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Justin Turner: Super utility starter?

Justin Turner gave the Dodgers a great partial season. Did he earn more playing time?

Is one about to take the place of the other?
Is one about to take the place of the other?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

If you're a fan of a small market team, you might sometimes be inclined to hate the big market teams. They spend, spend, spend until they win more games. Then they'll probably spend some more. The Yankees have normally been the favorite punching bag of this hate, but the Dodgers now have a bag of their own. It's really easy to focus on the big contracts and how those players are leading the team to victory, but it's not like the Dodgers can't play on the margins, either. Before the 2014 season began, the Dodgers signed career utility guy Justin Turner to a minor league contract with a bonus if he made the major league team. It's worked out very well for the Dodgers, possibly to the point where the Dodgers can do the non-Dodger thing and not throw a massive contract at Hanley Ramirez.

Before making any statements about Turner vs. Ramirez, it's important to understand the context around Turner's season. Turner turned in quite the half-season. By wRC+, Turner (157) ranked squarely between Jose Bautista and Michael Brantley. He's not a minus baserunner. He's not a minus defender at third base, at least in a part time capacity. He's given the Dodgers everything they could have wanted and more. Unfortunately, there are mixed signals that he deserves a bigger chance.

The red flags are obvious. First, he had a .404 BABIP. Among the qualified players, the highest BABIP was Starling Marte's at .373. Among players with at least 300 plate appearances, only Danny Santana topped Turner's BABIP. Turner, regardless of how well he impacted the ball, got lucky this year. Second, he's never turned in this kind of performance before. His highest single season wRC+ previously was 99. Third, his HR/FB of 10.8% was more than double its previous high.

Those aren't great signs, but just because he's never performed on this level before doesn't mean he won't retain some of this improvement in the future. Turner has a solid baseline from which to work. The following table shows his 2014 frequency numbers against the league average.

League Turner REL
GB% 44.8% 48.7% 109
FB% 34.4% 28.0% 81
LD% 20.8% 23.3% 112
IFFB% 9.6% 3.1% 32
BB% 7.6% 8.7% 114
K% 20.4% 18.0% 88

Keep in mind the small sample sizes due to Turner's utility nature, but there are interesting trends. In general, Turner hits the ball at a lower angle. The higher GB% and LD% and lower FB% numbers are normal for him. He popped up far less than the league this year, but that's also a trend. Finally, he walked a bit more than league average and struck out less than league average. Despite the lack of power, Turner appears to make up for it with a solid baseline of frequency numbers. He attempts both to minimize negative outcomes and maximize positive outcomes.

Turner also can spread the ball around. It's not really going to be possible to exploit him with any shifts, nor is his increased power a product of pulling the ball more. His 2014 spray chart looks a lot like his career spray chart with far fewer dots.

turner spray chart career

It's hard to ignore the .404 BABIP, though. How did that BABIP break down?

lgAVG lgSLG TurnerAVG TurnerSLG
GB 0.239 0.258 0.319 0.345
FB 0.212 0.590 0.313 0.813
LD 0.690 0.880 0.792 0.962

lgAVG lgSLG TurnerAVG TurnerSLG
Pull 0.332 0.585 0.397 0.662
Center 0.337 0.458 0.432 0.600
Opposite 0.296 0.417 0.448 0.597

In every single category here, Turner performed better than the league. That's just ridiculous. Not only can Turner spread the ball around, but he produced better than league average numbers to all fields while doing it.

Unfortunately, without more granular batted ball data, it's hard to say if Turner hitting the ball harder combined with luck increased his BABIP, or if it was 100% luck. What isn't in question is that there was some degree of luck involved; however, there are a lot of things to like. At the plate, Turner has good plate discipline (~27% career O-swing rate), doesn't give away too many free outs, hits line drives, and spreads the ball to all fields. In the field, Turner can hold his own. There are things not to like, including the extreme BABIP as well as a HR/FB% way above previous years. Turner will experience regression in 2015, but he has such a nice baseline with which to work that he should be able to retain some of the improvement.

What should the Dodgers do with Turner, then? The Dodgers have Uribe under contract for 2015, and Hanley Ramirez will be hitting free agency. Ramirez may be done at SS soon, but do the Dodgers think Turner can handle SS? The guy has spent only 274.2 innings at SS, but DRS, UZR, and Inside Edge didn't seem him as awful there. At 3B, Uribe has spent some time injured, and 2B Dee Gordon had a breakout season of his own partially driven by BABIP.

Does Turner's small sample performance deter the Dodgers from throwing gobs of cash at Ramirez? Does Turner's impending regression encourage the Dodgers to throw gobs of cash at Ramirez? Turner will command a larger salary in arbitration this year, but it will be an insignificant number to the Dodgers. I'm sure the Dodgers will keep him; he's at worst a solid utility player. At best, he's a good starter, and he gives the Dodgers options outside of Ramirez.

Is this one of those good problems to have?

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.