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Mediating projections, Part V: Justin Turner

The Dodgers' utility man carried his 2014 breakout over into 2015. Can he make it a three-peat in 2016?

Turner sacrificed average for power in 2015, a change that may or may not stick in 2016.
Turner sacrificed average for power in 2015, a change that may or may not stick in 2016.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Mediating Projections, Beyond the Box Score's series of baseball forecasting analyses! Read Parts IIIIII, and IV for more information on the reasoning/methodology (and to stave off boredom for the next 28 days).

Today, we'll put Justin Turner under the microscope. After 926 plate appearances and 0.5 fWAR with the Orioles and Mets, he came to the Dodgers two years ago and took off. Across 2014 and 2015, his 7.2 fWAR in 725 plate appearances led the team (and ranked 21st in the National League). How will he perform in 2016? That depends on the projection you look at:

System PA K% BB% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ Def fWAR fWAR/600
Steamer 522 17.4% 7.7% .145 .313 .330 112 -0.2 2.4 2.8
ZiPS 345 16.5% 7.2% .166 .333 .355 128* 1.0 2.8 4.9

*ZiPS projects OPS+ instead of wRC+; the difference should be minimal.

Turner broke out because of his offense, which went from six percent worse than average to 48 percent better than average. To no one's surprise, both ZiPS and Steamer predict that he'll fall off that pace, but to greatly different extents; overall, their disagreement amounts to a two-win difference. Can we justify the former's optimism, or should we side with the latter's pessimism?

Strikeouts

The original version of Turner made a good deal of contact — before heading west, he owned a career strikeout rate of 13.3 percent, for a K%+ of 69*. That mark has inflated to 17.0 percent as a Dodger, translating to a more mediocre 83 K%+. Will Turner improve it a bit in the coming season or allow it to climb even more?

*This, along with the other plus statistics cited in this article, comes from the equation ((Turner statistic)/(MLB average)) x 100).

Per Baseball-Reference, Turner has taken far fewer called strikes in the past two seasons than he did in his prior career, and his foul rate has held steady. Where he's differed is swinging strikes, which have increased considerably:

Years Look% Whiff% Foul%
2009-2013 19.1% 6.0% 19.7%
2014-2015 16.9% 8.0% 20.0%

Does this explain his strikeout surge? Let's consult Mike Podhorzer's guideline for an expected strikeout rate. Using these three metrics (as proportions of total strikes), we get an expected strikeout rate of 18.5 percent for Turner's 2014 and 2015 seasons. At 1.5 percentage points above his actual rate, this would appear to justify the extra punchouts that Steamer projects.

Appearances can deceive, however. Between 2009 and 2013, Turner had an expected strikeout rate of 15.3 percent — two full percentage points over the mark he posted. In other words, he has historically done better than his peripherals would suggest, and a glance at his splits shows why. Thanks to my colleague Chris Teeter, we know the MLB average swinging-strike rates by count: 5.7 percent with no strikes, 10.0 percent with one strike, and 12.3 percent with two strikes. Using these, we can roughly create a count-based Whiff%+, which illuminates the source of Turner's strikeout overperformance:

Strike Count Whiff% (2009-2013) Whiff%+ (2009-2013) Whiff% (2014-2015) Whiff%+ (2014-2015)
0 Strikes 4.7% 81 6.2% 108
1 Strike 6.1% 61 8.7% 86
2 Strikes 7.7% 62 9.8% 80

Turner has always managed to cut down on his whiffs (relative to his peers) in the most critical situations, allowing him to defy expectations. This means he'll probably fulfill ZiPS's projection when it comes to strikeouts.

Walks

At the same time that he saw a spike in strikeouts, Turner's walk rate went up as well — from 6.9 percent in Baltimore and New York to 8.4 percent in Los Angeles. From the latter clip, it will probably drop a bit; ZiPS thinks the plunge will be more severe than Steamer does. Which prediction will come to pass?

Turner, as we'd suspect, took more balls in the past couple years (63.0 percent strike rate) than he did in the seasons that preceded them (64.7 percent strike rate). Although he didn't cut down on his chases — in fact, his O-Swing rate stayed exactly the same, at 26.3 percent — he received far fewer hittable pitches, his zone rate falling from 52.3 to 49.5 percent. This set in motion the better walk rate, along with the aforementioned decrease in called strikes.

