Trea Turner's been in the news lately. Last week against the Orioles, he notched eight hits over the course of eight plate appearances, tying a Nationals team record. Thanks to explosions like that, he's put up a .344/.364/.538 batting line and 137 wRC+ across his 195 rookie plate appearances. While that won't be enough to take the RoY Award away from Corey Seager — who, I feel compelled to mention, has earned 6.9 fWAR this season — it makes for a spectacular debut for the 23-year-old center fielder.
I must confess that I've long had an affinity for Turner, whose career to date has featured some strange bumps. He already has a rule named after him, thanks to the bizarre trade that A.J. Preller pulled off during the height of his 2014 spending spree. After coming up entirely as a shortstop/second baseman, Turner moved to the outfield suddenly this summer, where he's spent a solid chunk of his time in the majors. I don't want to talk about regulations or defense, though — offense is our interest in this post. Let's dissect that triple-slash to see what's made it possible, and whether it'll continue.
Good: Turner's hitting the ball hard, and at the right angles.
As a speedster, Turner should always run (see what I did there?) a respectable BABIP, on the back of some infield hits. Obviously, his current mark of .415 is quite lucky, and I don't need to tell you he'll regress from that. But he does look like a solid hitter, because that's the kind of contact he's made. 321 players have stepped up to bat at least 190 times this year; only 18 of them have a higher hard-hit rate than Turner's 41.5 percent. Among the players who trail him: J.D. Martinez, Joey Votto, and Josh Donaldson, whom we'll get to in a moment.
That's not all, either. Turner has made the best contact on the balls he needs to hit hard. In the offseason, FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth identified one potential weakness in Turner's offensive game:
His ground-ball swing takes away some potential on the offensive side, as well, though he has shown signs of leveling out his path and driving more balls in the gap over the last year.
Ground balls haven't kept him down this year — Turner has hit a worm burner on just 44.1 percent of his balls in play. At the same time, he's heightened his line drive rate to 25.2 percent. And the kind of contact he's made on those respective batted-ball types further strengthens his case:
|Ball Type||Turner Hard%||MLB Hard%||Turner Pull%||MLB Pull%|
In the era of infield shifts and lightning-fast throws to first, hitters want to spread their ground balls as evenly as they can. Turner's aforementioned quickness, moreover, might make soft grounders more profitable, since they give the defenders less time to make a play. To this point, that recipe has clearly paid off — Turner leads the majors by a mile with a 147 wRC+ on ground balls.
On line drives, the (possible) desire for soft contact disappears, as do the worries about distribution. Turner just wants to pound and pull the ball, which is exactly what he's done. While his 312 line-drive wRC+ isn't as spectacular as his ground ball production, it does allow him to hit for a good average — and for some power as well. That BABIP will come down eventually, but the quality contact that Turner provides should keep it pretty high.
Good: He's added a leg kick.
I'll preface this by stressing the fact that I'm not a scout. I didn't read Dollar Sign on the Muscle, even though I got a free copy of it via a random Twitter contest. I can't claim to understand the mechanics of a swing like someone with actual on-field experience, seeing as how I have none. What do I have? GIFs, and illustrative ones, too.
Take a gander at this Turner swing from 2014 in the Arizona Fall League:
Contrast that with this home run cut from a couple of weeks ago:
That's a big difference! If an amateur (read: fake) scout like me can spot the high leg kick, you can bet it's affected Turner.
When a hitter puts a kick into his swing, it'll often bolster his power. For a semi-recent example of this phenomenon, look no further than...the aforementioned Josh Donaldson! As Deadspin's Tom Ley explained back in 2014, the then-Athletics slugger started raising his right leg to put more power in his "load process," which allowed him to better time his swing and square up the ball. Donaldson's resultant production — a .237 ISO and 148 wRC+ since 2013 — testifies to the importance of that change.
Turner will never be Donaldson, probably (although since no one expected Donaldson to be Donaldson, I don't feel comfortable writing it off entirely). With that said, he has shown off some clout this year — his .198 ISO represents a significant upgrade from his .144 mark in the minors. Continuing to hit the ball hard, and muscling it further with this spring in his step, could help him to maintain that.
Bad: He doesn't have a great eye.
So with all of that going right for Turner, has anything gone wrong? In terms of plate discipline, it most definitely has. Where Turner separates from the Donaldsons of the world is pitch recognition. The really balanced hitters know how to take a walk and don't let pitches go by in the zone. Turner, right now, doesn't really have that ability.
Let's return to those 321 players with 190 plate appearances. Turner has the 64th-lowest Z-Swing rate in the bunch, at 59.5 percent. He hasn't matched that with patience outside the zone, as his 31.7 percent O-Swing rate ranks him 198th. Put those two together, and you get a swing differential of 27.8 percentage points, the 44th-lowest of those 321 players. Certainly, Turner could be worse off — indeed, his teammates Ben Revere, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jayson Werth all come in below him on that list. Nevertheless, it's an uninspiring showing from the rookie, and one that'll only hurt him going forward.
Brooks Baseball elucidates the source of Turner's troubles. He's laid off too many outside pitches and been too aggressive on inside ones:
Against pitches on the outer third of the strike zone, Turner has offered a meager 41.3 percent of the time. Meanwhile, he's swung at 52.5 percent of inside pitches. That combination — back-door called strikes and front-door hacks — is one that opposing pitchers have exploited. Until Turner improves his batting eye, they'll continue to do just that.
As a farmhand, Turner took a walk in 9.2 percent of his plate appearances. This season in The Show, he's earned a free pass 3.1 percent of the time. He has a history of better plate discipline than this, so perhaps it'll just take some time to adjust to major-league pitching. If that isn't the case — if this is just who Turner is — then his BABIP regression will take his on-base percentage down with it.
Bad: He's developed something of a hole.
The problems extend beyond pitch judgment, too. Turner's swung and missed more than you'd like — his 11.1 percent whiff rate is above the major-league baseline — which has contributed to that elevated strikeout rate. And a lot of those whiffs have come in one particular location:
The low-and-inside pitch has eaten up Turner, to an extent that sets him apart. Per Baseball Savant, these right-handed hitters (minimum 100 low-and-in pitches) have the highest whiff rates in that zone*:
|Rank||Player||Low/In Pitches||Low/In Whiff%|
*Defined as zone 13 in Savant's plot.
Behind Turner, you have a has-been (Johnson), a will-be (Buxton), a might-be (Castellanos), and an possibly-could-be-if-everything-breaks-right (Tomas). None of these four has a sub-average strikeout rate — Tomas's is the lowest of the group, at 23.4 percent. If Turner doesn't patch up this hole, he'll probably see his 21.0 percent strikeout rate inflate to join their ranks.
Unlike with walks, Turner has a history of striking out, doing so in 19.8 percent of his minor-league plate appearances. With the impending regression of his BABIP, he might want to cut down on the strikeouts to save his batting average, and that'll require better swings — or fewer swings — at pitches low and inside.
Turner still crushes the ball, meaning he should rack up a ton of hits, in addition to a healthy serving of extra-base hits. But his subpar plate discipline caps his potential. Enjoy the electric thrill of his 2016 campaign while you can, because unless he learns better judgment and picks up better contact skills, he won't remain at this level forever.
All statistics as of Wednesday, August 31st.
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