Trea Turner's Lightning Speed Is About to Electrify the 2017 Postseason

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterOctober 6, 2017

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17:  Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals runs the bases against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on September 17, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

Trea Turner wasn't always fast.

Well, that's not exactly right, because Turner was probably always faster than the average kid. But he wasn't fast fast when he started playing baseball at Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida. He wasn't the guy everyone stopped to watch, the way he is with the Washington Nationals now.

"He was a solid runner, but I wouldn't even say he was a good runner," said Chris Hart, thinking back to the first time he saw Turner play. "I'd say he ran a 6.7 or 6.8 60 [yard dash]. But he was athletic and he had coordination and body control, and I just felt like he was going to be a good baseball player."

Hart was then and is now the assistant baseball coach at North Carolina State University, and it was on his word that NC State head coach Elliott Avent offered the undersized and still-not-lightning-fast Turner a scholarship. And it was right in front of his eyes that Turner evolved into not just a good baseball player but potentially a great one, a super-speedy and super-skilled all-around talent who might just be the most electric player to watch in Major League Baseball's postseason.

"He's obviously one of the most dynamic players in the game," Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley said.

In a year when the home run has been front and center in baseball, Turner is a leadoff hitter who can hit the ball out of the park. But in an era when some in baseball worry about dead time and all the minutes when the ball isn't in play, Turner also is the guy who keeps you paying attention every second he's on the field.

"You can hear the crowd," Nationals first baseman Adam Lind said. "If he gets on second base with no outs, it's hard for him not to score."

Watching Turner run, Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez said, is like watching someone hit a ball 500 feet, like watching a pitcher throw a ball 105 mph.

"Everybody likes speed," Gonzalez said.

Trea Turner set a Nationals franchise record with 46 steals this season.
Trea Turner set a Nationals franchise record with 46 steals this season.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That is a sensible point of view. But with MLB collectively launching a record 6,105 home runs this season, and as analytics (and their emphasis on not risking the loss of baserunners caught stealing) have taken over, the idea that speed matters sometimes seems to have faded into the past. No one wants to make an out on the basepaths when the next guy up might hit the ball into orbit.

Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. Stolen bases? The average team today steals 39 percent fewer bases than the average team did 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, Turner stole 46 bases in a season shortened to 98 games by a broken bone in his wrist that cost him two months. He stole seven bases in one four-game series against the Chicago Cubs, who just happen to be the team the Nationals are facing in the National League Division Series beginning Friday night.

The Nationals haven't won a postseason series since moving to Washington in 2005, but there are plenty of reasons to think this October could be different. They have their top starting pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez) all ready to go, they fixed their bullpen and they finally have the devastating middle of their batting order healthy.

And they have Turner at the top of the lineup, ready to make everything work.

"You can have guys in the center all you want to, but a leadoff man is invaluable," manager Dusty Baker said. I think it's easier to find a middle-of-the-order guy than it is to find a leadoff man—a true leadoff man, especially if he can hit. You expect him to be able to run, but if he can hit and he can hit for power, you've got Rickey Henderson."

Or you have Trea Turner, who does all of those things, too. He hasn't yet done all of them at the Hall of Fame level Henderson reached in his 25-year career, but Turner is only 24 years old and has played just 198 games in the big leagues.

With former Dodgers speedster Davey Lopes as a coach, the Nationals hope Turner's speed might be the key to helping the Nationals get over their past playoff nightmares.
With former Dodgers speedster Davey Lopes as a coach, the Nationals hope Turner's speed might be the key to helping the Nationals get over their past playoff nightmares.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

This should have been Turner's first full season, after he played a few games for the Nationals in 2015 and was a June call-up last season. And though he missed that time in July and August when he was hurt, he still set a team record for stolen bases in a season.

He also did it while only getting thrown out eight times, which is one reason Baker was never hesitant to let him run. Rather than taking the bat out of the hands of all the great hitters behind him in the Nats lineup, Turner gives those hitters more chances to drive in runs.

Add in the 41 extra-base hits to the 32 times he stole second base, and Turner got himself into scoring position 73 times in 447 plate appearances. Exactly half of his steals helped lead to a Nationals run.

And if you think he can't have the same impact in the postseason, be aware that a leadoff hitter named Davey Lopes stole 10 bases in 16 postseason games for the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Lopes is the Nationals first-base coach and baserunning guru now. His boss, Baker, played for those 1981 Dodgers, too, the only time in 41 years as a major league player or manager he has won the World Series.

Runs can be hard to come by in October. A run that Turner creates could be the one that turns the Nationals into champions, too.

"There's a lot of fast guys," Lind said. "He puts it to use."


Hart first saw Turner play in July 2010, and then saw him again in October the same year.

"It was a massive difference," Hart said. "He was starting to turn into a guy with electric speed."

As Turner himself recalled to B/R: "I was a lot smaller in high school, and guys were a lot bigger and faster than me. I stole some bases in high school, but it wasn't until my senior year that I started getting faster. And then my freshman year in college, I kind of knew."

