Trea Turner is nothing if not aggressive. Every second he’s on the diamond, he plays at 100 percent, and it shows. It’s how he’s able to steal second when the pitcher tries to pick him off:
And it’s how he’s able to lay out for line drives on the warning track:
But aggression isn’t always a positive. While it’s good for Turner to go hard on the bases or in the field, it can hold him back at the plate. This isn’t the type of pitch you want to be swinging at:
During his first two years with the Nationals, Turner took a walk in just 5.7 percent of his plate appearances. Despite a superb .309 batting average, his on-base percentage was a more human .351. He was doing well at pretty much everything — he picked up plenty of hits, he sprinkled in some doubles and triples, he was a terror on the basepaths, and he defended his position — except for earning free passes.
In 2018, things have changed. Behold, the new Trea Turner!
Thus far, Turner has earned nine walks in 55 trips to the dish — that’s a 16.4 percent clip. The sample size is obviously an issue, but consider this: In 2016, Turner didn’t earn his ninth base on balls until his 59th game. In 2017, it took him 49 games. This year, he got there by his 10th game.
And even better, that production has been spread out — Turner has taken those nine walks across nine contests. This isn’t a case where he faced a wild starter one time and just kept the bat on his shoulder; this is a real shift in his approach. In his third full season as a big-leaguer, Turner has reined himself in, and he’s all the better for it.
This trend started toward the end of 2017. Turner had a 5.7 percent walk rate to start the season, before a pitch to the wrist landed him on the DL in June. After returning to the lineup in late August, he worked a base on balls in 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. That helped him improve his wRC+ from 94 before his injury to 133 afterward.
Nine percent is a long way from 16 percent, though. Pitchers haven’t been treating Turner much differently; to get where he is today, he made strides with his plate discipline. He’s laying off pitches outside the strike zone this year, a lot more so than in the past:
And that hasn’t stopped him from swinging at a good amount of strikes:
This adjustment has been more pronounced in certain situations. During the past two seasons, Turner swung 66.8 percent of the time in three-ball counts; this year, that’s down to 40 percent. He’s not just being patient to work the count in his favor and get a pitch to drive — he’s doing it so he can take walks and get on base.
Of course, there’s a fine line between being patient and being passive. In spring training, as Turner tweaked his approach, he expressed some reservations about it:
Trea Turner knows the primary criticism with his approach at the plate. And he doesn’t entirely disagree, even if he adds a qualifier to the sentiment.
“I think a lot of people made a big deal out of me not walking the last couple years, I guess rightfully so,” the Nationals shortstop said. “But I feel like if they give me pitches to hit, I should put them in play. And if they don’t, I need to walk.”
“I’m trying to take a few more pitches here and there, but at the same time I don’t want to be hitting with two strikes all the time,” he said. “It’s trying to find a happy medium. I don’t want to be 0-2 and miss the pitches I feel like I should’ve swung at.”
Even with the extra walks, Turner’s production has declined this season: He’s slashing .217/.345/.283 for an 80 wRC+. Looking at this, you might conclude that he’s made an ill-advised trade-off. Maybe he’ll rejuvenate his bat if he goes back to being aggressive.
But Turner’s current struggles are more bad luck than bad hitting. His strikeout rate is still reasonable, at 20 percent (he went down on strikes 18 percent of the time in the prior two years). The trouble stems from his .065 ISO and .265 BABIP, and that shouldn’t last much longer — he’s actually hitting the ball harder than he did in the past.
Plus, Turner’s old strategy probably wasn’t sustainable in the long run. During his first two years in D.C., he posted a .362 wOBA, which obscured a .323 expected wOBA. When you don’t take walks and you’re not a contact hitter, it’s hard to succeed at the plate. Even if he started hacking away again, there’s no guarantee he’d return to his old form.
This is who Turner is now, for better or for worse — and, really, it’s probably better. His 2018 xWOBA is .347, and when his BABIP and ISO start to rise, they should boost his actual wOBA to that level. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts project a .283/.340/.442 slash line and 103 wRC+ over the rest of the season; with everything else he has going for him, Turner’s in good shape if he can meet that, let alone surpass it.
Aggression isn’t a great style for everyone — especially older players. By the time Turner is in his 30s, he probably won’t be fast enough to beat pickoff throws, and he won’t want to risk hurting himself by leaping to catch screaming line drives. At that point, his patient approach will still make him a valuable player. When your speed and strength diminish as you age, it’s good to have plate discipline to fall back on.