In this most abnormal feathers, the Detroit Tigers can make an abnormal choice with the first selection in the draft MLB 2020: a first baseman.
Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson is not only considered the top talent in the draft, but is the safest choice in a draft with an extra dose of uncertainty due to the sudden halt of college and high school seasons back in March. He mashed 48 home runs his first two seasons at ASU, produced for two summers while using a wooden bat, and he was off to a good start this year, hitting .340 with six home runs in 50 bats, despite seeing few places in the strike zone .
Still, Torkelson is a first baseman and, depending on how you rate those things, only a clean first baseman has ever been selected with the first overall pick since the draft began in 1
Undrafted from high school in Petaluma, California, Torkelson exploded onto the college scene with one of the best freshman seasons in history, leading the nation with 25 home runs. He followed it up by hitting .351 with 23 home runs as a second class. Scouts love his plus-plus raw power, his advanced attitude and his bat speed, all of which have allowed him to show power to all fields. He is an above-average defender at first base and athletic enough that he has also played some outfield. To top it off, he’s young for his draft class, not turning 21 until the end of August.
Torkelson was a slam dunk to break Bob Horner’s school record for home runs – he was three away – and the Sun Devils had even prepared a video tribute from former ASU greats that Horner and Reggie Jackson congratulate Torkelson on the record. Torkelson refused to be interviewed with the draft approaching, but he spoke at a conference call back in April, saying that Horner had reached him after the season was canceled.
“He was super sorry,” Torkelson said. “He was like, ‘That record has to be broken. “I think he may have been more angry than I am. I’ll think about it forever. It sucks, but that’s what it is at this point.”
Torkelson has been home in California during the quarantine and called himself a “pretty solid dog walker” and got his uncle to throw bats. “It gives me goose bumps just to talk about being drafted,” he said. “Being in conversation at the top is very humbling and nice to have.”
In its latest hollow draft, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel Tigers gave 85% probability to draft Torkelson and 15% probability to take Texas A&M left Asa Lacy, who had a 2.13 ERA in 2019 and had allowed just two runs in 24 innings so far in 2019 with 46 strikes. The Tigers have top reception prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal on the verge of majors after everyone pitched in Double-A 2019, but apart from the first round of 2019 Riley Greene, the system seems to lack bats, especially one with Torkelson’s power potential.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk about the need for a bat,” Tiger’s amateur scout director Scott Pleis told reporters at the end of April. “We have a lot of really good arms and knocks on the wood, they all continue to be so. It’s a tough thing when you take these guys, because if you start thinking more needs than anything else, you can send a guy it’s quite a bit better. “
Who will be your favorite team’s next big thing? Look at the draft MLB 2020 to find out.
Wednesday, June 10: Round 1 at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Thursday, June 11: Laps 2-5 at 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The COVID-19 pandemic apparently changed the traditional scouting season. MLB got the team to stop scouting operations in mid-March as a way to create a level playing field. Arizona State had not even participated in conference games yet, and given that Torkelson had gone 31 times in 17 games, the Tigers scouts have watched a lot of video – from 2019. Teams can talk to draft candidates via telephone and video conferencing.
“Really, we do everything but go to the games right now,” Pleis said. “We all do the same things. We get to know the players, we evaluate as far as we read the reports and go over them, branch out and do a lot of the video reports and analysis. Any tool we possibly have, that’s what we do.”
