Casa Grande of Petaluma grad Spencer Torkelson is still basking in the glow of being California’s 17th No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers. He talked in a one-on-one interview with Cal-Hi Sports associate editor Harold Abend (also a Petaluma resident) about what motivated him the most while he was getting so good at Arizona State and how he’s working out amid the restrictions of COVID-19. We also have insights from Spencer’s high school coach at Casa Grande.
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The Redwood Empire portion of the CIF North Coast Section was rocking last year when Andrew Vaughn of Maria Carrillo (Santa Rosa) became the highest Major League Baseball draft choice from North of the Golden Gate Bridge after he was selected No. 3 by the Chicago White Sox.
Then, when the mock drafts starting surfacing earlier this year, it became apparent Casa Grande (Petaluma) grad Spencer Torkelson could surpass his good friend since every one of the pseudo drafts had him pegged as the No. 1 choice.
Finally, on June 10 on ESPN, and at home surrounded by family and friends, including his proud parents Rick and Lori Torkelson, it became a reality when the Detroit Tigers selected him out of Arizona State.
The first-ever No. 1 draft pick from the Redwood Empire becomes the third top selection from Arizona State as he joins Rick Monday, Floyd Bannister and Bob Horner, all of whom went on to have long and stellar Major League careers.
California has had 17 No. 1 draft picks since Monday was chosen by the Oakland Athletics as the MLB top pick out of Santa Monica High in the very first draft held in 1965. However, only three have come from Northern California as Torkelson joins Pat Burrell of San Jose Bellarmine, chosen in 1998 by the Philadelphia Phillies, and Mark Appel of Danville Monte Vista, taken in 2013 by the Houston Astros. Like Torkelson, those other two went to college before going that high.
None of that was on Spencer’s mind as he and the entourage gathered at the Torkelson home and waited with baited breath for the announcement until MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred uttered those magic words.
“With the first pick in the 2020 Major League Draft the Detroit Tigers select Spencer Torkelson, third baseman from Arizona State.”
When they heard the news in Petaluma, pandemonium broke out at the Torkelson abode. So much so that they didn’t hear ESPN MLB analyst Eduardo Perez or Tigers General Manager Al Avila heap praise on Spencer right after the announcement.
“Every team dreams of a player,” Perez remarked. “Spencer Torkelson is a player you don’t have to dream about. He has quick hands, he’s strong, and dominates the batter’s box.”
“I didn’t hear him say that because it hit me, wham, but that statement makes me feel great,” Torkelson responded in an interview with Cal-Hi Sports earlier this week. “What feels the best to me is I worked so hard for my strong hands and body and ownership of the batter’s box.”
When the Tigers made the selection, they announced Torkelson as a third-baseman, the position he played his first three years at Casa Grande before switching to left field, despite the fact he played first base at Arizona State. No first-baseman has ever been taken No. 1 and only a handful of third-sackers have had the honor.
Avila’s words exuded the confidence the organization has that Spencer can play third base in the big leagues. Avila also alluded to Torkelson’s character.
“We’re thrilled. He’s exactly the kind of player we wanted with the first pick,” Avila said “We know about the makeup of Spencer on the field and in the clubhouse. He’s a tremendous kid and a tremendous talent.”
Torkelson, who despite being the talk of the baseball world as the No. 1 pick, showed just what Avila meant with his answer.
“Having Al Avila call me a great kid means just as much to me as him calling me a great baseball player,” Spencer remarked. “You can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t get along you won’t win. Having great people in the clubhouse is just as important as great players.”
The reactions of Perez and Avila were not lost on Torkelson’s high school coach Paul Maytorena.
“It’s one thing about his baseball ability because he’s proven his talent up to now,” Maytorena said. “But it’s those other things they said about him that I’m most proud of.
“He’s a good kid, humble and treats people the right way,” Maytorena continued. “It could be a little hard for him because some people might try to take advantage of him.”
