tigers' second-round pick.

“He’s really athletic,” Hessman said. “He works his tail off. He’s constantly wanting to get work and sometimes we got to back him off, relax, it’s a long season, because they're eager to learn and they want to play.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to