The obvious comparison with Torkelson is Andrew Vaughn, his Pac-12 rival from Cal who went third overall to the White Sox in last year’s draft – the highest a first baseman had been selected since Eric Hosmer also went third overall, to the Royals in 2008. Kiley puts a 55 Future Value class on Torkelson (on a 20 to 80 scouting scale), the same rating he put on Vaughn in his list of 100 best prospects back in March. Since they played at the same conference, and both players met right-handed, a straight statistical observation is instructive:
Vaughn 2018: .402 / .531 / .819, 23 HR, 44 BB, 18 SO
Torkelson 2018: .320 / .440 / .743, 25 HR, 38 BB, 44 SO
Vaughn 2019: .381 / .544 / .716, 15 HR, 59 BB, 33 SO
Torkelson 2019: .351 / .446 / .707, 23 HR, 41 BB, 45 SO
Torkelson 2020: .340 / .598 / .780, 6 HR, 31 BB, 15 SO
Vaughn, almost 17 months older, hit the higher average with the better strike-to-walk ratio, but Torkelson had a slightly higher rate of extra base hits. Notice Torkelson’s peak in his walking grade this season, from 14.2% to 37.8%. This is what the Tigers can dream of: a 30-homer first baseman who strikes on average with a high base rate. In other words, a future star worthy of the # 1 overall choice.
However, here’s the thing: There are no guarantees in the baseball draft. Even the first choice is not a sure thing. Sure you remember Steve Chilcott or Danny Goodwin or Al Chambers or Shawn Abner. The Padres chose Matt Bush ahead of Justin Verlander. The Astros chose Mark Appel ahead of Kris Bryant.
As a general rule, teams do not like to take first basemen in the first round – and especially not in the top 10. Shortstops and center fielders are usually the best athletes on the diamond and the scouts prefer a well-rounded player with a high pick. A short stop can reach the heights due to his defense or move to another position. For example, Justin Upton, the first overall pick in 2005, and Brother B.J., the second pick in 2002, were both high school shortstops who became outfielders as big leaguers. A midfield can move to left field or right field. A striking third baseman can always move to the first base if needed. However, a first baseman must strike.
This undoubtedly makes it the first risk to work out (apart from the damage risk that pitchers entail). Only other basemen are drafted less often in the first round than the first basemen. Here is the selection of the first round by position since 2000, divided into top-five, top-10 and top-30 choices:
Gonzalez, Hosmer and Vaughn are the only top-five first basemen in the last 20 drafts, but there is another worrying aspect to the first basemen in the first round: Most of those drafted over the past two decades struggled to hit as planned . Only two of the 24 became what you would label a star – Gonzalez and Prince Fielder – and only two others (Hosmer and James Loney) have reached 10 career wars. The list:
Although we ignore the five choices from the last three drafts that are still in the minors, it is a success rate of about 10% for a star player and 20% for a solid regular. Remember that these would be players drafted because of a great confidence in their ability to beat – which reflects how hard that tool is to project.
An interesting trend at the major league level is that, compared to all other hits, the first basemen hit worse than ever. The OPS + for first basemen in 2019 was 111, the lowest figure since the 110 mark in 1951. The first basemen produced the same .800 OPS as the right fielder in 2019, barely surpassing third baseman (.798) and left fielders (.790). Then I would suggest that there is a need for more elite offensive first baseman – certainly the case for the Tigers, who finished next to last in majors in the OPS at first base and had a historically bad offense overall.
Torkelson fits that need and looks like a player who will need some time in the minors, but there are other considerations. His advisor is Scott Boras, so it gives a twist to the negotiation process. The Tigers also love pitching in the first round and SEC pitchers in particular. Five of the last seven top picks have been pitchers, with three of them coming from the SEC (Mize, Alex Faedo and Jonathan Crawford). This makes Lacy an exciting opportunity. Vanderbilt infantryman Austin Martin is another option if the Tigers may want to make an agreement and save money to deploy later in the draft.
(It’s actually possible that the first six selections will be college players, which never happened. The record is five straight to start a draft, which happened in 1992 and 2018. Florida prep outfielder Zac Veen appears to be the high school player most likely to crack the six best.)
Still, Torkelson remains the top favorite to go No. 1.
“There will be statistical analysis of the figures that would have been from mid-March all season that will not be analyzed. It is significant,” Avila said in April. “But at the end of the day, we have to do the best with the information we have, which is good information. We will use the information we have to make the best decision possible.”