If It’s October, Justin Turner Must Be RakingJay Jaffeon October 26, 2020 at 5:00 pm

He hasn’t hit as many homers as Corey Seager, or made as many highlight-worthy plays as Mookie Betts or Cody Bellinger, but Justin Turner has been a crucial part of the Dodgers’ October success to this point — success that has the team one win away from its first championship since 1988. A perennial force in the postseason during his seven-year run with the team, the 35-year-old third baseman began this year’s playoffs in a bit of a funk, but went on a tear that started in the middle of the NLCS, and has raked at a .364/.391/.818 clip through the first five games of the World Series.

After batting a more-than-respectable .307/.400/.460 (140 wRC+) during the regular season — we’ll get back to that performance — Turner went hitless in eight plate appearances during the Wild Card Series against the Brewers, and just 2-for-10 in the Division Series against the Padres, though he did walk three times and drove in a run in all three games. He singled in each of the first three NLCS games against the Braves, and scored twice during the 15-3 Game 3 rout, but to that point was batting just .167/.278/.167 though 36 PA, with an average exit velocity of just 88.8 mph and an xwOBA of .296. While the two hits he collected in Game 4 came during garbage time, when the Dodgers trailed by six runs, his eighth-inning double off Tyler Matzek was a portent of things to come.

Since then, through the remainder of the NLCS and the first five games of the World Series, Turner has gone 12-for-35 with six doubles, three homers, and four walks (.343/.410/.771), with an average exit velocity of 95.1 mph, a .441 xwOBA, and at least one extra-base hit in seven of the nine games. He homered off Max Fried in the first inning of NLCS Game 6, walked twice and scored the first Dodgers run in Game 7 (the only game in that stretch in which he didn’t hit safely), and collected doubles as his lone hits in the first two games of the World Series.

Turner’s bat was a much bigger deal in Games 3 and 4, as he became the first player to hit first-inning homers in back-to-back games of the World Series. The first of those, off Charlie Morton, gave the Dodgers a lead they didn’t relinquish, and his third-inning double off Morton preceded a two-run single by Max Muncy. After homering off Ryan Yarbrough to start the scoring in Game 4, his third-inning single went for naught, but his seventh-inning double off Aaron Loup set up Joc Pederson’s two-run single, which gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead, and his eighth-inning single of John Curtiss sent Seager to third base with two outs. Muncy couldn’t bring them home, which proved significant as the Rays came back in the most improbable fashion, but none of that was attributable to Turner’s play. Those big hits:

The Rays managed to keep Turner hitless in Game 5, dropping his overall postseason numbers to .262/.347/.492 and his World Series numbers to .364/.391/.818, but he still made some quality defensive plays behind Clayton Kershaw, a recurring theme for him this postseason:

As the Dodgers strive for that long-elusive championship, Turner’s been pushing the rock up the hill for longer than any of their other position players — longer, even, than the Andrew Friedman era, which began in late 2014; only Kershaw (who debuted in 2008) and Kenley Jansen (who arrived two years later) predate him on the roster. Ned Colletti was still the general manager when the Dodgers signed Turner in February 2014, and even they didn’t really know what they were getting: a poster child for the launch angle revolution and one of the era’s great late-bloomer success stories.

The Mets non-tendered Turner in December 2013, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear; murmurs about a lack of hustle or an unwillingness to spend part of the winter training with the team’s strength and conditioning coach later surfaced, in typical Wilpon-era fashion. Turner, who had hit a modest .265/.326/.370 (97 wRC+) in three-plus seasons with the Mets, had begun revamping his swing late in the 2013 season on the advice of teammate Marlon Byrd, who convinced him to be more aggressive, adjusting his leg kick so as to transfer his weight earlier, bring his point of contact closer to the pitcher, and hit the ball in the air with greater frequency. After being non-tendered, he spent the winter working with Byrd and hitting coach Doug Latta, and signed an incentive-laden minor league deal with the Dodgers, who had been keeping a backup infield spot warm for Michael Young in case he decided to return; instead he retired.