Even so, when Turner called in February and said he had run a 6.5 60, Hart wasn't sure whether to believe it.

"A lot of kids say that and it's really 6.7," Hart said. "But by the time Trea got on campus (at NC State), he was flying."

When the Wolfpack held a scout day that fall, the players ran the 60 again. Turner ran a 6.26.

Avent says he gave Turner the green light to run from the very first game of his freshman year.

Turner's electric speed first appeared when he played at North Carolina State, where as a freshman he stole 57 bases in 63 games to set a school record.
Turner's electric speed first appeared when he played at North Carolina State, where as a freshman he stole 57 bases in 63 games to set a school record.Ted Kirk/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He says that's not true," Avent said. "But that's how I remember it. I didn't know when to run. He did."

Turner stole 57 bases in 63 games as a freshman, and was only thrown out four times. The year before, a kid named Brett Williams led the Wolfpack in steals, with nine. The school record was 30. Turner nearly doubled it.

"Trea changed my whole thinking," Avent said.

A year later, teamed with pitcher Carlos Rodon, who now pitches for the Chicago White Sox, Turner got NC State to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. A year after that, just five spots before the Nationals had their first pick, the San Diego Padres took Turner 13th overall in the June draft.

The Nationals had wanted him. They loved his speed, they loved his ability and they loved his baseball IQ.

"The reports we had almost exactly described the player he has become," general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Turner signed with the Padres and went to play in their minor league system, but Rizzo didn't give up. In 2014, A.J. Preller had taken over for Josh Byrnes as the Padres general manager, and Preller wanted to make big changes. He wanted Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and a two-team trade wasn't going to work. Rizzo knew the Rays would have interest in Steven Souza Jr. and saw a way to get Turner in a three-team deal.

The trade was announced Dec. 19, 2014. Officially, the Nationals got pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later. It didn't take long for everyone to know Turner would be the player to be named, but he couldn't change teams until a year after he had originally signed coming out of the draft.

That led to an awkward situation, with Turner playing the first half of the 2015 season for an organization that had already traded him. It led to what became known as the "Trea Turner rule," with drafted players now eligible to be dealt the day after the World Series ends in the year they sign.

Turner has shown he has the arm to play shortstop, proving plenty of doubters wrong.
Turner has shown he has the arm to play shortstop, proving plenty of doubters wrong.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

More important for Rizzo and the Nationals, they had the speedy shortstop and leadoff man they coveted.

"The old adage is that speed has no slump," Rizzo said. "The key to us is having offensive efficiency. He really helps. He changes our offensive dynamic."


Fast as he is, Turner isn't the speediest player in the game today. MLB.com's Statcast developed a Sprint Speed Leaderboard this season, and it shows that while Turner is very fast (29.2 feet/second), there are actually a few guys in the big leagues who are faster. Center fielder Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins tops the list at 30.2 feet/second, with Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, Bradley Zimmer of the Cleveland Indians and Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins just behind him.

"I could care less," Turner said. "There's always going to be someone bigger, faster, stronger than anybody. [Giancarlo] Stanton's the biggest guy in baseball, and all of a sudden Aaron Judge comes around. It doesn't matter. … It's if there's an opportunity to steal bases, can you steal one?

Turner takes the opportunities as well as just about anyone, and translates that speed to other parts of the game as well as anyone. Only nine players in baseball history had more steals in the first 190 games of their career. Of those, only Eric Davis (33) hit more home runs in that span than Turner (24) did.

"He's a combination of power and speed you just don't see," one National League scout said. "He makes defensive plays that are unbelievable. And can you name a better leadoff hitter in the game today?"

Turner wants to think of himself as an all-around player, and not just a speedster. He still bristles at the memory of people saying he didn't have the arm to play shortstop in the big leagues (the Padres were among those with such concerns, which was one of the reasons they were willing to trade him). He played center field last season for the Nats, because that's where they needed him, but he's very happy to be back at short.

"That's what I want to do," he said. "I want to be a complete player, and not rely on one thing too much."


Baker likes to say that for a baserunner to make a big impact, "You have to have larceny in your veins and you have to like to run."

Turner has that, as his old college coach well remembered from his play at the 2014 ACC baseball tournament:

Turner was on third base, with the Wolfpack down a run to North Carolina. The batter looked at a third strike for the second out of the inning. As the catcher threw the ball back to the mound, Turner sensed the Tar Heels weren't paying close attention, and he took off for home.

"He got called out," said Hart, who was coaching third base but had no idea Turner was going to go. "He was safe. Look at the replay. It should have been 4-4."

That's what speed can do. That's what Turner can do, and Hart is convinced he can do the same type of thing for the Nationals this month.

"When he does this in the playoffs, with the whole country watching, he's going to become a household name," Hart said.

And everybody will be talking about how fast he is.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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