Each baseball season produces story lines that are nearly impossible to predict. Whether it’s a former bottom-dwelling team reaching the playoffs, a superstar losing his form, or the injury bug ravaging a team, these things happen every year. Baseball almost always manages to throw a story line at us about a spectacular breakout season from players who were largely unknowns heading into that year. In 2014, Justin Turner was such a player.
Drafted in 2006 in the 7th round, he put up good-but-not-great numbers during his minor league stops. He looked destined for a utility role, never to become a go-to player that a manager could turn to in dire situations. But in 2014, all that changed, and Turner was a godsend for the boys in blue. Naturally, that kind of outlier performance leads to the question: Was 2014 a fluke or something that the Dodgers can count on heading forward?
While 2014 was undoubtedly a fantastic season (or rather half-season) for Turner, there were some big red flags that peg him as a prime candidate for the regression monster.
The statistic that immediately jumps off the page is Turner’s BABIP. In 2014, he raised it to an astonishingly high .404 from a previous career best of .327 in 2013. Since becoming a factor at the major league level, his BABIP has always been good and in 2013 was above the major league average. In 2014 however his BABIP was that of a baseball god, yet truly unsustainable. In 2001 and 2002, when Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and batted .370, respectively, he managed to produce BABIPs of only .266 and .330, respectively.
Particularly fascinating and further adding to the expectation for regression heading into 2015 is the fact that Turner's batted ball ratios didn't change dramatically in 2014.
Comparing 2013 to 2014, Turner’s LD%, GB%, and FB% changed by 4.95%, 5.64%, and -11.67%, respectively. While a .404 BABIP is unsustainable in almost any conceivable scenario, a drastic increase in LD% would at least help explain the .077 increase in 2014. But that is simply not the case and points to the fact that he was incredibly lucky during the 2014 season.
Another red flag buried in his batted ball ratios was his HR/FB rate. From 2011 through 2013, his average HR/FB ratio was 4.1%, well below the league average of 9.5%. In 2014 however Turner raised his rate by 163.41%, finishing the season at 10.8%. Like his BABIP, that’s a mind-boggling (or as Chazz Michael Michaels would say, a mind-bottling) increase to see over the course of a single year. According to Baseball Heat Maps, there was no supporting increase in Turner's fly ball distance. While it’s not impossible to keep that rate for an entire season, as many hitters do, it’s rare to see such a jump without seeing other factors that help explain it.
A change from 2014 that Turner can sustain is his improvement in plate discipline. In 2014, he cut down on the number of times he chased pitches while simultaneously making contact more frequently when he did.
Turner reduced his O-Swing% by 8.19% and increased his O-Contact% by 9.05%. While Turner was never what could be considered a free swinger (MLB average O-Swing% sits around 30%), in 2014 he had much better success when putting pitches off the plate in play than he did previously.
Another cause for concern is Turner’s pitch values in 2014. From 2011 through 2013, Turner was not good at hitting against most pitches. In 2011, his total value against fastballs, sliders, cutters, curveballs, changeups, and sinkers was a "resounding" -1.1. In 2012 and 2013 his total values were 0.8 and -0.1 respectively. However as we’ve seen thus far, 2014 was no ordinary year for Turner.
In 2014, he generated a total value of 20.4 and performed spectacularly well against fastballs and sliders, pitches he saw 76.2% of the time (61.3% FB and 14.9% SL). He even managed to improve against the curveball, a pitch that he’s always done better than average against. All told, Turner produced a positive value on 85.6% of the pitches he was thrown. But once again, these changes are dubious to say the least. With only one season of data that indicates that Turner is of any real value, 2014 is the outlier in a career that began in 2009.
Even with his fantastic 2014 season, Turner still does not have a specified role for 2015, as Kevin Ruprecht talks about here, and is likely once again to occupy the super-utility position. While Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon are no longer with the Dodgers, GM Andrew Friedman brought in Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick to fill their spots. With Juan Uribe and Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at the corners, Turner is once again the odd man out. The Dodgers also recently signed Cuban import Hector Olivera who will complicate this situation even more than it already is and could eventually force a trade of Turner.
As fans, and people who have played the game at any level, we can all appreciate the romance and the thrill that Turner experienced during a magical 2014 season. However in 2015, Turner is very likely going to see regression in his offensive categories. The main reason will be that while the rules of probability can bend, they do not break. Consequently, his unsustainable BABIP can be expected to regress to his established mean. While it’s possible that 2014 was the result of hard work, and what anti-sabermetric people love to call, "playing the game the right way", it’s very difficult to find evidence that Turner has suddenly, in his age 29 season no less, turned into the premier super-utility player in today’s game. Baseball gives us many feel good storylines to enjoy, but sometimes the sequel falls flat. Sometimes we’re given gold, like The Godfather Part II, but much more frequently, we wind up getting Speed 2.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.