So will pitchers continue to fear Turner? Presumably, they will — we'll see below (spoiler alert!) that he's earned his recent outburst of clout and should sustain it. The question, though, is if they'll pitch around him to this extent. Given the fact that his BABIP will likely remain down, I would bet on them regaining some of their courage. Once Turner's average and power begin to ebb, as they tend to do, a few walks may disappear too.

This one could go either way. Both systems have fairly similar outlooks, and with his discerning eye at the plate, Turner could certainly maintain or improve upon this free pass rate. If I had to bet, though, I would go with ZiPS — the fact that he hasn't yet made strides in his plate discipline is still unnerving.

Isolated power

For ISO and BABIP, we'll separate Turner's two Dodger campaigns. When he first came to the club, he carried a lifetime ISO of .101. That increased to .153 in 2014, then to .197 in 2015. Assuming it regresses a bit — which seems likely — will it plummet to the above-average area of ZiPS or the average area of Steamer?

Turner's power eruption didn't come from doubles or triples. He hit those in 6.4 percent of his plate appearances from 2009 to 2013, then in 6.8 and 6.2 percent, respectively, in 2014 and 2015. Since his rate of two- and three-baggers didn't rise, his rate of four-baggers must have — and man, did it ever. 0.2 percent of Turner's pre-LA plate appearances resulted in a home run, which he pumped up to 2.2 percent during Year 1 and 3.6 percent in Year 2.

Home run rate stabilizes in just 170 plate appearances, so we can trust that these numbers reflected Turner's true talent. Moreover, his peripherals back up his 18-fold progress. He continually knocked his fly balls further and eventually suppressed his grounders:

Year(s) FB Distance GB%
2009-2013 274.0 48.1%
2014 285.8 48.7%
2015 292.2 36.2%

Learning from his one-time teammate, Turner put the ball in the air much more often and smacked it harder when he did. Consequently, he saw more balls leave the yard, a trend that should continue to some degree.

As if all that weren't enough, Turner's extra-base-hit skill set works perfectly with his home field. FanGraphs's park factors show that Dodger Stadium has always stifled doubles and triples for right-handed hitters (by six and 58 percent, respectively, in 2014), while playing neutrally for righty home runs. In addition to the background metrics supporting his case, the new Turner has Chavez Ravine's endorsement, making ZiPS the most logical choice here.

Batting average on balls in play

Whereas Turner's ISO grew pretty uniformly, his BABIP has jumped around. He went from a .296 figure across his first five seasons to .404 in his sixth and .321 in his seventh. Steamer thinks he'll tumble further, while ZiPS envisions a bit of a rebound. Clearly, he won't surpass two-fifths again, but can he fend off more deterioration?

If he keeps up his current strategy, I wouldn't count on it. Turner hit fewer ground balls last year, which meant more power and a lower average. With a lifetime BABIP of .223 on grounders and .174 on flies, he'll net far fewer hits by avoiding the former. In 2015, he compensated for the absent ground balls with a 27.7 percent line drive rate, which stands out garishly from his 23.1 percent prior career mark and thus smells like a fluke. If those liners shift upward and become flies — as they can do from time to time — they'll likely meet opposing gloves.

Turner didn't square up often in 2015, either. His 31.7 percent hard-hit rate, while respectable, doesn't lend itself to an extreme BABIP, especially for a player who hits so many air balls. He only made solid contact on 39.8 percent of his line drives last season, below the 42.0 percent major-league average; their increased quantity didn't lead to greater quality. Even his 37.0 percent pull rate, which helps him avoid the shift to some extent, can't save him here.

Turner could always luck his way into a sky-high BABIP, as he did in 2014. Keep in mind, though, that a ground-ball BABIP of .319 — nearly a hundred points above his career mark — played the largest role in that. With those grounders more infrequent than ever, he'll have a harder time taking advantage of a lucky explosion if it happens. I would expect his BABIP to continue its descent in 2016, as Steamer projects.

Conclusion

Turner nets three wins from ZiPS and one from Steamer. In the end, we should expect a decent k-rate and moderate power, along with fewer bases on balls and a depressed BABIP. With free agency only a year away, Turner will hope that he exceeds his projections, as will the title-hungry Dodgers. Even if his offense falls off, though, he'll remain an excellent player — and consequently become a very rich one.

. . .

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time) and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.