When Turner showed up with his new swing, the Dodgers tried to coach him back to his old stay-back-on-the-ball ways, but he tore up the Cactus League and made the team. He played sparingly until Juan Uribe got hurt, but got hot once he got regular playing time, and continued to play all around the infield, finishing at .340/.404/.493. He took over the regular third base job the next year, his swing continued to evolve, he cut his groundball rate and began hitting homers: 16 in 439 PA in 2015, after hitting just 15 in over 1,200 PA previously, and an average of 21 from 2015-19, with a high of 27. He’s become not just a staple of the lineup, but a foundational piece, valued not just for his production but his clubhouse and community presence. After the 2016 season, the Dodgers signed him to a four-year, $64 million deal, one that looked like a considerable discount in a winter where FanGraphs rated him the game’s number two free agent behind Yoenis Céspedes. That deal more than paid off, as Turner produced 14.3 WAR in those four seasons despite playing just 75% of the Dodgers’ games due to a variety of injuries. In seven seasons in Dodger blue, he’s produced 26.6 WAR, 5.6 for every 650 plate appearances. That makes him one of the most productive players in franchise history:

Dodgers Franchise WAR/650 Leaders
Player Years PA WAR WAR/650
Mike Piazza* 1992-1998 3017 33.8 7.3
Jackie Robinson* 1947-1956 5802 57.2 6.4
Reggie Smith 1976-1981 2055 19.9 6.3
Jack Fournier 1923-1926 2176 19.3 5.8
Corey Seager 2015-2020 2301 20.1 5.7
Justin Turner 2014-2020 3076 26.6 5.6
Dolph Camilli 1938-1943 3605 30.1 5.4
Jimmy Sheckard 1900-1905 3257 27.1 5.4
Duke Snider* 1947-1962 7633 63.4 5.4
Augie Galan 1941-1946 2567 21.0 5.3
Ron Cey 1971-1982 6108 49.9 5.3
Pete Reiser 1940-1948 2482 20.1 5.3
Gary Sheffield 1998-2001 2276 18.3 5.2
Cody Bellinger 2017-2020 2083 16.7 5.2
Pedro Guerrero 1978-1988 4089 32.5 5.2
Roy Campanella* 1948-1957 4816 38.2 5.2
Russell Martin 2006-2019 2962 23.1 5.1
Babe Herman 1926-1945 3598 25.4 4.6
Adrian Beltre 1998-2004 3818 25.2 4.3
Dixie Walker 1939-1947 5092 33.1 4.2
Joe Ferguson 1970-1981 2525 16.4 4.2
Pee Wee Reese* 1940-1958 9470 61.3 4.2
Zack Wheat* 1909-1926 9720 62.7 4.2
Minimum 2,000 plate appearances since 1900. * = Hall of Famer.

In terms of late bloomers, it’s hard to quantify, but I took a swing, one whose parameters are admittedly tailored to the outline of Turner’s career:

Expansion Era Late Bloomers
Player WAR Thru 28 WAR 29 onward Gain
Jeff Kent 9.2 46.8 37.6
José Bautista 0.3 35.3 35.0
David Ortiz 9.6 41.4 31.8
Nelson Cruz 4.7 34.8 30.1
Ben Zobrist 8.3 36.1 27.8
Justin Turner 0.8 26.6 25.8
Brett Butler 8.6 33.6 25.0
Ken Caminiti 6.8 29.2 22.4
Jayson Werth 7.2 28.9 21.7
Mike Stanley 0.1 21.3 21.2
Players since 1961 with less than 10.0 WAR in at least 800 PA through age-28 season.

