Turning into a Superstar: Justin Turner
In 2014 the Mets designated Justin Turner for assignment. Shortly before pitchers and catchers reported for the season, the Dodgers signed Turner to compete with Alex Guerrero and Chone Figgins for playing time in the team’s infield. Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times provided a perfectly lukewarm take on Turner, calling the signing: “Not great maybe, but in an otherwise stacked Dodgers lineup, (Turner is) something they can get by with if they have to wait on Guerrero.” Three consecutive 3+ WAR and .490 slugging percentage seasons later, Turner has long since shed the slight of being an placeholder. The Dodgers are still waiting on Guerrero*.
*Fine, not really. They released him in June and he signed to play in Japan, but it sounded so good and poetic right there.
Turner was fine, if unspectacular in three years with the Mets. In 904 plate appearances spanning 2011 to 2013, Turner slashed .267/.327/.371. He was a supreme contact hitter, putting balls in play on 93.2 percent of pitches in the zone and 88.3 percent of overall pitches, both well above league average. He walked at a 6.6 percent clip, which wasn’t ideal, but also only struck out 13.3 percent of the time, even further establishing his extreme contact tendencies. Turner’s biggest problem was that he didn’t hit for much power.
This doesn’t really look like the ISO heat map of a guy a team would be dying to keep around.
The west coast brought sunshine, surf, and a brand new high leg kick at the plate. While the sunshine and surf may not factor in to Turner’s fantasy prospects, the leg kick transformed him from a supporting player to a leading man (because Hollywood, get it?). The uptick in production was gradual, but noticeable. In 2014, Turner slashed .340/.404/.493 in 322 plate appearances. It was the first time in his career that he had cracked even a .390 slugging percentage. His seven home runs weren’t spectacular, but the power totals were creeping up nonetheless, en route to a .153 ISO.
In 2015, Turner’s power numbers grew, as did his role with the team (and also his flowing, red locks). In 439 plate appearances, mostly as the team’s primary third baseman, Turner ripped 16 home runs, a career-high, and put up a .294/.370/.491 line with a .197 ISO. He continued his power spike in 2016, smacking 27 dingers and adding another career best .218 ISO.
In three seasons with the Dodgers, Turner became a completely different hitter at the plate, a proclamation his ISO heat map would support.
Sometimes when hitters experience a drastic surge in power, it comes at the expense of contact rates. Strikeouts swell. Batting average plummets. While Turner did see some numbers dip, the decline wasn’t drastic. He made contact on 84.4 percent of his swings, where league average hovers around 80 percent. His zone contact rate fell to 87.3 percent, but that places him basically around league average. His 7.1 percent swinging strike rate is still better than league average, as is his 17.1 percent strikeout rate.
So what does this mean? Turner sacrificed some of his elite contact skills for power, and somehow managed to do so without tanking his batting average in the process. Last season, seven third basemen hit at least .275 while also hitting 25 homers: Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Kyle Seager, and Justin Turner. That may seem like a long list, but third base is pretty freaking loaded at the top. If you want to score near-top shelf production without having to pay top shelf prices, Turner might be the answer.
Also, just for funsies, let’s play Blind Comparison (2014-2016 Edition)!
Player A: 1763 plate appearances – .288/.346/.500, 84 HR, .213 ISO
Player B: 1383 plate appearances – .296/.364/.492, 50 HR, .196 ISO
Player A is Manny Machado. Player B is Evan Longoria. Just kidding. Come on, pay attention, it’s Justin Turner. Is Turner a better dynasty asset than Machado? Obviously that’s not the case. However the changes that Turner has made to his approach at the plate have earned him a spot in the conversation with some of the game’s top third basemen.
As one of the lone bright spots in the abyss that is the free agent class of 2016, Turner is going to get paid. However be sure to keep an eye on where he ends up, because it could cut into his production somewhat. For example, if Turner were to sign with the Giants (one of the teams rumored to be in the running), he could see a slight dip in power numbers. AT&T Park ranked last in the league for home runs for the third consecutive year according to ESPN Park Factors. However, the same could be said for any hitter that isn’t Giancarlo Stanton.
The good news is that Turner’s game should age well. Since he doesn’t rely on his speed for value, Turner could easily continue to be a high average and 25+ home run threat for the foreseeable future. That type of production would likely place him somewhere in the 6-8 range of hot corner rankings, which is quite a bit higher than he’s typically being valued by several outlets. Getting top level, or at least well above average, production for middle-of-the-road prices is a great way to achieve or maintain (Let’s face it, you’ve probably won before if you’re reading stuff like this) dynasty greatness.
Check out Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie