It's not easy to take Justin Turner seriously as a star player. He used to be an anonymous New York Mets utility guy. He's now a Los Angeles Dodger not named Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez or Corey Seager. I won't say he doesn't have the "good face," but it's confirmed he looks like a Muppet.
But I will propose this: Turner is not only a really good player, but an elite one when he has his legs under him.
It feels necessary to bring this up in part because of how insanely hot the 31-year-old third baseman has been. He was sporting a .642 OPS as recently as June 3. The next day, a two-hit game catapulted him to the following numbers over his last 48 games: a .321/.370/.642 slash line with 15 home runs.
It also feels necessary because of the recent buzz in the air about the Dodgers possibly making a seismic shift at the hot corner. Although it was really only a suggestion, Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com raised some eyebrows when he linked the Dodgers to Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria last month.
Obviously, nothing materialized. Longoria is still safe and sound in Tampa Bay, and Turner is still wearing Dodger blue.
But since that "rumor" is nothing if not a good conversation starter, let's have this one: Would the Dodgers actually have upgraded if they'd gone from Turner to Longoria?
By FanGraphs' reckoning, Longoria has only been worth 0.5 more wins above replacement than Turner in 2016. That's partially owed to a small difference in their offensive performances. Per weighted runs created plus, a metric that rates hitting production on a scale where 100 is league average, Longoria (128) has been only three percentage points better than Turner (125).
Look beyond just 2016, however, and it's no contest. Here's how wRC+ ranks the top offensive third basemen in the league over the last three seasons:
- Josh Donaldson: 146
- Justin Turner: 140
Ranking just behind Donaldson, who is at least 20 different shades of stupendous, in anything is a heck of an accomplishment. The heck of it is that Turner's 2014-2016 offensive output might rank ahead of Donaldson's had it not been for the injury bug.
It seemed like a fluke when Turner broke through with a .340 average and .897 OPS in 109 games in 2014 after the Dodgers picked him up off the scrapheap that winter. However, he hit .323 with a .950 OPS in his first 87 games in 2015, putting any "fluke" reasoning on thin ice.
But then he developed an infection in his leg last July that sidelined him into mid-August. He wasn't the same after he returned, hitting just .237 with a .691 OPS. He would later have microfracture knee surgery in the fall. In June, Doug Padilla of ESPN.com observed that surgery "looks to have taken a toll on him" as he struggled out of the gate.
But as his red-hot hitting suggests, Turner has since snapped out of it.
“I’m definitely feeling comfortable again,” Turner told Padilla in July. “I felt comfortable all year. I don’t know what was going on those first two months. But yeah, I feel good, I feel comfortable, and I’m getting better results.”
It's fair to say the Dodgers have experienced two different versions of Turner: the unhealthy one and the healthy one. Focus on what the healthy one has done in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and the numbers are staggering:
|Justin Turner's Healthy Dodgers Career|
Anybody who can put up a wRC+ in the high 150s or high 160s isn't just a really good hitter. That's territory that only Mike Trout has consistently occupied over the last three years, and that only a handful of heavy hitters—Trout, Donaldson, David Ortiz, Jose Altuve, Daniel Murphy and Matt Carpenter—are occupying in 2016.
We had to jump through some hoops to put Turner in this kind of company, but the reality that it can be done speaks volumes about how far he's come as a Dodger.
Turner was really only a glove-for-hire when the Dodgers picked him up on a minor league contract in 2014. He had played all over the infield in three seasons with the Mets but was just a .265/.326/.370 hitter with a 97 wRC+. In other words, below average.
But Turner has always had a good approach. He's maintained a well-below-average strikeout rate while mostly keeping his walk rate in the realm of average. If a hitter can do that, all he needs to become complete is an ability to barrel the ball.
This is where Marlon Byrd emerges as a key figure in the Turner legend.
Turner crossed paths with Byrd when the two were with the Mets in 2013, the first season of Byrd's late-career transformation into a power threat. One likely reason for that isn't fun to think about, but it's one of the other reasons that Turner latched on to.
“The old saying is ‘stay back stay back stay back.’ Well, [Byrd] was talking about doing the opposite,” Turner told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs last year. “Not backing the ball up, going out and getting it. Being aggressive and get out there and get on your front side, get off your back side.”
This advice opened the door for Turner to stop being content with making contact and instead prioritize making good contact. The new him showed signs of life in 2013, as he put more balls in the air and made more hard contact.
When he's been on two good legs as a Dodger, he's mostly continued to up the ante:
|Justin Turner's Hunt for Hard Contact|
Going down this path could have wrecked Turner's approach. Instead, it's been like a rock. He's still tough to strike out and is still taking his walks. Mix that with an increasing amount of solid contact, and it's no surprise that health has been the only thing barring him from the hitting elite.
Because Turner is on the wrong side of 30, there should be some doubt about how much longer he can keep this up. It's hard to argue with Tim Dierkes' rankings for this winter's top free agents at MLB Trade Rumors, in which Turner barely missed out on the top 10.
But right now, that's neither here nor there for the Dodgers. Their hunt for an elusive World Series title got off to a rocky start, but their rebound to the tune of a 59-48 record has them breathing down the San Francisco Giants' necks in the National League West. Turner has had a big hand in this, as his hot hitting is in the middle of a team-wide offensive surge the last two months.
That's what stars can do.