The 10.0-WAR threshold helps to capture some of the above players whose turnarounds started earlier than Turner’s; for example, Kent and Butler both had their first solid seasons at age 26, Ortiz at 27, Bautista, Cruz, Werth, and Zobrist at 28… you get the idea. For many of those players, a change of scenery marked the point of inflection, as the players were able to escape the pigeonholes in which they’d been stuck. Turner might be the most famous post-non-tender success story this side of Big Papi. (For more on Turner’s turnaround, see both Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s The MVP Machine and Jared Diamond’s Swing Kings.)

Back to his place in Dodgers history, Turner’s 141 wRC+ (.302/.382/.503) places him 10th among players with at least 2,000 PA, and he has more plate appearances than five of the heavy hitters ahead of him. Thus it’s not all that surprising that thanks to the Dodgers’ perennial presence in October during his tenure, he’s put a claim on several franchise postseason records, including games (71), plate appearances (311), hits (79, surpassing Steve Garvey’s 63 in Game 3 of the NLDS), homers (12, one more than Seager and Snider), and RBI (41). He’s there on merit; his career postseason line (.298/.395/.513, 148 wRC+) is even a touch better than his regular season performance; while he has an NLCS MVP award from 2017 against the Cubs, he only lacks that elusive ring. While there’s reason to believe the Dodgers will work to retain him this winter, this could be his last best chance at a title.

Looking back at the 2020 regular season, Turner was certainly productive, but he was limited to 42 games by a left hamstring strain that cost him the first half of September and continued to hamper him upon returning, though he did raise his slugging percentage from .410 to .460 over his final 10 games, thanks largely to a two-homer game against the Angels on September 25, matching his total to that point. While it makes sense to connect his hamstring woes with his downturn in power, Statcast suggests he was somewhat unlucky, and was basically the same hitter as he’s been in recent years:

Justin Turner Batted Ball Profile
Year Barrel% EV LA xAVG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2015 6.9% 89.5 14.0 .291 .481 .371 .372
2016 8.8% 90.6 17.0 .278 .490 .353 .360
2017 8.6% 89.4 18.4 .305 .560 .400 .408
2018 7.7% 89.1 18.3 .298 .502 .396 .391
2019 7.8% 90.3 17.8 .290 .524 .370 .382
2020 11.2% 90.3 17.5 .299 .553 .370 .386
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Turner had one of the majors’ largest gaps between his expected slugging percentage and his actual one:

Largest Slugging Differentials
Player Team BBE SLG xSLG Dif
Bryce Harper Phillies 150 .542 .657 -.115
Miguel Cabrera Tigers 155 .417 .522 -.105
Evan Longoria Giants 157 .425 .530 -.105
Carlos Santana Indians 164 .350 .450 -.100
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 92 .314 .408 -.094
Justin Turner Dodgers 125 .460 .553 -.093
Max Muncy Dodgers 145 .389 .481 -.092
Tyler Naquin Indians 95 .383 .474 -.091
Gregory Polanco Pirates 95 .325 .414 -.089
Ryan O’Hearn Royals 77 .301 .388 -.087
Marwin Gonzalez Twins 138 .320 .404 -.084
Danny Jansen Blue Jays 93 .358 .437 -.079
Nomar Mazara White Sox 92 .294 .365 -.071
Corey Seager Dodgers 177 .585 .653 -.068
Jake Cronenworth Padres 143 .477 .541 -.064
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 75 batted ball events.

Regarding the hammy, it’s certainly possible that Turner’s lack of speed — he’s fallen to the 18th percentile via Statcast, down from the 43rd percentile two years ago — cost him a few doubles, and including the postseason, he’s 2.0 homers short of his expected total based on ballparks and batted ball parameters of his long drives, placing him in the 97th percentile in that category.

Aside from his running, Turner doesn’t appear to be showing ill effects on either side of the ball right now, which is good because the Dodgers could use every bit of the production he can muster to put them over the top. It would certainly complete the arc of his time with the Dodgers, and cement his place as one of the era’s great rags-to-riches stories.
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