For Justin Turner, some may believe his luscious flow of red cabbage and facial mimicry of Tormund Giantsbane are his only noticeable traits. And you know, you probably wouldn’t be wrong. Turner and Tormund, walking unmade beds whose copious sweat and hair, dyed red from the blood of their enemies, marks their respective battlefields. Though for Turner, it isn’t necessarily a Game of Thrones matter. More so a testament to his mastery of the game of zones.
The former journeyman Turner has transformed his baseball career from overlooked role player to one of the most underrated everyday third basemen across both leagues. Since his arrival in Los Angeles, Turner has tallied a .299/.372/.490 slash in 332 games with the Dodgers, totaling a 139 OPS+, 9.9 oWAR, and .190 ISO. Guys like Turner, a former non-roster invitee, are often roster courtesies turned casualties, but his steady pace is no fluke. Turner is as mistakenly productive in the field as he is at the plate.
Triggering the offensive turnaround for Turner was an offseason spent with Marlon Byrd, whose previous experiences led to a forcible reconstruction of his own approach at the plate.
According to MLB.com’s Phil Rogers, Turner claims he’s always had a leg kick in his pre-swing stride, though compared to today’s game, the 2013 version of himself doesn’t really cut it. Utilizing more of a timing toe-tap with a flailing bat, Turner was more of a handsy hitter who wasn’t transferring the rest of his body into the power of his swing. As he told Rogers last summer, he was “catching [the baseball] deep”, meaning Turner wasn’t extending through the baseball out in front of the plate.
That Turner is gone.
It would seem apparent that Byrd said just the right words, because Turner has adopted the look of much of today’s traditional power-hitting regulars. The left leg is much more pronounced in its rise, where he’s discarded the double-toe tap, his hands are much quieter in their readiness en route to the strike zone, and he’s adopted a more slightly open stance. Exchanging timidity with ferocity, Turner is no longer a victim of simple timing. He trusts what he sees, and his new accession to the baseball allows him to create heavy leverage in any scenario. And in this new sense of self, he’s developed a certain favoritism in one quadrant of the strike zone.
There is a reason that Turner has been pitched predominantly on the outer half of the plate, and it’s because his trust in his front side has opened up a power path to the inner half of the plate.
The idea of the leg kick is based around a hitter’s ability to recognize what he sees and adjust the placement of the front foot around the pitch. This hitting style, though not without its risks, is a way to maximize one’s power at all times. For Turner, it’s allowed him to clear his hips and, as he said before, hit the ball out in front of the plate.
Though somewhat exposed up and in, Turner is discovering that his hands have a natural tendency to explode at their peak, down and in.
All players have a built-in swing path that demonstrates where they naturally come through the strike zone. For example, D.J. LeMahieu is most comfortable middle-away, while Edwin Encarnacion inherently swings middle-in. For Turner, the path of his bat wants to be anywhere in and down, and yes, that’s where he tends to do the most damage.
His ability to hit the pitch up and away is a testament to how Turner has translated old skills into what he is now, but given his swing rate on pitches down and in and his ability to find consistent contact in the bottom left portion of the strike zone, it’s evident he likes the ball down and in, because that’s where his bat wants to go.
It’s no wonder his HR% has annually risen to what is now a career-high 4.5 percent, and despite a slow start to 2016, he’s still a 3.2-win player with a 123 wRC+. As he’s adjusted to his new swing, he’s figuring out where his new tendencies are, and maybe most impressively, Turner is still able to be the inside-out hitter he was before his days as a Dodger.
Turner has already marked a career high in home runs with 18 as of this moment, and he’s probably going to finish with 25-30 if he stays on his 12-home-runs-since-June-1st pace. Not bad for a guy playing on a $5.1M arbitration-avoiding deal.
Perhaps one of baseball’s most redeeming qualities is its rewarding of the bold, and for Turner, his tearing down and subsequent rebuilding of his offensive approach has certainly paid its dividends and will again this offseason.
Unlike most Game of Thrones episodes, it appears Turner is well on his way to a feel-good finish.
Nick Cicere is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.