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Justin Turner is suddenly patient

Justin Turner has been good for a while, but he’s walked his way into a tight NL MVP race.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the past few seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers have had their fair share of fortunate outcomes, which have them on the cusp of the NL West crown for a fifth straight season. Those fortunate outcomes are of both the minor and major variety, but none has been more beneficial to the Dodgers powerhouse than Justin Turner. After three tremendous seasons with the team, he’s cranked it to a whole new level in 2017. A big reason why he’s achieved such a high level of success is the tremendous plate discipline he’s shown.

Whether it’s caused by a juice ball or a change in ideology, it remains clear that home runs are spiking, and carrying strikeouts along with them up the ladder. It’s not impossible to find star players that have tremendous power and an ability to limit strikeouts, but they are certainly more rare now. Joey Votto and Bryce Harper are two players that stand out in this regard, and Turner has pushed himself into that group this season.

Turner has raised his walk rate from 7.7 percent to 11.4 percent this season while lowering his strikeout rate from 17.2 percent to 9.5 percent. That’s a staggering 11.4 percentage point change in his K-BB% from 2016 to 2017. A season ago he stood at a respectable 9.5 percent in the metric, good for 65th among 147 qualified batters. He was good but certainly not great. This year he has skyrocketed to second-best in all of baseball, behind only Votto.

Most hitters can’t make that change at the drop of a hat. If it were that simple, everyone would be doing it. Walks are good. We know this to be true. The best players get on base in a multitude of ways. Walking is one of the best ways to do so when the pitches a batter is given are not good enough to be driven for doubles or home runs. It appears that Justin Turner has suddenly and inexplicably honed that skill during the time between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

On the surface, nothing about Turner’s plate discipline stats give any explanation for how he’s been able to make this change. He is swinging slightly less (2.2 percentage point difference) at pitches outside of the zone and slightly more (2.7 percentage point difference) on pitches in the zone, but those changes don’t add up to the drastic change in K-BB% that we’ve seen. Ironically enough, Turner has the same exact swing percentage (44.4 percent) in both 2016 and 2017. He’s made minute changes to the pitches he is swinging at, but there has to be more to the story.

Digging deeper into the types of pitches he’s swung at, we can see a dramatic increase in swing percentage on offspeed pitches. He went from swinging at 43.9 percent of such pitches to a huge 53.4 percent this season. That has been coupled with a tremendous drop in whiff/swing on offspeed pitches from 20.2 to 15.5 percent. Now we’re getting somewhere. Turner has also seen minute drops in whiff/swing on both hard and breaking pitches, but none is as interesting or drastic as the change against offspeed stuff.

With a drop in whiff/swing, obviously, comes an increase in contact. That has been the case for Turner, albeit slight improvements once again.

Turner Contact Rates

O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact %
O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact %
2016 76.6 86.9 84.0
2017 78.3 89.9 86.0
Δ 1.7 3.0 2.0
Data via Fangraphs

There is no one clear answer to the question of why Turner is suddenly walking more than he’s striking out. It isn’t a solution that can easily be gleaned by staring at one specific part of his game. He’s made minute changes in every part of his game at the plate, and it has paid dividends in many ways. He’s swinging a little less, whiffing a little less on those swings, and in general making more contact. Those slight improvements have dragged his K-BB% into the negatives and raised him to the top of the league as a hitter.

Along with his newfound patience at the plate, Turner has been churning out his best season yet. He’s hitting .336/.425/.544 with 17 home runs and a 156 wRC+. His power has been improving the more he distances himself from his injury early in the season, and despite having only 417 plate appearances he’s putting himself in the discussion for the NL MVP award this season. It’s hard to believe that such a momentous change in performance can come from small adjustments in approach, but Turner has done exactly that. He’s being selective and making more contact on his way towards the upper echelon of major league hitters.

Ryan Schultz is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on twitter @rschultzy20