Moments before the Tigers made their choice, Torkelson was still uncertain his name would be called first, and it may very well be another reason he never heard what Perez and Avila had to say.
“It gives me goose bumps just thinking about that moment,” reflected Spencer. “The Tigers didn’t call me and from what I understood they usually call before making the pick.”
Even with the accessibility of information available on the internet, we couldn’t find a list of MLB No. 1 draft picks that went totally undrafted out of high school. Every reliable source we reached out to said it is a rarity, however in Torkelson’s case it’s a reality.
“Out of high school, I didn’t know any better,” Torkelson said. “I went to all the showcases like the Area Code Games and did well, so I was surprised, but I’m glad I didn’t get drafted out of high school. It lit a fire under me.
“It gave me the opportunity to improve and grow as a man, and also allowed me to enjoy the college experience,” Spencer continued. “The team atmosphere in college is awesome.”
After everything was said and done, did it mean more to be No. 1 after going undrafted despite a stellar high school career?
“Definitely, 100 percent,” Torkelson responded. “It made it a lot more special.”
Maytorena had this take on Torkelson being initially overlooked: “There were a couple of reasons. Our field isn’t built for offense so he didn’t have gaudy numbers, and the local guys liked him but the cross-checkers didn’t see the value.”
The numbers Torkelson put up might not be gaudy by the standards of the cross-checkers, but they were solid good enough to land him a spot on the Cal-H Sports All State First Team.
In his senior season, and playing on a home field that has no short porches, and wind that blows towards home plate, Torkelson hit .481 with 41 runs scored and 43 runs batted in. More than half of his hits were extra base hits, including 12 doubles, a triple and seven home runs while he was also a perfect 10-for-10 on stolen base attempts. The numbers might have been even better had he not been walked 27 times.
While Torkelson showed some power in high school, it wasn’t until he arrived at Arizona State that he showed the kind of power that has analysts making comparisons with some of today’s top power hitters such as Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees (also from Northern California).
By the time he finished his career with the Sun Devils, Spencer had blasted 54 home runs, which is only two shy of the school record held by Horner. His 25 home runs as a freshman shattered the record previously held by Barry Bonds (San Mateo Serra).
“Spencer learned how to be a great hitter first and then he became a great power hitter,” observed Maytorena.
Torkelson has been working out at home in Petaluma, and he and his friend Vaughn have been hitting together. In fact, Spencer was heading out to hit with Vaughn immediately after this interview.
Torkelson is not the first top-notch prospect to come out of Casa Grande, either. Former big-leaguer Jonny Gomes was drafted in the 18th round in 2001 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and went on to a 13-year MLB career, but round 18 is eons away from being the top pick.
“They both are ultimate grinders, and 13 years in the Major Leagues is nothing to spill milk over,” remarked Maytorena. “But Spencer has more god-given, baseball-gifted talent.”
Gomes had a solid career that saw him finish with 162 home runs and 562 RBI, and all three previous ASU top picks put up big numbers in their careers. Does being the No. 1 mean Torkelson has anything to prove?
“Not at all,” was Spencer’s answer. “But I think the No. 1 pick drives me to be even better.”
What about goals?
“I don’t like setting specific goals because my goals are so crazy that they’re almost unattainable,” Torkelson said. “Work hard every day and become whatever player I’m supposed to become. That’s my goal.
“Obviously you want to win the World Series and be a long-time big leaguer,” Torkelson continued. “But that doesn’t happen without hard work.”
When that hard work will begin on the diamond and in a Tigers uniform is still up in the air, but Torkelson is hopeful.
“It’s working on your own for everyone right now in baseball,” Spencer said. “We all want to play but player safety is first. Hopefully, we can get something worked out.”
“I said from the start that Spencer was going to be special,” Maytorena reminisced. “But no one thought back then he would be number one.”
Well, Spencer Torkelson, the pride of Petaluma, is in fact MLB’s top choice in the 2020 draft, and millions of baseball fans throughout the nation are hoping they get to see his rookie season sometime soon.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend